WOODY ALLEN HAS A LAUGH AT HEMINGWAY IN HIS LATEST FILM

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.

13 Comments

  1. Aaron Asphar said,

    June 5, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Are you writing on flatulant, anachronistic culture to give your own degraded subjectivities an air of comparative vitality?

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 6, 2011 at 2:29 am

      Aaron, do tell us of the new vigorous culture—
      Unless you, too, are nothing but a vulture…

  2. Nooch said,

    June 5, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Someone (jokingly) said Dottie Parker
    Shoulda been played by Anna Faris—
    I’d have thought you’d have named this post
    Midnight for Modernism in Paris.

    What of the poets portrayed in the film?
    Kathy Bates I heard played the role of Gertrude Stein—
    And the review I looked at in my local rag
    Said her performance was stand-out fine.

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 6, 2011 at 2:15 am

      Midnight for Modernism in Paris
      is a splendid title indeed—
      Allen’s film is 50′s doo wop
      compared to Rudolph’s “Let It Bleed.”

  3. Nooch said,

    June 5, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Good news re: The Moderns,
    It’s available at Netflix instant view—
    As is the film M. Butterfly,
    In which stars the great John Lone too.

    Lone was great in The Moderns
    As a steely anti-bourgeois—
    Utterly believable in the Paris milieu,
    Despite being ethnically chinois.

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 6, 2011 at 2:21 am

      Lone was an orphan, so he picked that name,
      The Moderns shouldda brought him much greater fame,
      but alas, the Critics were not prepared
      For Rudolph’s truth—pro-moderns were scared.
      (“Manhattan” and “The Moderns” both use Wallace Shawn,
      But I didn’t want my post to go on and on…)

      • Nooch said,

        June 6, 2011 at 11:58 am

        Lone’s a standout in any cast,
        And starred in Bertolucci’s “Emperor” (Last).

        • thomasbrady said,

          June 6, 2011 at 5:57 pm

          The central plot turn of The Moderns is art forgery and there’s a marvelous scene where Lone destroys 3 iconic Modernist paintings in front of art critics and wealthy guests.
          He makes a speech where he says “it only matters how much I paid for these paintings, that’s what makes them valuable.” He also does a great turn in an amateur boxing ring, a fabulous scene where the fighting seems real.

          Woody Allen’s film uses time travel to 1920s Paris; Rudolph’s film invents several characters to semi-fictionalize the facts. Rudolph’s method works better. He also portrays actual persons more realistically.

          Allen merely uses 1920s Paris as a backdrop for his romantic story—he also tacks on a ‘there is no golden age’ lesson (which may be correct, but the film fails miserably to ‘teach’ the lesson) but Rudolph is actually taking a hard look at 1920s Paris for what it is. Allen is depicting 1920s Paris for a lark: it’s nothing more than a character attribute for Gil’s nostalgia, which Allen gently satirizes.

          Unfortunately, Allen doesn’t do much with the actual people; T.S. Eliot is glimpsed in a car for 5 seconds. Gertrude Stein just comes across as a helpful mommy in a couple of scenes, Hemingway, a cartoonish macho guy, Picasso hardly says a word, Dali is kind of funny but…it’s all complete fluff…Woody Allen couldn’t care less about these people…he’s just interested in getting his lead character laid…

          Rudolph focuses on art and culture, not poetry, but his Hemingway is very good. Have you read “Moveable Feast,” Hemingway’s memoir of that time? Gertrude Stein requires a good 3 hour documentary to understand her…a few scenes in a film will never do…but Rudolph captures the menace of Modernism…it was a criminal, money-making, decadent phenomenon…it wasn’t about art in the traditional, or glib ‘make it new!’, sense—that’s the point which Rudolph understood…”The Moderns” was not only treated unfairly by the critics, it took a long time to get made due to resistance by producers…I’m certain what freaked them out was Rudolph’s frank treatment of a sacred cow: Modernism… Because the film is beautiful, clever, sexy, well-acted, witty, it’s a great movie!! Why did they hate it?

          • Nooch & review support said,

            June 6, 2011 at 10:43 pm

            http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19880506/REVIEWS/805060303

            Ebert kinda liked it,
            Gave it a tomato ’round’—
            And quotes Gertrude Stein
            On Brady’s nemesis Ezra Pound:

            We learn in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that when Ezra Pound came to Paris, “Gertrude Stein liked him but did not find him amusing. She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”

  4. Rob G said,

    June 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Saw this film last weekend. I was impressed by how well Owen Wilson got the Woody Allen thing down. Even some of the Allen-esque verbal tics. Wilson not being known as a great actor, kudos goes to Allen for finding and casting a believable doppelganger. Otherwise a pleasant way to kill an afternoon.

  5. Jacqueline said,

    January 8, 2012 at 12:32 am

    I immediately thought of The Moderns after seeing Midnight in Paris. There is no comparison, The Moderns is a far superior film. John Lone received a well deserved Independent Spirit award for his performance in The Moderns. What a brilliant actor.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Thank you, Jaqueline, for commenting. I had forgotten all about this post! I love when someone says something about an old post! I’m glad you like “The Moderns.”

      Tom

  6. January 8, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    An excerpt from How to Have a Life-Style by Quentin Crisp:

    …Among the many Americans who visited the court of Miss [Gertrude] Stein was Mr Ernest Hemingway. On one occasion he held a very significant conversation with her. It was about homosexuality. Miss Stein defended its practice among women—as well she might—and explained that female homosexuality was less perverse and cleaner than homosexuality among men. She evidently thought that all physical relations between males were sodomitic. Mr Hemingway did not argue this point but condemned all sexual deviation. His views on the subject were so strong that he said a man must be prepared to kill rather than submit….

    Mr Hemingway’s remark sounds less like an expression of considered moral condemnation than an almost involuntary cry uttered in some obsessive, lurid dream. This perpetual nightmare was what provoked and maintained the author’s life-style.

    Though not exactly autobiographical, his novels were adventure stories whose heroes were nearly always excessively masculine men of action and, as Mr Hemingway grew older, so did they. Unlike Mr Kipling and Mr Galsworthy, two other writers who liked the idea of a man’s world, he did not seem to think of women as a nuisance or as a means of acquiring property. He described his heroines with affection but not with great understanding. To have identified himself with them even for the purpose of literature might have brought back the terrible dream of androgyny. He may even have feared that there was something effete about the occupation of writing fiction of any kind. To atone for this he displayed in his life a degree of courage that came near to making it a parody of his books. He fought in all the available wars, fell out of aeroplanes and shot everything that moved throughout the length and breadth of Africa. In the end he even shot himself. People always refer to this last act as ‘the final tragedy’. I cannot imagine why. In a way all death and, because of it, all life is tragic. The hero of A Farewell to Arms says, ‘The very good and the very brave and the very gentle, these life breaks impartially. Whoever you are, it breaks you in the end only there’s no especial hurry.’ Surely it is only in this general sense that Mr Hemingway’s death is tragic.

    A man may keep on writing far into the night of senility—many authors do—but, if he is a man of action, he cannot, in the fullest sense, continue to live those last years. To me Mr Hemingway’s suicide represents a triumph of style over life. It shows that he regarded his existence as a work of art requiring a definite outline. His action puts Mr Wilde for all his protestations to shame.

    Unlike Miss Stein, he did not have to perform the feat of balancing his prodigious personality on a slender literary gift. He wrote a great deal and, right from the beginning, his work was almost universally admired. His problem was therefore the opposite of hers—how to stomp about in the flow of his fiction without drowning. He succeeded.

    Except for a sense of humor, Mr Hemingway had everything. He was handsome as the sun; his constitution seemed almost indestructible; he had talent; he had fame; and, after movies had been made of A Farewell to Arms, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Killers, and A Short Happy Life, he was rich. What is more, he made the fullest use of every one of these attributes. Of all the writers that I can call to mind, he is the one whose life-style was not only in keeping with what he wrote but transcended it.

    In a sense he could be termed one of the martyrs of style. The price he paid for living as he did must have been enormous. No one is by nature as masculine as all that. But then we should not expect a life-style to be free. All we may ask is that it shall be worth what it costs.

    If Mr Hemingway suffered for the sake of style, it was his secret. The style itself was the opposite of martyrdom. It was not he but his heroes who always died for their ideals; their author triumphed over all enemies and all obstacles….


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