17 July 2011

Bibbety, bobbety, and Boo!

At the stroke of midnight Cinderella’s fantasy ended: her dress turned back to rags, her carriage became pumpkin, and the team of white horses transformed back into rats. At least that is how Disney portrayed the fate of the young girl who didn’t make it home by her curfew. The non-Disney original story happens along similar plot lines, though the particulars might not include mice, pumpkins and bibbity-bobbety-boo.
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Gil Bender’s fantasy begins at the stroke of midnight and is accompanied not by a wave of the fairy godmother’s wand but by the music of Cole Porter. As Gil sits alone on a picturesque set of steps in Paris having refused to go dancing with his fiancé so that he can think about his novle-in-process by imbibing the romantic streets of Paris, the bells ring at midnight and a stylish roadster stops before him, invites him in, and escorts him to the night life of Paris during the 1920s. In the car are Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and the party to which he is driven is attended by Ernest Hemingway toting his favorite bull-fighter, Belmonte, and spouting aphoristic sentences regarding courage, manhood, grace under pressure and death. Playing the piano is Cole Porter. Gil has found the romantic Paris of his dreams.

In actuality, Gil is a rather successful Hollywood screen play writer who idolizes the Paris of the 1920s when the city was populated by the international expatriate community (Joyce and T.E. Eliot from England and Picasso from Spain and the usual list of suspects from the United States.) Paris in the 1920s—midnight in Paris—was the authentic environment in which artists flourished. It is this Paris for which Gil longs. And every night at midnight in Paris Gil returns to the stgeps and at the stroke of the bells the car picks Gil up and transports him into the night life of artisitic and bohemian Paris. One night Gil accompanies Hemingway to 23 Rue de Fleuris, the home of Gertrude Stein, who agrees to read and critique the novel Gil has been writing. Gil means to be more than what he refers to as a Hollywood hack. He would join the pantheon of his heroes. And fantastically, Stein offers some suggestions and even gives the novel to Hemingway who also will make cogent and helpful comments.
At Stein’s Gil meets Picasso and his most recent lover, Adriana, whom Picasso is soon to abandon. Gil and she fall in love, even though in the present Gil is engaged to a rather uninteresting but fabulously wealthy woman whose father is a Tea Party Republican who considers Gil a communist. The course of their relationship has a somewhat greater complexity but never rises too far above the mundane and hackneyed. For Adriana, however, the magical Paris occurred in the 1890s when Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and Degas lived and worked., and on one of their walks through Paris at midnight she takes him into Maxim’s where these great artists are meeting, and she invites Gil to stay with her there and then; but for Gil his Paris occurs later.

Yes, the film is meant to be a fantasy, but it is not a very good one after all. Actually, I found it annoying at best. Finally, its rather clichéd insight—that we hold in our imaginations a fantasy of a Golden Age when we might have better flourished—in this case Paris of the 1920s or the 1890s—is contradicted by the very end of the film when Gil achieves his fantasy of Paris in the 1920s in the present twenty first century. At film’s end, having broken his engagement to Inez and made the decision to stay in Paris and work on his novel, Gil wanders the Paris streets again at night. On a bridge crossing the Seine, a beautiful young woman (who to my mind looked very much like a young Mia Farrow) calls to him familiarly: they had earlier met at a French street market where amongst other pieces of nostalgia, Cole Porter vinyl records were for sale. They turn about to walk together and rain begins to fall, but both agree that walking in Paris at night in the rain is their favorite time to be out in the City. The present transforms into Gil’s nostalgic fantasy.

Gil’s novel actually concerns a man who owns a nostalgia shop: in the film Hemingway will offer his low opinion of nostalgia, and I have often enough described nostalgia a longing for a feeling or emotion that never occurred. Midnight in Paris is, however, awash in nostalgia, but never does the film reveal the falseness of it. If the great insight of this film is that the present is all we’ve got and everything else is mere fantasy and romantic nonsense, then this film doesn’t distance itself from the idealized portrait of Paris of either the 1920s or the 1890s. One instance of this blindness occurs when Gertrude Stein offers to buy a painting—I think it was one by Matisse—for 500 francs. Gil acknowledges that this is a great bargain, given what he knows of the value of such work in 2011. In fact, those artists were not successful in the 1920s, and often suffered poverty and hunger. Stein bought their paintings before they were recognized as ‘ great artists,’ and it was often her monies that kept them alive. For the film these were wonderful times peopled by artists who have since become cliché , but the film portrays them romantically behaving exactly as the legends of Paris in the 1920 suggests: staying up all night drinking, talking of art, partying. There is no irony in the film, and in the end, we expect that Gil will settle in Paris with his new bohemian girl friend, and based on the critiques of Stein and Hemingway, will finally finish his novel, publish it and become the artist he idealizes. This Cinderella will never leave the ball.

The struggle and pain of artistic production is better served in Vicky, Victoria and Barcelona. Midnight in Paris is a lot of bibbety and bobbety and a lot of boo!


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