Lets face it, if any of you have been reading this blog so far, it should be starting to become blatantly obvious that I have a major infatuation with nostalgia and the past. From Sixties Rock Stars to 19th Century artistic movements, my vision always seems to refer back to a more romanticized time where things were “better/more passionate/more interesting/more authentic/more beautiful” etc etc. Perhaps this is just the trap that many of us humans just fall in to. Our childhoods always seemed like they were “happier times”, even though in the moment, they may have very well not been happy at all. With the passage of time however, I think it just becomes a natural tendency for most people to see everything that transpired before us through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
Case in point: one of my favorite movies: Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen. Though strangely miscast with Owen Wilson (probably playing the part that a young Woody Allen would have inhabited had he made the film 20 years earlier), Midnight follows the time-travelling adventures of a rather goofy American writer. After wandering through Paris at night, he finds, almost Narnia-like, a dark street corner where an antique motor car will pick him up at exactly midnight to be spirited away to 1920’s Paris.
There, he cavorts with his literary and artistic idols of the Lost Generation at wild late night parties in the cafe’s and gleaming brassieres of yore. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Salvador Dali and F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. Who the fuck wouldn’t want to do that for an evening out?? Alright, maybe some really boring people don’t like Paris or Time Travel, but for me, I’d dress up in my finest vintage suit, pop open a bottle of champagne with Django Reinhardt in a West Bank jazz club, then maybe try to seduce Josephine Baker while I’m at it- that is if her cheetah on a chain didn’t maul me to death first.
Wilson’s character returns night after night to the same street corner, only to be picked up again by the antique car. In fact, he’s enjoying living in his fantasy of the past even more than his stressful, prosaic one in the present where his in-laws are boors and his marriage is falling apart. On one of his visits back in time, he meets a beautiful young Parisian woman, Adriana, and is instantly besotted. Wilson is almost ready to stay behind in Art Deco Paris forever; never to return to his previous life in the modern day.
However, in the most interesting scene in the film, the pair are walking around at night in the 20s, and encounter an antique, horse-drawn carriage waiting for them in the streets. They hop on for a ride, and soon find themselves riding through the gaslamp-lit streets of 1880s Paris- even further back in time. Wilson and Adriana meet up at a cafe and share some absinthe alongside Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin. Adriana exclaims her passion for the earlier “Golden Age” era of the Belle Epoque. To her, the arts, literature, culture and Paris itself were better and more real. Degas, Gauguin and Lautrec express their disdain for their modern era and wax nostalgic about Italy during the Renaissance. When it’s time to leave, Adriana simply can’t- unable to leave her idealized Bohemia of the Belle Epoque behind, she decides to stay in the 1880s, leaving Wilson to take his horse and carriage back to the “future” of the 1920s. Heartbroken, he decides to finally make his way back to his grey reality of the modern world.
Midnight is obviously centered around our nostalgia for a romanticized past. I’m sure Paris in the 1920’s was no cake walk for a large majority of its citizens. It was probably a shithole. Most people lived in cramped tenement apartments with no central heating or hot running water. Bathrooms were most likely down the hall and shared with your neighbors. Diseases like tuberculosis and polio were still not well understood and life expectancy was far shorter than today. The streets probably smelled like old urine. Actually, the last time I went to Paris, the streets still smelled like old urine- at least that much hasn’t changed.
Fast forward another 10 years, and war and fascism was rearing it’s ugly head all over Europe. In short, if you were a rich American expatriate like F. Scott Fitzgerald, life was a neverending series of fancy parties and glamorous dinners. For the average Parisian, life was probably, well… just life. In retrospect, there probably never were any “Good Old Days”. Maybe we should all just try to recognize the brilliance of our own days and make the best of them with the time that we have.
You know what’s great about Midnight in Paris though? A year after the film came out, my Uncle took a trip to Paris and said groups of people would dress in up in Art Deco costumes and have a party every Saturday night on the same steps where Owen Wilson would get picked up. At midnight they’d all cheer and toast with champagne. I don’t know if folks still do this at that location (can any Parisian readers attest to this?), but damn, that sounds like a crowd right up my alley!