Last week my wife and I saw Woody Allen's new nostalgic comedy MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, a frothy tribute to the city of love and lights. With nods to some of his earlier films, Allen sets up the eternal debate between genuine feeling and philistine grabbing. Owen Wilson, embodying Allen's persona, plays Gil, a successful but unhappy screen-writer, who has come to Paris with his spoiled fiance (Rachel McAdams in a bravely unsympathetic mode) and her obnoxious parents. This plot is simple: she wants to go home to Hollywood and he wants to write in Paris. It's the second story that makes the movie special.
To escape his smothering future family, Gil takes midnight walks in the streets of Paris where he is picked up by a limo from the 1920's and whisked into the artistic world of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. Along the way, he falls in love with the entrancing Adriane (Marion Cotillard, gulp, can you blame him?) These scenes give Allen a chance to comment on nostalgia for a time often overly romanticized, especially by writers and film. He manages to expose Hemingway as a drunken lecher, and even worse, a writer trapped by his own machismo style. As Hemingway speaks to Gil, he intones some of the stripped, blunt language that was his pride but also his curse as a writer. As for Fitzgerald, he is seen as an attractive and shallow weakling, as is his wife Zelda. And Allen goes further, revealing Pablo Picasso as a preening but unsure cock of the roost.
All of this made me reconsider the talents of 1920's Paris. Have they been over-rated by historians and even art historians (hmm)? How many people read Gertrude Stein and her almost nonsensical prose? Did Picasso really "invent" Cubism? Do we forget about Cezanne's incredible spatial and color inventions of thirty years before or Picasso's co-worker Georges Braque's intricate analytical cubist pieces and his clever synthetic collages? Yes, Picasso gave us THE WOMEN OF AVIGNON and GUERNICA, which are brilliant and shocking works, but of all the artists embodied in Allen's film, Henri Matisse and Fitzgerald come off best in the real world. THE GREAT GATSBY and many of his stories remain some of the finest, most sensitive writing of the 20th Century, much more readable than almost anything by Hemingway. Matisse with his vivid colors, his radical arrangements in painting as well as in sculpture and cut-out collages, which he virtually made an art form, are more interesting and aesthetically pleasing than almost any work by Picasso.
Though Woody Allen purports to love the past as seen in 1920's Paris, he is also realistic about the snares of nostalgia. If Gil stays in Paris, it won't be in the 1920's.