I revised this post a week or so ago, I hope that seeing it as a new post is not irritating people who have already read it. PS. That quote of Gertrude Stein caught my eye because I am ambivalent when it comes to how I feel about an audience.
I’m sure I’m not the first writer to have fantasised about what it would be like to sit round the table at the Algonquin Hotel and exchange banter with Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, F Scott Fitzgerald and the rest of that twenties literati who made the place famous. But that’s usually as far as I go because if I ever found myself in the presence of such lively wit and sparkling literary banter I would most likely find myself tongue tied. After which I would go home in a stew and revise and review anything said or not said, again and again until I got it right. Woody Allen had no such reservations and took the idea a step further.
Late one night I finally got to catch up with the movie going public who had seen Midnight in Paris months earlier. I don’t go to the pictures any more. There’s not much there I want to see. If my insomnia is getting the better of me, I’ll turn the television on, mute the sound and let the images wash over me. It could have been that it was four in the morning and I wasn’t functioning on all cylinders, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised. Escape the nasty present to the more romantic past and meet your heroes? Who wouldn’t want to do that? I turned the sound up and prepared myself for a session of suspended disbelief and a bit of nostalgia.
Gil Pender is a writer who is working on a novel about a character who owns a nostalgia shop. Woody Allen is 75 and too old to play this character, so he sends his proxy, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) on a trip through time in a Peugeot. It was an elegant car made for people of leisure who liked and could afford their comfort (and the windows had frilly curtains). I can’t imagine, though, why F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda would want to pick up a perfect stranger hanging round a darkened Paris street but Pender is ushered in and at the last stroke of midnight he ‘slide(s) through time’ to the Paris of the 1920s.
Allen has been tailoring dialogue to suit him for decades so although surreal it’s not surprising, to hear Woody-speak coming out of Owen Wilson’s mouth. Owen is taller and better looking than Woody ever was, but in some strange way I think the sort of innocence Wilson projects pulls it off. Sort of.
Gil has an awful fiancé called Inez. He knows that Inez has been unfaithful, and keeps the knowledge tamped right down, but it escapes the confines of his subconscious mind and hides itself in Gil’s novel, where Hemingway finds it. The nostalgic Gil decides to escape the knowledge and a horrible present and having a fertile imagination, he sets up a trip to the past.
I can’t help thinking that Pender is imagining it all while roaming through the Paris streets lugging his novel around and clutching it to his chest. Would someone like Gertrude Stein read a rank beginner’s novel? He asks both Stein and Hemingway to read his novel. I can’t imagine the nerve. I mean does he think it’s his novel is good enough for a Stein or a Hemingway to read? And I also can’t imagine someone like Pender who hadn’t yet proved himself getting such an easy entree into Stein’s salon.
The characters look just as we and Allen would imagine them to look, but the dialogue is a disappointment. I think it is limited to what is known about them. There’s a lack of wit and banter that is expected of these characters that would have brought each one to life for me.
I did like the part where Hemingway tells Pender that he would hate it if he had read Pender’s novel, more so if it turned out to be good. (I can only imagine that he gave in and read the novel after all so that he could point that bit out about the character’s unfaithful fiancé.)
You don’t want the opinion of another writer, says Hemingway. And he’s right. There’s nothing worse than asking someone to judge your work unless that person does it for a living. What if you hate the feedback? What if they have suggestions you disagree with? In my experience, beginner writers don’t want your opinion, they want you to validate their own good opinion on their work.
Pender comes back to tie up loose ends and deal with Inez. As he tells Picasso’s imaginary mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard), living in and dealing with the present is better than fantasising about a past that would become just as ordinary as the present once he got used to it. Still, I am not averse to reading a good book and escaping into another world, or dousing a hanky in some Chanel 5 and closing my eyes now and again and reliving my own past.
The cinematography, the costumes and the characters are lovely to look at, but as I said the dialogue is disappointing and frankly no amount of suspended disbelief will do it for me. Everyone accepts Gil at his own worth. Why? Gil tells everyone that he meets that he is a writer (who isn’t?), but all he does is gape and witter on like any other fan would. Pender brings nothing to the table even when he’s offering filmmaker Luis Bunuel the synopsis to his own film The Exterminating Angel.
As I’m writing and re-writing this I can’t help wondering what Woody Allen could have done with the story had he had the courage to insert himself as the central character who travels to the past. I think it would have made a more interesting story.
Midnight in Paris was worth the one time experience, trust Allen to go where no writer has gone before, I think. Anyhow I’m glad I saw it. It is not Allen’s best movie. Certainly not as good another of his fantasies, The Purple Rose of Cairo. I could watch that film again and again.