on midnight in paris

The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.
-James Joyce, Ulysses

Hemingway: Have you ever been hunting?
Gil: Only for bargains.

–from Midnight in Paris

As you may already know from Winters of Mass Destruction: A Reader’s Guide to the Kugelmass Episodes (Zone Books, $29.95), here at the Episodes we play your requests. Today’s request comes from alert reader Alex R., who rather curtly demanded I explain why I had not already written something about Midnight in Paris, especially since, thematically, it so closely resembles Woody Allen’s short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” without which nobody would ever arrive here via Google.

As it happens, I re-watched Match Point just a couple weeks ago. I’ve probably seen that movie six times now, and returning to Midnight in Paris yesterday, I was struck by the incongruity of those films considered side-by-side, separated by the space of only a few years. At first glance, they just don’t make sense as the work of the same filmmaker. How can the Woody Allen who announces, at the end of Match Point, that we exist in a void without meaning or justice, turn around and create this all-purpose valentine?

Even in “The Kugelmass Episode,” which begins cheerfully enough, the story moves rapidly toward the comically sinister ending, in which Professor Kugelmass is fleeing the “large and hairy” irregular Spanish verb tener (“to have”). In the context of the fairy-tale plot, Allen’s point is that language is too wild, too fraught with abysses, to be a safe medium for gratifying fantasies; it may start out compliant, but it ends up turning upon its would-be masters with a vengeance. To think we can have (tener) anything by putting it into words is a fool’s errand. The subtext of the story is that life is too nasty, brutish, and short for this last disappointment to be entirely fair; if the printed page won’t sit still and behave, then Allen will find himself a more agreeable medium.

Enter Woody Allen the filmmaker. In Midnight in Paris, he re-unites Owen Wilson with Rachel McAdams; the two of them were last seen together living happily ever after in Wedding Crashers. Considering how cynical the first film was, it’s almost shocking to see them looking twice as haggard and disillusioned here; McAdams disguises every trace of her fresh-faced beauty, in other to be nothing other than a body that knows its market value to the cent. In Wedding Crashers, the seduction of Isla Fisher proceeds by Vince Vaughn giving a speech about Schopenhauer (“Mr. Shop-In-Hour”) which has, as its moral, that “separateness is an illusion” and that everyone is part of the same great being. This is actually the main idea of the film as well, since “wedding crashing” is possible — triumphant, even — because ritual trumps individual identity, and it is always possible for anyone, even a stranger, to live up to the roles created by the pageant.

Such is the central conceit of Midnight in Paris. We are actually still within the existential void of Match Point, only the absence has, so to speak, been turned inside-out, producing a rich plenitude of poses and roles. Throughout Woody Allen’s late-period renaissance, he has been making outstanding use of stock characters: Javier Bardem was his Passionate Spanish Artist, and Emily Mortimer was his Earnest Rich Innocent. Allen goes even further in Midnight in Paris, drawing characters who are fully analyzable the instant they appear. We know right away that Wilson’s (almost) mother-in-law is a materialistic harpy, traits she has handed down to her daughter; we know that Gil will be liberal, because he cares about literature, and that his father-in-law will be offended by this. Allen deliberately casts the French slapstick guy from Priceless as the private detective, to reassure the audience from the word “go” that nothing serious will result from that subplot. When Hemingway finally criticizes Gil’s book, the comment is a fascinating one: why doesn’t the novel’s protagonist realize that his fiancee is cheating on him? The book is (apparently) only fiction in name, and Gil’s fiancee is cheating on him with her friend Paul. So, in essence, Hemingway’s question becomes, Why aren’t you aware of the cliches you have chosen? A 1920s Gertrude Stein uses exactly the same adjective for Gil’s fictional version of Paul, “pedantic,” that a French tour guide applies to Paul in 2010 after knowing him for half an hour.

Within this world, it would be meaningless to fault Woody Allen for portraying F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Zelda, or Hemingway in a superficial, inaccurate manner. If real people like Paul can be summed up in a word, why should a visitation from the past be any deeper? Probably the greater danger is playing the critic by announcing that the scenes from the 1920s are all in Gil’s head, and that they are a little bit flat because Gil himself lacks imagination. Whether or not he lacks imagination, we’re in his head for the entire length of the movie: we see the same foggy streetlamps and twilit patches of water, and Hemingway is a real person for us too, not least because we’re aware of an actor working to bring him to life. We might as well try blaming Gil for the decision to incorporate Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” which has absolutely nothing to do with anything, into the posters for the film.

Midnight in Paris tries to tell us what it means. It says it is about the fallacy of Golden Age thinking, or, conversely, that it is about the value of Golden Age thinking, so long as two people share a love for the same Golden Age. But it also raises questions about its own pronouncements: Gil and Gabrielle both love Cole Porter, but is that really so different from Gil and Inez both liking nan bread? For a film that appears to be celebrating literature, there is almost nothing included from actual texts, other than throwaway allusions. The important thing is to derive the magnificent vision of the real people behind the artworks, because a work of art is just a stand-in for a personality. Furthermore, once you have converted The Great Gatsby into affable, alcoholic Scott Fitzgerald, it may even make sense to ditch Fitzgerald, as Gil eventually does, in order to pursue a beautiful groupie, even if she (unlike Gil’s dancing partner Djuna Barnes) isn’t going to write anything. The film wanders so far from its supposed inspirations that all connection to the art gets lost: a young Luis Bunuel can’t make sense of his own future film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie, when he is tipped off by Gil.

The people are interchangeable; we don’t care that Gil is breaking up with Inez, and the major surprise is that he ends up with Gabrielle, and not with the tour guide from Versailles. That is fine with Allen, since this is not so much a film about people, as it is a celebration of one very special, very magical city, where any dream can, at least for a few moments, come to life. Naturally, I am talking about Hollywood. Midnight in Paris is Allen’s ode to Gil’s employer and place of origin.

I remember going to a bar in Hollywood on Halloween, with everything decorated after the fashion of a 1920s speakeasy. I sipped on a cocktail named after WWI, and bought a dram of absinthe from a flapper. Fitzgerald was probably there, somewhere, grieving for the death of his talent. I actually managed to start a conversation with a couple of strangers, and we hit it off right away, talking about movies and some recent, excellent soundtracks.

“You know so much about this stuff,” the guy said to me, smiling broadly beneath his Hamburgler costume. “But then I knew you would. You’re obviously an industry person. So what are you working on? Are you, like, directing something or what?”

Of course, when they found out I was not in the industry, they quietly slipped away, but I didn’t mind. I wanted to hug them anyway, and to thank them, for still believing, as the moon shone brightly down from the ceiling, and the wind rustled in the plastic trees.