Showing posts with label Woody Allen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Woody Allen. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Literary Interlude, "Putting Midnight in Paris in its Place" Edition


I rang for the waiter. He didn't come and I rang again and then went down the hallway to look for him. [F.] Scott [Fitzgerald] was lying with his eyes closed, breathing slowly and carefully and, with his waxy color and his perfect features, he looked like a little dead crusader. I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life. I was very tired of Scott and of this silly comedy, but I found the waiter and gave him money to buy a thermometer and a tube of aspirin, and ordered two citron pressés and two double whiskies. I tried to order a bottle of whisky but they would only sell it by the drink.

Inspired by Midnight in Paris, I'm currently reading Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoir of his own experiences living in Paris during the 1920s—exactly the era Gil (Owen Wilson) fantasizes about in Woody Allen's latest film. So far, for the most part, reading Hemingway's book—which, if memory serves, is a book for which Gil outwardly expresses an especial fondness—is adding to my growing pile of reservations about a film that admittedly had me in a state of bliss while I was watching it.  


Many critics seem to swallowing the line—encouraged by Allen himself in certain crucial lines of dialogue he writes in the film—that Midnight in Paris is partly about the dangers of unchecked, unguarded nostalgia. But, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has astutely pointed out, and as a quick check of a dictionary confirms, "nostalgia" refers to a longing to go back to older times and places one has personally experienced. All Gil knows about Paris in the 1920s is through books like A Moveable Feast—and if my experience so far reading Hemingway's book is any indication, Gil clearly hasn't actually understood the book beyond what I imagine is a conflation of his own personal desires—to break out of his numbing ordinary lifestyle and try his hand at the starving-artist lifestyle—and the book's literary-celebrity-name-dropping surface.

Hemingway's own nostalgia is borne out of a deep well of personal experience, with some pleasant memories (skiing with his wife Hadley in Schrums during the winter, for instance) and some not-so-pleasant ones, like his recollection with a self-dramatizing F. Scott Fitzgerald reprinted at the beginning of this post. Above all, what comes through in A Moveable Feast is an artist looking back at his formative years honestly and without sentimentality: exulting in the joys of living in such an art-centric town such as Paris, but acknowledging the practical struggles that go into trying to maintain that lifestyle. It wasn't always easy, Hemingway suggests, but it was his own experience, and it helped form who he was as a person and as an artist.

Apparently, the only thing Gil has grasped from A Moveable Feast is that Hemingway hung out with a bunch of the artists he idolizes. For that reason, it's appropriate that his midnight sojourns into his private-fantasy Paris are full of sizzle and glamour—all of which is beautifully captured in Darius Khondji's lustrous cinematography—but (one or two hints of Zelda Fitzgerald's encroaching madness notwithstanding) are generally lacking in hints of the darker sides of these artistic giants that Hemingway himself elucidates so unsparingly. Compared to the soulless upper-class existence promised by Gil's shrewish fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and his Tea Party Republican in-laws (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), what aspiring writer wouldn't want to escape into such extravagant literary fantasies, and maybe even go further and try out the starving-artist-in-Paris lifestyle for a while, as Gil himself is clearly contemplating?

So what is one to make of the episode towards the end of the film in which Gil, still basking in his Paris-in-the-1920s fantasies, finds himself transported into the Paris-in-the-1890s fantasies of a fellow dreamer named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and gives a speech in which he apparently now understands the way both he and she have been overly romanticizing the past, and how people in each generation will always yearn to live in a previous generation, when the hard truth is that no era is an ideal one, as much as we'd like to think otherwise? These are wise and bracing sentiments Woody Allen is expressing, sentiments with which I am inclined to agree (the Coen Brothers, of all people, were also getting at something similar in the contemplative last act of their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men)—but does Allen truly believe them himself? To my mind, he doesn't show us nearly enough of the less savory aspects of Parisian life in the 1920s for Gil's sudden realization to be all that believable; it's just a notion Allen randomly throws in there (and Owen Wilson, to his credit, brilliantly delivers the speech as if he were coming up with these ideas on the spot) and then basically tosses away as Gil impulsively decides to end his engagement with Inez and ends up reconnecting with that cute French record vendor (Léa Seydoux) he briefly met earlier.

It's as if Allen is afraid to truly confront the harsh truths behind the illusions he so lovingly presents in Midnight in Paris—afraid to admit that maybe Inez has a point in belittling Gil's aspirations as nothing more than unrealistic delusions (Gil himself having not shown any particular literary talent up to this point). Maybe that's fitting, though, considering the fact that his last film, the undervalued You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, ended with the rather biting suggestion that maybe we all need to hold onto our illusions to keep us going in life. Hemingway, I am sure, would have put both Gil and, by extension, Woody Allen in their places.

Friday, December 17, 2010

(Really Late) Weekend Film Round-up: Shadows Run Black

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Though the weather in New York was pretty good—a bit on the cold side, but with plenty of sunshine to counteract the chill in the air—on both Friday and Saturday of this past weekend (before the frigid patch in which the metropolitan area has been engulfed all week), the subject matter of the three films I saw on those days was the kind that would cast cloud-borne shadows on anyone's mental landscape. But, of course, as with some of the best works of art, these "dark" films felt more cathartic than depressing. In that way, now that I think of it, the films actually mirrored the cold-yet-sunny weather.

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) is a case in point. The film details one artist's metaphorical journey from technical perfection to true artistry—a process that, according to this film, has the power to bring an artist to the edge of madness in the pursuit of greater truths. This would be pretty heavy subject matter for any film, and the physical and mental depths to which Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)—picked by demanding choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to be both the White and Black Swans in a brand new production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake—sinks in order to transcend her technical perfection might have come off as...well, as bleak as the nightmarish falls from grace in Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2002). And yet, in Black Swan, Aronofsky's depictions of sexual repression and artistry under pressure plays less like Requiem's rub-your-nose-in-shit sadism, and more like an increasingly delirious bastard child of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), crossed with Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). In other words, Aronofsky—taking his cues from a relatively conventional screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin—renders Nina's gradual descent in immorality and mania with such stylistic gusto that her mental breakdown becomes exhilarating to behold.

Which isn't to say that Black Swan is merely a bubble-brained spectacle of surreal horror tropes; the spectacle is always put at the service of expressing the point-of-view of its central character, a sheltered but ambitious dancer who embarks on the biggest role of her career and finds, to her frustration, that she may not have the emotional resources and life experience to be the kind of truly great artist that she aspires to be. As she slowly begins to give in to her darkest impulses—taking Leroy's advice to "live a little" to dangerous limits—the film likewise begins to tip unreservedly over into expressionistic fever dream, eventually embracing the kinds of psychological- and body-horror tropes it mostly kept at bay earlier in the film. Nina's desperation essentially becomes the film's. In essence, her art takes over her life—but for Nina, it was ever thus.

L.Q. Jones's 1975 sci-fi film A Boy and His Dog starts with a scenario that's even darker the destruction of one character's innocence: the destruction of the world and the resultant demolition of society in the year 2024. At the center of this doomsday scenario is the titular boy (played by a young Don Johnson) and dog, both of whom have developed a telepathic bond which allows them to converse with each other. The boy is only interested in food for the dog and sex for himself, while trying to ward off fellow barbarians above ground. His quest for lovin', however, leads him to a woman (Susanne Benton) who ends up knocking him out and luring him underground to "Topeka," a secret society that turns out to be a typical middle-American suburb...with some major twists.

Jones—adapting a Harlan Ellison sci-fi novella, and possibly drawing from his own experiences as a Sam Peckinpah regular—turns these twisted premises into a shockingly funny film, full of gallows humor that constantly pushes the boundaries of, um, good taste. Its seemingly ingratiating title deceives; the dog, named Blood, turns out to be a weary, snarky, cynical type that the boy nevertheless puts up with because, well, they need each other in this physical and moral wasteland. A Boy and His Dog starts out as gleefully risqué vaudeville, and then suddenly becomes an even more vigorous send-up of Norman Rockwell-like suburbia, complete with Jason Robards donning pancake make-up as one of the community leaders. And just as you think the film is about to end on a sentimental note...well, let's just say the film's final sick-joke punchline (which Ellison reportedly hated, while praising the rest of the film) confounds such expectations.

Woody Allen's latest film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), also confounds expectations—at least, the expectations of those of us who have been less than enthralled with the laziness of some of his recent work. Who knew that Allen could still manage to inject genuine freshness into his usual obsessions with death, the meaning of life and the question of God's existence? Here, once again using the omniscient-narrator device he most recently used in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Allen crafts a roundelay featuring an interconnected cast of characters all trying to negotiate their way through mid-life disappointments in their own way. The ways they try to stave off unhappiness lead them to make all sorts of questionable decisions...but, in this film, at least, there's a poignant sense of empathy that, I would daresay, verges on the Renoir-ian. And for once, the world he creates here feels halfway grounded and plausible, not arch like his exoticized Spain in Vicky or even the New York of his last film, Whatever Works (2009). You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger isn't any less misanthropic than his recent films, but the human dramas are, for once, fairly gripping, and ultimately there's a real sting to the point-of-view he expresses here. Consider that the character that ends up being the happiest turns out to be the one who has fully swallowed the illusions about God and the afterlife that Allen has questioned over the course of his career.