Midnight in Paris explores a basic premise: One must give up one’s nostalgia for the past in order to become successful and productive in the present. Main character, Gil Pender, an American screenwriter-turned-author, is nostalgic about the ‘Golden Age’ of Paris in the 20s. Gil’s nostalgia/romantic ideals cause some basic problems in his life: unproductivity, loss of identity, and depression/anxiety. To rid Gil of his nostalgia for the past, director and writer, Woody Allen, offers Gil the opportunity to travel to Paris and while in Paris, to travel backwards in time. Gil enters his perceived ‘Golden Age’ of Paris in the 20s, and meets his literary/artistic heroes (such as Alice B. Toklas, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and of course filmmaker Luis Buñuel). Importantly, while he is in the 20s, Gil meets another character, Adriana, who is so much like himself in her nostalgia for the past that she acts as a mirror, helping Gil to recognize that literary and artistic greats are not considered great in their own era and that those within an era tend to look nostalgically at other former eras: Adriana looks back to the 1890s, to the artistic greats of that era, (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas). Seeing himself in the mirror of Adriana, the struggling author Gil is able to develop a clearer understanding of himself, the futility of longing for the past, and is able to leave his yearning for the 20s behind, embrace the present and move forward by breaking off his relationship with Inez, his mismatched, unfaithful fiancée (and her overbearing parents), moving to Paris, and beginning a relationship with a Parisian woman who shares his interests and is willing to literally and figuratively walk in the rain with him. Further, having gained the approval for his novel from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, he is able to move forward with his career as an author.
Woody Allen, notorious for writing himself into his films, re-presents (an idealized version of) himself through the character of the struggling author, Gil Pender, mirroring Allen’s sentimental desire to tell a story through text in the pages of a book, (through literary/artistic achievement), rather than his typical medium, script and moving images on a Hollywood screen. Hemingway’s and Stein’s nods of approval on Gil’s novel, give both the main character and Allen the courage to do the work that they are meant to do within the time period in which they exist–Allen portraying his story through film, leaving the novel writing to his main character, Gil. Allen must content himself with the imagined approval of literary/artistic greats, Hemingway and Stein, because the real time theatre audience is unappreciative and unable to recognize genius. In granting himself this imagined approval, Allen links himself to the greats of the past, (all the while setting out how unimpressive they were in their own era), and by this association, elevates his own work in the present to the status of greatness.
Fear of death is the source of Allen’s fascination with the literary/artistic greats of the 1920s who have ‘lived on’ through their art. Allen wishes to immortalize himself in memory through literary achievement. He is disappointed at living in the present in which the Hollywood formula is unmemorable and empty of entertainment value. He consoles himself, (and ridicules himself) with the thought that his work might be remembered as an item of nostalgia (like Cole Porter and Gil’s purchase of the LP at the flea market) to be purchased by future generations.
This exploration of conflict between past and present includes the debunking of, what the know-it-all pedantic intellectual Paul calls, the “Golden Age fallacy”–idealizing the past as full of meaning, culture, and greatness, while believing the present to be empty of these ideals and thereby contributing to a current-day paralyzing fear of death. Through this film, Allen explores the idea that this ‘fallacy’ is a reason that greatness cannot be established and recognized in the present and also that it contributes to an inability to move forward in the present. If Allen can undo the fallacy of the Golden Age, then perhaps greats can be known in the present and Allen could be seen as the screen writing genius that he is, thereby solving the personal and professional problems associated with a lack of affirmation of one’s greatness while one is still alive.
However, and paradoxically, Allen must connect himself with the greats of the past in order to achieve his goal of present-day greatness (This is what authors/artists do–they link themselves with greats of the past in order to establish their own author-ity in the present), and to extinguish his fear of death through the hope of living eternally through his art. Also, while Allen attempts to debunk the Golden Age romanticism of the past, he does nothing to dispel the romantic idealism for location–that of Paris. Gil’s quixotic final decision to stay in Paris, to walk in the rain, and to take up the romantic life of a struggling author reflects Allen’s own inability to let go of his romantic ideals. He may resent the nostalgia of the past which seemingly keeps him from being seen for his genius in the present, but he cannot entirely let go of romantic idealism since linking to past greats is the source of present and future greatness. Letting go of nostalgic and romantic ideals may not be the solution at all. And living on through art doesn’t offer a great deal of hope for immortality if one’s work is purchased for next to nothing at a flea market. This reminds me of the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley entitled Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
As this poem demonstrates, the work of our hands, our artistic/literary endeavors are only too perishable and they do end up mocking our arrogance.
Overcoming fear of death is central to Christian hope: Victory over fear of death and steadfastness in our work comes through victory over death. Christian faith looks back to a Golden Age of perfect peace before the entrance of sin and death in the Garden of Eden. Death and fear became part of the human experience when the first humans disobeyed their Creator, Author, Artist: God. The antidote to fear of death comes not from perishable works of art which live on for a time beyond the time of the artist. The antidote to fear of death, to death itself, comes from the work of art done by our Creator through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is God’s imperishable and immortal work of art in us that makes our labour meaningful, that causes us to “labour not in vain.” (I Corinthians 15) “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” Allen didn’t allow Gil to travel back in time far enough to locate the source of nostalgia for the past, for the antidote to fear of death, to a fear of living a life empty of meaning and value.