The year I finished graduate school, I moved into a squat, well-proportioned brick building on a street in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. Within a couple of years, the entire building needed to be repointed, a term I’d never heard but which meant removing and replacing every bit of mortar around every single brick. A couple of very nice men spent months hauling massive sacks of concrete up scaffolding and painstakingly repairing the masonry.
The nice men had a radio, and all day the radio played “oldies” from the sixties and seventies. On one Saturday afternoon, radio blasting right outside my window, I vowed that if in twenty years I was still listening only to the exact same music I did in my teens, someone should just kill me right then, since clearly I would be half-dead already. (I realize that sounds extreme, but those are the words I said to myself.)
An editorial by David Hadju (an associate professor of journalism at Columbia) in the New York Times hypothesized that so many music greats turned 70 around 2011 because musical tastes form at age fourteen, and when 2011’s seventy-year-olds were fourteen, they listened to Elvis. Elvis’s primacy during these septuagenarians’ formative years, the theory goes, seeded an enchanted forest of newly-planted musical trees. It’s an interesting idea, but I disagree with the article’s premise that taste and identity are basically a done deal by fourteen. The best practitioners of every profession continue to evolve and pursue what lies beyond their comfort zone – and the artists, writers, and musicians whose work I most respect have reimagined themselves over and over again.
The idea that we mature into a permanent shape bothers me not only in terms of artistic but also human potential. People love to say that people can’t change, but what they actually mean is that true change requires boundless devotion akin to what’s required to compete in the Olympics, and that rather than admitting they don’t want to expend the energy required, they prefer to believe that the task is impossible. Having made profound changes in my own life, and having had the honor of seeing a large number of friends and students also make profound changes, I know that the naysayers are just plain wrong: The quest for change may take every bit of strength you have, but it is always, always possible.
All this is to explain why I believe that replaying the broken records of my youth is a form of premature death. Though I am relatively tolerant of stasis in others, I oppose it in general and loathe it in myself. I actually enjoy music from all time periods and nearly all genres; I just refuse to write “THE END” on the last page of my musical tastes, or any other aspect of myself or my life, at least while I have any say in the matter.
Calcification, on the other hand, has no place in the classroom, politics, or the arts – to name just three areas where I abhor it – which may be why I am one of the only movie lovers in America who disliked Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris enough to turn it off partway through.
My dislike of the film probably says more about me than about the movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, I saw only one negative review, although I suspect that most of the people who watch Woody Allen movies these days are already loyal fans (maybe they saw his films at fourteen years old and couldn’t let them go).
I have felt wary of Woody Allen ever since his 1992 affair with his partner Mia Farrow’s adoptive daughter Soon-Yi, who was thirty-five years younger than he was, and whom he married in 1997. More to the point, I also found his shtick outdated, annoying, not particularly funny, and a sign of a general failure to adapt to changing times. As he continued to play the same character in film after film, always paired romantically with a young, beautiful woman I also felt – even though I have friends who will consider my opinion heresy – bored.
Once Allen scaled back on acting in his films and focused the main action on younger Hollywood hotties, I regained some interest…for a while. Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, and Penélope Cruz are always interesting, so I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for example. I had high hopes for Midnight in Paris: good reviews, Owen Wilson, a lively cast of expat literary icons from the 1920s.
From the opening frame, with the same jazz track, black screen and white font Allen has used since I can remember, followed by a series of shots of Paris tourist landmarks that flashed and lingered in tempo with the soundtrack, though, I felt irritated. My annoyance escalated as the screen filled with bickering characters: Gil, a screenwriter writing a novel about the owner of a nostalgia shop, a premise that has about as light a touch as Versailles, which the characters are touring as Gil explains his idea; Inez, his shallow and materialistic fiancée; her parents, who are even shallower and more materialistic than Inez; and Inez’s pretentious, blowhard intellectual friend.
Every scene reminded me of being in an elevator with a jabbering neurotic who won’t shut up for love or money. Seeing Owen Wilson mimic Woody Allen’s characters, with their stammering, relentlessly self-referential monologues, I felt like I was watching something not quite obscene, like photos of Jon-Benet Ramsay or Allen’s own marriage to Soon-Yi. John Lahr, writing in The New Yorker (December 9, 1996), writes, “Allen admits that in fact he was never a nebbish, never that schlub in his stand-up routine.” Along the same lines, Lahr writes in the same article, “Allen does not stammer. He is not uncertain of what he thinks. He is not full of jokes or bon mots…”
Of course, it is possible that at some point beyond the point where I hit the eject button, Allen made some postmodern use of a film with a nostalgic protagonist whose time travels lead him to 1920s writers who seem to be two parts artifice to one part history, in a Paris obscured by Gil’s dreams of Paris, just as the opening frames seem to be a visual riff on tourist postcards. The trouble is that this postmodern postcard arrives three decades late, and that Owen, playing Gil, comes off like an imitation of the persona of an artifice.
If the artifice were interesting and the characters were more relevant, I would have kept watching. In the shadow of the uproar over Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, again in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik argues, “By the early eighties, the distance between the comedian and his audience was becoming more noticeable, and the tension between high-modern fastidiousness and Upper West Side middlebrow life was becoming more and more attenuated…It was said that the problem was that the comedian had been cut off from real life. Woody himself had lived in a penthouse for a long time, and that’s not a place from which to make shrewdly gauged social observations.
Rather than conceding this disconnect, Gopnik goes on to blame – surprise! – feminism, lamenting that it has led the public to unfairly condemn things like lechery and “even mildly predatory desire…Our present situation is bad for everyone, but it is cruelly bad for Woody Allen. The loss of lechery as an acceptable emotion robbed him of his comic subject.” I’ve seen this argument before, from the pedophile Humbert Humbert, in Lolita. There is a lot I love about The New Yorker, but the sexism embedded in such sentiments – and the gender stereotyping in the cartoons especially – seem to me to be not only anachronistic, but alienating. So, Gopnik’s argument implies, if I didn’t find Midnight in Paris funny, it’s the feminists’ fault.
With all due respect, it wasn’t the unholy stew of Zelda Fitzgerald, gold-digging Inez, and snarky Mom that made the movie too interminable to watch. It’s seeing the same themes, characters, and stereotypes (which were funny a couple of decades ago) regifted and recycled. Intellectually, I can appreciate a nostalgic film about nostalgia, but it is possible for a piece of art to become too much of what it purports to satirize.
It’s like the old riddle, “Pete and RePete were walking down the street. Pete fell down and broke his feet. Who was left?” “Repeat…” I’ll say again that my reaction probably says at least as much about me as it does about the film. So, in that spirit, Pete, I ditched repeat – get back on your feet.