Thursday, June 16, 2011

New Film: Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, the writer-director's era-bending perambulation through an unceasingly picturesque City of Lights - Darius Khondji (Se7en, 1995) and Johanne Debas deserve immediate citation for their deeply alluring lensing of the shifting French capital - manages to speak unerringly on the level of and to its assumed audience member (urban, liberal, upper-middle class and late middle-aged), without ever threatening even a hint of discomfort for the same bourgeois viewer. In a profound sense, Midnight in Paris is a work by and for America's complacent elite upper classes, for those who would deign to wonder aloud 'why anyone would live anywhere else when they could live in Paris,' or who still imagine that the nation's power-brokers consist predominately of French-hating, aesthetically insensate Republican W.A.S.P.'s, who (against all odds) still live in California. In this latter sense, the 'Marie Antoinette' Allen's cultural-cum-demographic politics belong squarely to the director's formative 1960s and 1970s, with just a dash of a more contemporary, Bush and Tea Party-hating variant of the director's signature 'bigotry for the Left.' Though the spectator is reassured that Allen's Owen Wilson surrogate is the one who always stands up for the help - of course does, don't all our betters? - Midnight in Paris has a serious class-problem, which ultimately manifests itself in Allen's extraordinarily anesthetized tourist's portrait of the French capital. Where Whit Stillman's similarly luminous, romantic and exceedingly verbal Metropolitan (1990) did manage a lower middle-class outside, Midnight in Paris remains squarely within the latter-day equivalent of the haute-bourgeoisie that Luis Buñuel skewered in the same Exterminating Angel (1962) to which Wilson's writer lead Gil refers in a fantastic encounter with the Spanish-born director. Of course, Allen, forever in his echo chamber, misses the irony that it is exactly his social class that Buñuel would ravage at present.  

Never mind, Allen wants you to know that he knows that Buñuel was a Surrealist. And that Ernest Hemingway wrote brusquely about the war and traveled to Mount Kilimanjaro, that F. Scott Fitzgerald married a ball-of-fire named Zelda, and that Auguste Rodin sculpted. Of course, Allen is no less inclined to ridicule Sorbonne-lecturer Michael Sheen's pontifications on any and every work of art that the Americans encounter, with Gil finally silencing the aforesaid with a bluff about Rodin, taken from an invented two-volume biography. Sheen's blowhard Paul, no less apt to resort to fiction presumably, responds to the writer's incantatory citation of authority, which Allen seems to suggest is all that matters to those egg-head academics. Allen's artist Gil, on the other hand, really cares about the art; he's the one who dreams about the past, and who is enraptured by meeting the Hemingway's and the Fitzgerald's and the Gertrude Stein's (which presents an undeniable, if shallow parallel pleasure for Midnight in Paris's acculturated viewers). The bourgeois Allen's surrogate truly treasures his Cliff Notes experience of "Lost Generation"-era Paris.      

Fortuitously, Stein, Hemingway et al. appreciate Gil's literary gift, just as we are asked to imagine the early champion of Henri Matisse and the author of The Sun Also Rises (1926) would value the work of our own age's evidently no-less gifted auteur. However, Allen's own writing in Midnight in Paris happens to interfere with this assumption, given how screamingly bad 'everything anyone ever says' actually is in the director's latest - a mouthful to be sure, but then again I would never assume that André Bazin or Manny Farber would be impressed by my prose. A self-deprecating Albert Brooks Allen most assuredly is not. Nor again he is a Stillman whose Jane Austen fascination has been digested in a manner that contrasts sharply with the writer-director's much too on-point, surface-level treatment of his own professed heroes. Nor is he a Buñuel or even more appropriately given his squarely middle-brow ethos, a Mike Leigh, whose strong sense of class indeed extends beyond his own current well-healed place. The latter director's exceptional 1976 tele-film, Nuts in May, in fact does impressive, if virtual work in sending up the American bourgeoisie of the early 2010s. Allen, on the other hand, seems to have no insight into his own moment, and no awareness of his socio-economic place, even if his film abounds with unintended sociological insights. When finally he does choose the Parisian present, it is for the continued existence of the boundlessly nostalgic boulevard café and, commensurate with another of the director's personal and artistic signatures, for the pretty (and notably) young-thing who shows an interest in the Allen surrogate.

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