Monday, August 8, 2011

Midnight in Paris - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Wonders Whether We Can Appreciate What We Have

At the beginning of this new Woody Allen film that many have commented feels like an old Woody Allen film, there is a montage of Paris scenes.  I found it mildly disturbing to see modern vehicles cruising the streets of Paris, but the truly disturbing element was, towards the end of the montage there was a jogger.  I thought it must have been a mistake, but then there was another, and another, and then a pair of them.

It was disturbing from the perspective of this being Paris – the city of lights, the city of fine food, art, wine, and living – living that does not include the dull and hum drum human maintenance projects symbolized by jogging.  But there they were.  Joggers.  In Paris.  Living in Paris is supposed to be divine, and all of that butter is not supposed to have any bad effects because… I don’t know, because the Gallic intestinal system is somehow constructed differently and we gain that ability through osmosis when we are there.  Furthermore, Woody Allen detests physical exercise and those who engage in it.  So what is he up to?

Well, I think he is trying to deliver a mature film, a mature view of the world.  One that acknowledges his own - and therefore our - immaturity and the regressive pull of nostalgia, but one that suggests that this pull can be overcome.  Owen Wilson plays Woody Allen in Paris – a film-maker who is tired of making money from screen plays that he is not proud of and is working on a novel – a novel about a nostalgia shop.  He is in Paris with his fiancĂ©e and her wealthy, right wing disturbing parents.

The Owen Wilson/Woody Allen character is taken with Paris – the Paris of today and the Paris that once was and is no more.  He gets a chance to experience that old Paris and, Zelig-like, shows up in the Paris of the twenties, where he meets Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Irving Berlin, Pablo Picasso and the very Gertrude Stein about whom SFMOMA is having a retrospective (see my recent blog about this).  

As he goes back and forth between these two worlds, the screenwriter learns from Gertrude Stein, and from Hemingway, that his fear of death occludes his writing.  He also learns that his writing is good and can become great if he can just manage this fear thing better.  He falls in love with Picasso’s and Hemingway’s lover, someone he characterizes as one of the great art groupies of all time.  They, together, go further back in time, to the Belle Epoch, where they meet Degas, Gauguin, and Toulouse- Lautrec at the Folies Bergere. 

It is in the context of the relationship with this woman that he learns that he does not want to marry someone who does not value what he does (his current fiancee), but neither does he want to live in the world of the past, a world that is not his own.  He realizes that going back in time is an endlessly recursive task – there is always a golden age that precedes this one, and he cannot hope to ever find the true golden age of the past, that he must make his own epoch, his own golden era.  In the process he begins to face the fear of death by looking forward rather than forever backwards into the time that never was.

Despite the movie being not quite so trite as I have summarized it above – or rather because it is that trite but also a bit more rough around the edges, it is rich psychoanalytic ground.  The wish for Paris feels also a like a wish for the infantile – for a time that was grand, pristine, and when we were cared for, or should have been – idyllically.  The analytic relationship promises this idyll, but also, if it is successful, fails to deliver on that promise.  The world that we would have inhabited, the care that we would have had, proves to be a trap.  It is the world that we inhabit now that we must wrestle with, engage with, and make our own. 

I think it is no accident that the screenwriter longs for Gertrude Stein’s salon.  It is an American outpost in Paris.  A place that is foreign, but one where the people speak English.  They are Americans abroad.  Woody Allen, perhaps the most serious screen writer and director that America produced in the last half of the twentieth Century, wants to have a very different set of peers.  The irony is that many envy him and would want to have dinner with him.  They want to pick his brain, to get to know him and his perspective on the world and go to the kinds of parties with the kinds of people he has access to.

OK, he has not written the Great American Novel.  OK, his movies, including this one have been a bit fluffy.  Well, the United States is a bit fluffy.  He has captured something very telling about our neurosis – about our wealth, our bravado, and our failure to have the kind of depth that other nations with different, richer traditions have.  It may be that our greatest writers might have learned and practiced their craft elsewhere, just as Allen has done by producing a movie in Paris.

 And this movie may fall short of being A Moveable Feast.  But it, and the rest of his work, does provide the kind of mirror that the works of others at other times have provided of their worlds.  And perhaps Allen is finally coming to realize this – to be comfortable with who it is that he is.  If so, it is hard won.

Woody Allen has had highly publicized battles with immature behavior – marrying his own adoptive daughter comes to mind as an example of what looks, from the outside, like a very regressive move into the world of what couldn’t – or perhaps shouldn’t be.  His very public attempts to make use of psychoanalysis, and the failure of psychoanalysis to prevent such a failure in judgment, leave us scratching our heads.

This movie promises the possibility of achieving a different, more mature and integrated end, one in which the past is preserved as a lovely place, a place that we are fond of and that we are comfortable respecting and even visiting, but that we end up living in a present that requires self knowledge, courage, and even the maintenance of something as unromantic as jogging to become all that we can.

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