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“Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, it can drown out anything.”
So says director Terrence Malick, who decidedly avoided nostalgia in his debut film, “Badlands,” but threw in subtle allusions to the pop-culture of the period so that they might inform the characters rather than the audience.
This is a stark contrast to other movies of Malick’s early era, in which some filmmakers laid the glassy-eyed longing for days gone by on thick, as George Lucas did in his breakthrough hit, “American Graffiti.” Lucas romantically looks back on early ’60s teenage innocence, when all kids cared about was cruising, fast food, and rock n’ roll before the reality of the Vietnam war set in.
Filmmakers often deal with nostalgia when depicting a certain time or place, usually because it’s one that they have lived. So how does one become nostalgic for a time they have never experienced?
I’ve often heard people discuss how they feel they were born in the wrong time, for whatever reason. They feel their talents would be more appreciated, or their outlook on life would be more acceptable, or they are simply looking through the rose-tinted glasses of cinema. Colleges are packed with students who wished they’d grown up in the Age of Aquarius simply because they dig The Grateful Dead and think “Easy Rider” is an awesome movie (which it is).
Woody Allen’s latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” deals with this subject, except the protagonist is obsessed with the Paris of the 1920s, a time which he was too young to have experienced.
This time, the actor standing in for Allen is Owen Wilson, who plays Gil, a Hollywood hack screenwriter on holiday in (of course) Paris. Dissatisfied with his screenwriting career, Gil sees Paris as a city that can foster his creativity and help him complete his novel, which centers around the subject of nostalgia. As he strolls through the Parisian streets, he fantasizes about the great artists and the creative atmosphere of working in Paris in the Roaring Twenties.
His fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams) isn’t so supportive. Gil likes the idea of taking a walk through Paris in the rain. Inez simply hates the idea of getting wet. Inez enjoys spending time with her intellectual poseur friends. Gil would rather aimlessly wander around Paris for inspiration. And, in so wandering, he finds himself transported, night after night, to the era of his dreams.
Allen is at his best when his films are magical and playful the way “Midnight in Paris” is. That’s not to say it’s a “return to form.” Critics often fall all over themselves to hold up Allen’s latest work as such, even when the movies are terrible (see the glowing reviews given to the insufferable “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”). His salad days as a filmmaker remain squarely in the rear-view mirror. But Allen sometimes brings a deliberately inexplicable magic into his narrative that never fails to delight. Whenever he remembers that he can be funny and drops the Ingmar Bergman, Jr. shtick, he gets the belly laughs and engages the imagination like he did with one of his best films, “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”
Of course, Allen’s more obnoxious quirks are still on display, specifically his tendency to spell his themes and ideas out for the audience, as well as his open contempt for most of his characters. Inez is a one-dimensional, materialistic nag who only serves to degrade Gil, whose only real flaw is his tendency to retreat into the past instead of confronting present.
Her parents are even worse, the father being Allen’s idea of what conservative “Republicans” are like. One wonders if Allen has ever even met a real conservative, or if he is drawing purely on speculation. The dialogue written for the character confuses the Republican establishment with the Tea Party offshoot, revealing Allen’s own political ignorance. If he ever dares to venture outside of his intellectual comfort zone and has a conversation with someone who actually thinks differently than he does, his characters may gain some much-needed nuance.
A criticism this movie has received that is unfair, though, is Allen’s postcard approach to Paris in terms of choosing locations. Allen’s films outside of his beloved New York, be they in London or Barcelona, don’t have the sense of place that Allen has when he is in New York, as they feel like they have a tourist-minded approach to their locations. “Midnight in Paris” certainly does as well, however given the theme of nostalgia and the romantic Parisian ideal, the shoe fits for the material.
By no means a “return of form” or a renaissance for Allen, “Midnight in Paris” still shows where the director’s many strengths lie, as opposed to his other recent films, which mostly highlight his weaknesses (Although I’m one of the only people who liked “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”). Allen’s fans will no doubt enjoy accompanying him through his Parisian ideal, despite its quirks and flaws.
Other Noteworthy Releases
Colombiana: It’s ironic that the most pro-U.S. action movies we get today come from a French production house. Producer Luc Besson just keeps cranking them out, and they’re always quality genre flicks.
Dolphin Tale: Dolphins in 3D. That’s all you have to say to prevent me from ever seeing a movie.
Glee – The Concert Movie: “Glee” is about as appealing to me as contracting a venereal disease. I can promise you I will never, ever see this.
Warrior: Being a lover of boxing movies, I find MMA movies appealing as well, especially when they feature Tom Hardy.
Margin Call: The trailer for this film looked about as interesting as my high school economics class, but people I trust are raving about it, so here’s to going against my instincts.
Straw Dogs: Any time Hollywood decides to set a movie in Mississippi, it’s a given that Mississippi will not be depicted in a positive light.
Rush – Time Machine 2011: Rush is pretty much the greatest band ever. If you disagree, you probably write for “Rolling Stone.” Otherwise, you’re just wrong.
The Tempest: This one came out on Blu-ray a few months back but has just now made its way to DVD. You can check out my coverage of the Blu-ray here.
Blackthorn: Sam Shepard stars in this western that depicts Butch Cassidy as having survived his supposedly fatal standoff and living under an alias in a Bolivian village.
Nothing Sacred: Kino is releasing this 1937 production by David O. Selznick, directed by “Wild Bill” Wellman, who also directed James Cagney in his iconic turn in “Public Enemy”. Starring Carole Lombard and Frederic March.
A Farewell to Arms: Another Selznick production released by Kino, this one being an adaptation of Hemingway’s classic novel, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.
This post originally appeared over at Parcbench