Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates
Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 95 min.
Verdict: Metaphorically speaking, it is neither about midnight nor about Paris.
Genre: Comedy, Romance
The principal failure one might attribute to Mr. Allen’s film is that he doesn’t manage to convey a cinematic city that is a product of time, or rather a period. His temporal space, which is Paris in the 1920s, is more a product of figures rather than the city itself, and in a way it probably reveals that the nostalgia shared by Gil (Mr. Wilson), his proxy here, is not that for a phenomenological space frozen in time (which in fact is timeless), but for a rather loosely sketched era which doesn’t seem to offer much other than a few set of names. There’s a lack of details, which in the case of an era of a city amounts to a lack of character. The thing is, a period is rarely defined by its people, I guess, and more and more of that definition is better served when it is strung around an order of objects. Here, 1920 is only defined as when Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Dali and Bunuel and Gertrude Stein and Picasso moved around each other, and sometimes about each other, within what feels like a sector/block.
One ought to argue that Mr. Allen is doing it out of intention because, hey, how difficult is it really for a man with a camera to give a city a context and a history? I mean, I could pick my camera and take a picture of a few houses with “For Sale” boards, or a few office complexes with “To Let” boards and lend a context for Dublin (believe me, one finds such boards every few meters), or pick the same camera and run it around the hoardings in Bangalore and give a context to the sustained momentum to the real estate here. Which makes me realize that the space here, i.e. Paris in 1920, is merely a manifestation of one’s own fantasies, fantasies whose nature I wouldn’t want to judge, although when critics remark upon the film’s central conceit as some new concept or a product of charming imagination, I might have to shrug and lend a clichéd observation of my own – this is what cinema has been doing all its life a.k.a a metaphor for cinema. Case in point: another film Mr. Wilson starred in, which roughly travelled the same time period, missing it by a couple of decades, and introducing us to not merely Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but a rather young Charlie Chaplin. I mean, movies do it all the time (I almost want to use “duh”). So yeah, one could very well label Mr. Allen’s escapades here Gil’s midnight show, and that show has less to do with a city and has more to do with a generation.
Here it would probably be beneficial to consider the extended opening montage. The images, deliberately shot without any depth, deliberately still, truly establish this Paris as a city not of details, a city that doesn’t seem to lend any influence to the people walking in the foreground, a city that seems to be a part of the sky and the clouds and the trees and content to be pasted to the background, a city that’s not standing the tides of time but that is dead and beautiful and just as kitschy as mountains and meadows. Picture-postcard stuff. Neither do the streets feel designed, nor are they a lively system of modernization; they merely exist. One might even go as far as to claim that Mr. Allen has tried his very best to create the feel of a two-dimensional city. The montage creates a city that exists out of context, out of history, that conveys nothing, whose only purpose is to create a fantasy. One would assume that nostalgia for a space and time is a direct variation of the information one possesses, because, hey, nostalgia needs to be about something, right. In Bruges is a simple example that conveys a place, or rather the feel of a place, and whenever it is I happen to be there, I would be searching the Bruges that exists within the frames of that film. So, if one were to assume that Mr. Allen’s midnight show is merely a reflection of one’s notions and not an actual space-fragment (and Gil’s are understandably built around writers and filmmakers and painters), then Mr. Allen exhibits a rather curious indifference, or rather a condescending distrust towards any form of information and any pursuit of intellect. His camera focuses on Gertrude Stein while she makes her opinion about Picasso’s new painting known to Gil, and we only get momentary reaction shots of the painting itself juxtaposed alongside Mr. Wilson’s very own “what the hell”, thereby rejecting it all as formal (meaningless?) “nonsense”, or at the very least bracketing it all as the interest of “art groupies”. David Edelstein mentions the absence of a Kubrick fussiness, which makes me feel that somewhere Mr. Allen is rejecting such “nonsense” from his filmmaking too. He is a lot less kind on Paul (Mr. Sheen), outright mocking him while he provides information, or context, using that same time-tested strategy of “focusing on the blabber”, which sort of aligns him with the shallow (and very much Hollywood) idea that everything, including art and intellect, ought to be calibrated as per the proletariat, and that the artistic or the scholarly form the oppressive establishment. Such a belief assumes that the intellectual are somehow detached, and fantasizes, much like Cinderella, that they would be the chosen ones. Other analogies – (a) fantasizing about an alien abduction, which rarely happens to astrophysicists or scientists (b) fantasizing about a visit from God himself, answering one’s “true prayers”, while the local priest, who is a false prophet anyway, is busy making a fool out of himself.
The problem with Gil’s fantastical experience is that the Lost Generation could’ve existed anywhere and in anytime without being a product of their times, just as Adriana’s (Ms. Cotillard) folks from the Belle Époque didn’t necessarily have to live during a period of cheap labor or technological advancement. They’re free floating entities, and owing to scenes that for the most part contain partying, the space around them seems to have no historical or cultural significance. It is probably equivalent to, well, current vernacular would call it names-dropping, and I suspect that makes Mr. Allen every bit as guilty of “pseudo-intellectualism” as Paul, one of those stock characters he has always wanted to punch. I mean, I would understand Mr. Bertolucci feeling nostalgic about the 1968 student riots (a real historical era), or even Mr. Abrams for a fantastical world (Super 8). But Gil’s I find pretty meaningless. Not even Crocodile Dundee. Or at the very least, not worthy of the right to label Paul pedantic. I’m wondering now if I missed any details.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 9:34 AM