Sunday, May 21, 2017

Retro Reviews: Midnight in Paris

I love movies.  They’re my second favorite art form, right after books.  Like older art forms (novels, theater, etc.) cinema is an artistic medium that conveys heroic tales and modern myths, especially when it comes to fantasy, superhero, and science fiction genres.  There’s a common theme in these cinematic myths, whether we’re watching Harry Potter, The Avengers, or Star Wars: the relationship between human beings and their technologies, whether those technologies are antique tools (e.g., magic wands), advanced machines (e.g., robots), or super weapons (e.g., the Death Star).

I’ve written about some of my favorite films (see my list of greatest sci-fi flicks), and on occasion I review new films (including The Force Awakens and Rogue One).  However, other movie genres outside of science fiction and fantasy do not always get the full attention they deserve, so I decided to write "retro reviews" about great films that say something important about the relationship between humanity and technology.  Today, let's give tribute to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

“The past is not dead.  It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner (quoted in Midnight in Paris)


(Image from IMDb)

This romanic comedy stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, an aspiring novelist with a nostalgic love for art and technology from the 1920s.  Gil not only feels out of place in his 21st-century culture; he also feels out of time.  In today’s digital age of computers and cellphones, he longs for an analog age of records, clocks, jazz instruments, and (most tellingly) books.  His idols include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

Without spoiling the whole plot, here’s a basic synopsis.  While wandering the streets of Paris on vacation, Gil is magically transported to the 1920s when the clock strikes midnight each night.  Suddenly, he's riding around with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  At first, he enjoys these midnight trips back in time, which let him escape his own culture’s apathy for aesthetics and satiate his own yearning for the forgotten history of the 1920s.


(Image from IMDb)

These midnight trips are a much needed escape from his present situation, which is bogged down by a loveless relationship with his profligate fiancĂ©, who only seems to care about spending money.

(Image from IMDb)

The spiritual void beyond her consumerism is filled by her phony friends, including a pretentious pseudo-intellectual who loves to lecture everyone about topics he ostensibly has no clue about.

(Image from IMDb)

To make matters worse, her parents are philistines with no respect for arts and literature, in stark contrast to Gil’s bibliophilic and aesthetic passions.

(Image from IMDb)

It's no wonder Gil so desires to lose himself in a glorious past, where he can talk to modernist writers and dance to the swinging rhythms of jazz.


(Image from IMDb)

During his midnight adventures, however, Gil slowly realizes that his own romantic nostalgia for the past is no better than his modern culture’s apathy toward art and history.  One is just the opposite extreme of the other.

In the end, he learns an important lesson: there’s a middle ground between nostalgia and apathy.  The moral is almost Buddhist (or maybe Stoic in the Roman sense): Remember the past, admire and learn from history, but don’t cease to live in the present.

In short, the past versus present isn't an either-or choice.  We should learn from history to live fulfilling lives here and now.  Remembering the past to inspire the present is, in fact, the life of the artist, symbolized by Gil strolling through the midnight rain (a symbol of new life), enjoying conversation with an artistic lady (not his profligate fiancĂ© with whom he eventually breaks up).


(Image from IMDb)

Midnight in Paris is a beautiful, beautiful film, and it's much more than a romantic comedy.  It’s a healthy reminder that in our digital age of accelerated innovation, spendthrift consumerism, and forgetfulness of antiquated art and history, sometimes playing with antiquarian technologies and old media—from classic novels to jazz records—can be a healthy way to make sense of the present.