Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Midnight in Paris and Living in the Past to Escape the Present

by Christopher Barr POSTED ON DECEMBER 3, 2014

“What I hate is ignorance, smallness of imagination, the eye that sees no farther than its own lashes.  All things are possible.  Who you are is limited only by who you think you are.”
– Egyptian Book of the Dead

“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.”
– Goethe

Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present.
Midnight in Paris is an inspiring film, a film filled with joy and wonder during a time in the canon where there’s been very little of that.  The film pushes its main character into a confrontation with his own values of the world and his own views of himself.  Cognitive dissonance and the confirmation bias are two psychological phases that focus on our ability to deny reality in order to maintain our illusions.  This is where the individual adjusts their perspective on reality in order to achieve consonance.  Generally this individual will often avoid situations that challenge their beliefs in order to avoid dissonance and maintain the lie so to speak.  This film explores these concepts and presents them is a way rarely seen on film.  It’s never good business to explore the lies people tell themselves, usually film pulls people romantically into the lie to make them feel better about deceiving themselves. 

Gil Pender is a dreamer that fanaticizes about living in the past, specifically 1920’s Paris.  His fiancée, Inez and her Republican parents are in Paris with him.  Everyone around Gil is superficial and pretentious and he, a pacifist, lets them didactically walk all over him.  Gil wants to explore the fine city of Paris but his fiancée and her mother want to just blindly shop.  They don’t see the beauty in Paris that Gil sees. Gil’s fiancée and her parents are out of their element in Paris, they want the comforts of America and they find the culture in Paris more annoying than anything, because how unAmerican it truly is. 

Gil is treated like a child for the most part while with his fiancée, who orders him around and tells him to be quiet when her pompous friend Paul spews pedantic discernments about Rodin, Monet or his so-called insights on wine.  Gil is alone among the people in his life that are all drowning in self-interest and ego.  This plight of the alone person in a society filled with people is a sickness.  The fundamental problem with society suffering from its economical pandemic is it is unable to ‘see’ this problem due to the camouflage of competing for greatness, and aspiring to be a billionaire alone the way.  We are taught in society to be number one when in fact we should be taught how to collaborate with others.

Out walking by himself, inebriated, along the romantic back streets of Paris, Gil is invited into an old car filled with jovial Parisians for drinks and laughter.  Gil goes along but after meeting F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and listening to the live piano playing of Cole Porter at a bar, he begins to realize, to his disbelief, that he is in fact in 1920’s Paris.  Understandably Gil is in shock but soon just goes with it and enjoys himself.

At a café he meets Ernest Hemingway, another one of his idols, and discusses his novel that he is writing.  Gil’s been reluctant to show his novel to anyone in his present, likely because he feels they won’t get it and thus they won’t get him, and quite frankly, most of them are idiots.  His desire to live in the past stems from him not being taken seriously in his present. This type of thinking comes from the fantasy of the mind; we begin to romanticize a sort of success for ourselves when no one in the real world cares.

Gil asks Hemingway to read his novel, leaves the café and is suddenly transported back to the present.  While back with his bossy fiancée, Gil thinks about the night before, likely working out the reality of such a fantastical happening.  Was it just a dream?  Here he rightfully is like a kid in a candy store.  What’s wonderful about this film is it never attempts to explore how this is happening.  There is no talk of wormholes or vortexes, he arrives at Midnight at the same side street and it just happens.

Back in the 1920’s, Gil meets a girlfriend of Pablo Picasso named Adriana and instantly and understandably falls for her.  After talking to her he discovers that she wishes she lived in 1890’s Paris.  She is a dreamer of good times long past, just like Gil, and wishes to live in the past and discard the present as prosaic.  Denial protects one from the anxiety of the present, Gil and Adriana are both suffering from Kierkegaardian fearfulness.  They fear the reality and finite nature of the present, they fear the disequilibrium of knowing that one day they will die and become irrelevant.

As the reality of his fantasy of living in 1920’s Paris expands, Gil runs into surrealist painter Salvador Dali and has a wonderful talk about love and Rhinoceros.  Visual artistic photographer Man Ray and Spanish filmmaker Luis Banuel joins the table as Gil tells them that he’s from the future travelling through time.

Gil also deals with his fear of death.  Here we explore the existential angle of the film but also how love and existence, and the everlasting aspect of it comes to fruition.  Gil reveals to the men at the table that he is in love with Adriana, presenting a complexity that even the complex men sitting with him have no access.  He’s in love with a woman in the 1920’s and is engaged to a woman in the year 2010.  Gil then tells Man Ray, Luis Banuel and Dali that he’s a time traveler.  He tells them he has a fiancée who doesn’t ‘look’ at him the way Adriana does.  The artists see Gil speaking in metaphor and not in reality so they see him as a man lost in time, lost in concept, they see him as a man through a surrealist’s lens, dripping in and out of a clock.

“Some people enter your life in a whirlwind and no matter how hard you try you can’t stop thinking about them, even after they leave…especially after they leave.” 
– F. Scott Fitzgerald to Gil about his wife Zelda

Gil goes back to the Rodin female tour guide in his present, standing by the infamous ‘Thinking Man’ and asks her about whether it’s possible to love two women at the same time, sort of like Rodin did.  Can you love them both in different ways?  Gil immediately realizes that she is far more open to the idea than he, an American, is.  Not that she is condoning it but she simply recognizes the complexity of it as a way of life.   She is right to think this; there is a complexity to it.  Love in not exclusive, love is complex and often one sided, meaning that one gives off love like an aerosolized fragrance, not toward something that is tactile.

“I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death.  All cowardice comes from not loving, or not loving well, which is the same thing.  And when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face like some rhino hunters I know, or Belmonte, who’s truly brave.  It is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds, until it returns as it does to all men.  And then you must make really good love again.  Think about it.”
– Ernest Hemingway while sitting in the old car with Gil

Gil travels back to the Parisian street at midnight and climbs into the old car and is met by Tom Eliot, Thomas Stearns Eliot, otherwise known to the world as T.S. Eliot.  Gil is star-struck claiming that, ‘Prufrock is his mantra.’  This is pertaining to a poem written by T.S. Eliot called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, a poem structurally based heavily on the poetic writings of Dante Alighieri and is a social poem described as ‘a drama of literary anguish’.  Parts of the poem that Gil calls his mantra are the interior dramatic monologues of a city dweller, an urban man, conveyed by Eliot through the stream of consciousness technique.  The poem’s narrator is stricken with feelings of isolation and incapability for decisive action that is said, “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.”

Gil back in the 1920’s again goes to Gertrude Stein’s and asks her thoughts on the novel he is writing.  Pablo Picasso is there as well as listening in.  She tells Gil that, “we all fear death and question our place in the universe.  The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”  The artist must create a coping mechanism of sorts to allow the reader to figure out for themselves, what it means to be alive for them, using these ‘antidotes’ to achieve this level of awareness.  The artist needs to sacrifice themselves for the goodwill of humanity.  The artist needs to kill themselves with their art so that many can learn from, or be shaken by the end result, thus knocking them out of the hypnotizing nature of conformity and banality.

Back in the present, Gil walks along the beautiful cobblestone streets of Paris.  He goes to an antique shop and talks to a young naturally beautiful woman about the great musical pianist Cole Porter, who wrote many stories about Paris and about how love is part of the essence of this wonderful city.   Gil buys a Cole Porter record and then strolls along the banks of the Seine River and buys a book from the many book havens along these river banks.  The book is written by his 1920’s love, Adriana.  He then gets a lovely Parisian woman to translate the French for him on a park bench.  Here, through the lovely voice of this woman, Gil finds out that Adriana loved him, she writes of a dream she has about receiving a gift from Gil.  She writes that Gil has bought her a pair of earrings and then they made passionate love.

Naturally being a man with blood pumping through his veins, Gil rushes home and puts together a present for Adrianna, sort of fulfilling his perceived manifest destiny.  Gil’s fiancée Inez, notices she has earrings missing, the ones that Gil just giftwrapped for his 1920’s love, she reports that they have been stolen by the housekeeping staff.  For a moment Inez questions what Gil is up to but then blows the whole thing off when Gil puts the earrings back and claims he found them. 

Gil goes back to 1920 and gives Gertrude Stein a revised draft of the first few chapters of his novel to read.  Henri Matisse is there selling some of his paintings to Gertrude at the same time Gil meets up with Adriana so they can discuss their feelings for each other.  They go for a walk on yet another majestic, beautiful, picturesque street in Paris, with street lamps illuminating and scintillating light flickering off the cobblestone brick street.  Sitting on a bench, Gil leans over and kisses Adriana because quite frankly, he has no choice.  Like Cole Porter sang, “You just do it, you just fall in love.”  Gil gives her the earrings, Adriana, loving them, puts them on as a stagecoach being pulled by two horses stops in front of them.  They are offered to join the coach for some company and entertainment.  Gil and Adriana are transported to 1890’s Paris and go and sit in a dining room hall, and then dance becoming mesmerized by their surroundings, Adriana especially.

Gil and Adriana go and sit with none other than French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, while painters Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin moments later join them.  Their discourse centers on the 1890’s generation and how it is empty with no imagination or with no surprises.  Adriana laments that the 1920’s is itself a generation with no imagination.  Here we are presented with our problem of the ‘present’ and that those that often occupy it are discouraged about its potentiality but have no problem praising a point in the past as being…perfect.   This scene, quite unique, displays how this particular concept, one that Woody Allen himself would have once purported, is flawed.  Gauguin thinks that the renaissance would have been a better place to have been born into, where Adriana thinks it’s the 1890’s and Gil thinks it was the 1920’s that was the best time.  Gil begins to realize that his present calamity is that it’s filled with unimaginable people and thus he, a creative man, is simply uninspired by his experience.

Adriana, still star struck, still mesmerized, takes Gil aside and states that they should never go back and should stay in the 1890’s, because she thinks the 1920’s are dull compared to where they are now.  Gil tells her that the 1920’s isn’t his present but 2010 is where he is from.  Here the realization appears that unfortunately is lost on so many in the real world; escaping to the past is an act of futility because no matter where you are, ‘you’ will always be there, meaning that problems are not always solved because of relocating oneself.

Adriana, sadly, admits that she wants the illusion thus freeing Gil of the unrealistic hold he had on his own illusion.  They say their good-byes, she’s staying and he’s going but for Gil, at this point, he wouldn’t want any other way.  Gil goes to the 1920’s to Gertrude Stein’s house to get his book, where she plants the seed that like Hemmingway, maybe his fiancée might be cheating on him.  When Gil goes back to the present he finds out that she was in fact cheating.  Inez naturally denies having an affair with pedantic Paul.  

Gil confronts his own level of cognitive dissonance as he explains to Inez that they shouldn’t be together and should in fact be a part.  Inez admits that she did cheat on him with Paul.  Gil decides to stay in Paris while his cheating ex-fiancée Inez and her Tea Party Republican parents go home.  Gil then meets with the girl from the antique shop and they walk together in the rain along a bridge, enjoying being in the present in this moment in time.

The past has always had a romantic aura about it.  The present we are responsible for, the future we can change but the past is written, its pages are full of stories with interesting people and places that are antiquated with big cars and cigarette smoke filled jazz clubs.  The past, not specifically our own, allows us to forget about our present and future, it allows us to enjoy what's great about humanity guilt free.  Essentially it allows us to be complacent and compliant with our station in life, it always us a way out of dealing with it, it keeps us inactive.  There is nothing wrong with nostalgia but it’s important not to get too swept up by its romance, losing yourself in it as the world outside your window passes you by.

“Maybe the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.”
– Gil

A great moment at the end is it ends happy.  Woody Allen realizes that once one sees the reality of their existence, this doesn’t mean death.  He wants his audience to know that happiness can be found on the other side of illusion.  Midnight in Paris does want us to get over ourselves as most Woody Allen films do, but here it’s a philosopher’s journey about realizing the past without letting it define your present. 

“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is ‘golden age thinking’, the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
– From Midnight in Paris

 “Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment.”

  - Nikola Tesla

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