Allen directing: 1920s Paris is a mere backdrop to the chief concern: get the pathetic lead character laid.
I found Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, to be a somewhat amusing good time, as Owen Wilson plays the lastest young stand-in for the Woody persona: schlubby romantic who charms us with a blend of humility and humor.
I couldn’t help but think that Woody Allen, filmmaker, resembles Billy Collins, poet, but Collins is relatively more successful in his field than Allen is in his right now, only because there is no blockbuster mainstream success in poetry to compete with Collins. In poetry today, Woody Allen is the blockbuster.
Compared to Billy Collins, can we say Tennyson is real cinema? Or is Milton’s “Paradise Lost” akin to a D.W. Griffith epic? Woody Allen appeals to the same audience as Billy Collins does: their feel-good humor is the same, but, amazingly, these days Collins probably has the larger audience, though Woody Allen is more of a household word.
How much influence film has on the public at large is a debatable point, but the question begins to take on some reality as film gets a history. Do cinephiles dare to look back and stare this question in the face? By the time Woody Allen released Manhattan in 1979, it felt like American culture worth thinking about was Woody Allen; the zeitgeist was being shaped before our eyes by this standup comic turned movie maker. Every film of his was an intellectual must-see. Woody Allen was both intellectual and anti-intellectual, the Guru of Laughter; Allen’s films were mainstream and iconoclastic at once; Woody Allen embraced and poked fun at fashionable rebels— the voice of common-sense getting laughs in a crazy world.
The ebbing of Allen’s importance after Manhattan is probably three-fold: 1. Allen’s brand of stand-up cinema began to be eclipsed by the splashy Spielberg era which began with Jaws in 1975, 2. Who can maintain that kind of hold on a public for that long—the decline was inevitable, and 3. The Eww Factor.
I wonder if anyone remembers the two Oscar nominations the critically acclaimed Manhattan received: one was for Allen’s writing (Best Writing; Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) and the other was Best Supporting Actress for the role of Tracy, a 17-year-old girl dating Isaac, the 42-year-old, twice-divorced TV writer, played by Woody Allen.
That Manhattan nominated actress was the young and sexy Mariel Hemingway, grandaughter of the first wife of the author of Moveable Feast, a woman who co-stars in that book by then-husband, Ernest Hemingway, on 1920s Paris—where hip and sexy Modernism festered in a metropolis of timeless beauty.
Mariel Hemingway is precisely where the Eww Factor whispers started. Woody Allen reacted to the Eww Factor by rejecting it, marrying the saintly Mia Farrow—and then did what Irish wit Oscar Wilde sarcastically recommended. Middle-aged Woody Allen found the best way to resist temptation was to give in to it: You think I’m Eww? Well, I’ll show you Eww. In your face, world.
Welcome to modernism.
Allen’s new film is hackneyed in many ways, but has garnered good reviews, and it’s probably because the director of “Manhattan” found a good hook for himself: A contemporary, nostalgic, regular-guy time-travels to 1920s Paris.
Gil, the Everyman, is engaged to a sexy but practical woman who shares none of his nostaglia for 1920s, writing-life, Paris. She has an affair with a wolfish, British, history professor who is smarter and more credentialed than Gil. Like all Woody Allen leads, Gil, played simply and clumsily by Wilson, is inferior to everyone around him, but his humor and his lust keep us interested. Cheating is always a good thing in Woody Allen films—they are always a re-shuffling of relationships, and they improve things. This is how the brilliant Woody Trope pushes away pesky morality.
Gil has a fling with a mistress of Picasso’s, who happens to be nostalgic for 1890s Paris, and herein lies the main theme of the picture: there is no Golden Era; be happy today with a partner who likes to walk in the rain like you do—Gil’s girlfriend who cheats on him hates even Paris in the rain.
Woody Allen’s Paris is picture- postcard-and-TV-episode 1920s Paris; the atmosphere evoked is hardly beyond what might be necessary for a TV sitcom. The famous Modernist writers and artists who inhabit 1920s Paris are insubstantial—and so is the soundtrack, the editing, and the cinematography; the whole atmosphere is spotty, at best, and the plot is very weak. Allen’s directing style of having characters stutter, appear awkward, or have nothing to say, in what feel like ad-libbed moments of ordinary life, are embarrassing at times, sometimes just annoying. I understand the intention: it helps the moments of humor—and with Woody Allen it’s always the undercutting, common-sense variety.
For instance, after Gil arrives in his hotel after his first time-traveling bout (he climbs into a car at midnight and returns in the wee hours) the camera simply shows him in bed staring with a wide-eyed WTF? expression—and this is one of the funniest moments in the movie.
If Woody Allen’s film took itself too seriously, and went for serious atmospheric motifs, it would only appear to be emptier and sillier than it actually is. Woody Allen knows his limits, and sticks to them. He knows there’s no talent around that can really show us Hemingway in 1920s Paris, so when Hemingway looks squarely at pathetic Gil and spouts cartoonish, macho Hemingway-speak, those who have read Hemingway laugh, and that’s all Woody Allen is going for in this film. Obviously, the cliched Woody Allen persona is going to have a laugh at the expense of the cliched Ernest Hemingway character. You could have guessed that right from the start, and Woody Allen, and the critics apparently, are satisfied with this.
Vincent Canby (1924-2000), who ruled the roost for years as film critic at the NY Times, was perhaps the greatest ‘make-or-break’ reviewer ever, supported Woody Allen, and Canby was also a huge Hemingway fan.
Vincent Canby panned Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns (1988), a powerful film that takes a hard look at the Eww Factor of 1920s Paris and the modern art world: the sex, the fraud, the thuggishness and the despair. Rudolph’s film de-romanticizes the Moderns with smokily atmospheric beauty and his Paris simply blows Woody Allen’s away. The film also has a good plot and a great performance by John Lone (The Last Emperor), one of many wonderful things about The Moderns completely overlooked by Canby.
It’s strange how angry some people get when de-romanticizing Modernism is de-romanticized. Canby’s companion of many years, Penelope Gilliat, who reviewed films for the New Yorker, died at 61 of alcoholism. Canby was perhaps offended that his beloved Hemingway was portrayed by Rudolph as a drunk; but Hemingway was a drunk, and film critics ought to be more objective; Canby belittled a great picture, and hopefully Woody Allen’s fluffy movie will get a few people to see The Moderns, a stunning, overlooked film.