Were the good old days really so wonderful? That’s the question at the heart of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, his 2011 movie I was finally lucky enough to see this past weekend. After a somewhat overlong travelogue opening, a taut, beautifully shot 90 minutes tells the story of successful yet frustrated screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson), trapped in a relationship with high-maintenance Inez (Rachel McAdams), her conservative parents and tiresomely elitist friends. Setting out drunkenly on his own one warm Parisian night, Gil is picked up by an old car precisely as the clock strikes twelve and finds himself in the Roaring Twenties alongside such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso. He has his debut novel critiqued by Gertrude Stein, suggests movie plots to Luis Bunuel, inspires Salvador Dali and ultimately falls in love with a beautiful French muse named Adriana (the always spectacularly alluring Marion Cotillard) who is herself pining for a more golden era – the 1890’s France of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge. Woody Allen isn’t interested in the mechanics of the typical time travel plot – how Gil is able to journey to the 1920’s and back every night remains an enigma that even Gil isn’t that keen on solving. The magic just happens, and he rolls with it, soaking in the wonder of being surrounded by his heroes, people to whom he can relate with greater ease than anyone in the present day.
It’s a dilemma to which I suspect many of us writers can relate, and indeed, the writers who make up the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were taken with the message enough to award it Best Original Screenplay despite Woody Allen’s persistence in ignoring all the Oscars he’s ever won. We are mired somewhat in our admiration for the traditions forged by those who have tread the path before, people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac to name but a very limited few. We eye with disdain the half-efforts by celebutantes, reality show castoffs and vampire devotees finding wide readership today and question how we can possibly be a product of the same era. We must belong to an earlier, more golden, more innocent time, where our deepest literary ponderings would find sympathetic ears at every turn. In the movie, Gil is taken aback when he and Adriana find themselves even further in the past, in the time where she wants most to be, and discover that the literati of that era are dismissive of their present and longing for the Renaissance. The conclusion eventually drawn by Gil is that the sense of nostalgia is a continuous thread winding its way through each subsequent generation, that it is not by any means unique to the children of today.
Chances are great that if any of us was to experience the timeslip of Midnight in Paris and be transported to that bygone slice of history – to the Capraesque American heartland of the 1940’s, to pick but a single example – we too would not find our nostalgia sated for long; we would see the people around us saddened by harshness of their present and longing for the easier days gone by. The past is, ultimately, prologue. As hard as it is to imagine, the people of the 2050’s may look back on 2012 with fond memories, recalling wistfully when gasoline cost only as much as it does now, when we still had polar icecaps and polar bears for that matter, when the kids danced to Lady Gaga and Rihanna, the iPad was the hottest thing going, and the world held its breath waiting for the next Hunger Games movie. I have lived long enough to see one particular decade of which I have strong memories – the 1980’s – transform from what was normal to what is camp and kitsch; how long before the subtle shirts and ties I wear to work every day become the subject of mockery like leg warmers and acid wash jeans?
The lesson I take from Midnight in Paris is that the past is a nice place to rhapsodize about, but you shouldn’t want to live there, because you likely wouldn’t like it as much as you think you will. Instead, the past should only help us make better choices going forward, as Gil realizes when Gertrude Stein’s critique of his novel prompts him to make a radical change in his present-day life – for what turns out to be the better. So as much as I might like to sit in the room while Jack Kerouac pounds out On the Road on his rolls of typewriter paper, share a fireside chat with FDR or float in the Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin, I do their legacies and the world no favors by waiting around for it to actually happen. My task is to blend my romanticism of the olden days with the experiences of my own life into something worthy and lasting, both in how I live my life and what I put down in words. And perhaps, someday in the far future, someone yet to take their first breath on this wonderful earth will wonder about what it would have been like to spend an afternoon in my company. They may very well – for reasons passing our understanding at this point – see these days above all others as the golden age. Don’t we owe it to them to try and make this time worth getting nostalgic about?