Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Midbrow in Paris"

For some time people had been saying that Woody Allen had shot his artistic wad. For me this has been true pretty much since Annie Hall, a film whose aggressive clichés were tempered (if that’s the right word) by Allen’s colorful neuroses, adding some breaths of fresh air to what would otherwise have been a pedestrian boy-meets-girl / boy-loses-girl story. After Crimes & Misdemeanors, I stopped bothering with Allen’s movies: by then he was well into his serious phase, and already I’d made up my mind that the words “serious” and “Woody Allen” didn’t belong in the same sentence. However, based on the recommendations of some friends whose opinions I respect, and several strong reviews of his latest film according to which, apparently, he has broken a long string of mediocrities, I decided to give Mr. Allen another chance.

Alas, Allen’s latest project merely exposes his long-running fraud. For all its superficial innocence, Midnight in Paris is a deeply cynical movie, shameless in its exploitation of his die-hard fans’ wish to take Mr. Allen—and, by extension, themselves—seriously. When not indulging in it outright, Allen has made his long career out of either plunging headlong into or skirting around the edges of lampoon. Or—less charitably—out of fooling otherwise reasonable people into mistaking for art what is, at best, burlesque and (at worst) utterly derivative.

Midnight in Paris tells the story of a “hack” Hollywood screenwriter’s (played as well as possible by Owen Wilson) wish to write a novel and (paradoxically, given the vehicle that conveys him) to be taken seriously as an artist. On a visit to Paris with his wealthy fiancée, at midnight, by means of a chauffeur-driven yellow 1920 Peugeot, Gil is transported to the Paris of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, et al., to the “golden age” wherein Modernism was born. No sooner is this cute, clever, and extremely trite premise established than the movie descends (not that it has much altitude to fall from, having so far been nothing but a Cook’s slideshow tour of the City of Lights) into a hodgepodge of the most condescending clichés and stereotypes of that period, with Fitzgerald as Yuppie glamour boy, Zelda as air-head, Hemingway as pugnacious boozer, and Gertrude Stein as Bohemia’s answer to Aunt Bee.

As grotesque and insulting as these stereotypes are, in the hands of a better, less lazy auteur they might, at least, have offered some intelligent if negligible fun. Instead, by virtue of his miraculous carelessness, somehow Allen manages to render these characters not only trite and superficial, but stupefyingly dull. When not wielding a bottle of Calvados and spouting bad parodies of his own prose, Hemingway either invites his listeners on safaris or challenges them to boxing matches. Gertrude Stein, arguably the most brilliant literary mind of her generation, has nothing intelligent to say—but then neither do any of the characters (even Picasso, never at a loss of words in real life, finds himself utterly speechless, his hairdo doing all his acting for him).

But then—and though this is a movie about a man who finds himself transported to an age that, arguably, may have crowded more geniuses into one room than any other—except when gratuitously spouting familiar quotations (“the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past”—Faulkner), none of the characters in this film ever speaks an intelligent word. The closest Allen comes to intelligence is pedantry, explaining why he’s most in his element when creating pedantic characters, like the fiancée's paramour, Paul. Yet even true pedantry is beyond Allen’s supremely limited grasp. In waxing pedantic about Monet’s water lilies, the best our snobby expert can do is spout vapid chestnuts out of a undergraduate art student’s notebook about “closure” and the “roots of abstract expressionism.” Later in the film, the already trite premise having descended to a deeper level of triteness (with the characters transported to the Paris of Moulin Rouge and the Impressionists), pressed to arrive at the last “golden age” before the belle époque, the best that Allen (via Degas and Gaugin) can come up with is the Renaissance, as if the Enlightenment, among other “golden” epochs, never happened. But then a grammar-school mentality might not know about, let alone remember, the Enlightenment.

Some will argue that this is irrelevant to a charming, lighthearted comedy, but where is it written that to be funny, let alone “lighthearted” or “charming,” a movie has to be stupid? In fact, in any one of Owen Wilson’s recent comedies (and I include the Jackie Chan films) I guarantee you that you’ll find, in approximately proportionate amounts, not only more intelligence and less pretension, but more humor.

The sad truth is there is no intelligence in Midnight in Paris, which exploits and insults its viewers’ innocent wish—shared by the main character—to rub shoulders with brilliant minds. Instead, we brush up against wax figures stuffed with heinous clichés, the kind designed to comfort middlebrows of the lowest sort—those who want to seem sophisticated without having to sacrifice their familiar, superficial comforts, or face up to their limitations. Hence, Hemingway the drunk; Fitzgerald the playboy; Picasso the womanizer; etc. Bottom line: it’s okay to appreciate “great artists,” so long as its understood that they also happen to be bums and jerks. It's a film custom-tailored to elicit knowing chuckles from latent philistines.

On one level I agree with the critics: Midnight in Paris isn’t another mediocre film by Woody Allen. It is, to quote Paul Fussell, Bad with a capital “B.” It is the worst kind of middlebrow art: that kind that passes itself off successfully as the real thing. Hermann Göring famously said, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.” From now on, whenever I hear the words “Woody Allen,” I will reach for whatever is left of culture, and hold on with all my might.


Paulette said...

Terrific review! I enjoyed the film and at the same time I totally agree with you (how does that happen?) -- thanks for diving in and really telling it like it is -- we need more of that! : )

John Paulett said...

Chuck Klosterman has said that Woody Allen made sex possible for nerdy guys who could spin a pseudo-intellectual, witty rap--more importantly sex with women who would otherwise be "out of the league" of men who know more about Dostoevsky than hockey. "Midnight in Paris" releases attractive women from this trap. If you put Woody's bullshit (which for some evolutionary reason attractive women feel a need to mate with) into Owen Wilson's mouth (my wife tells me with authority looks like a penis--taking the old sizing indicator to a whole new level,) then women are no longer obligated to sleep with men who look like Chuck Klosterman. It must be the same feeling of integration that men felt when Anne Heche changed her mind about being gay. She then combined everything that was attractive about lesbians with sexual availability to men.

Spending an entire evening with Woody's obsessions is not easy. OK, Woody.....I get that you think Rachel McAdams has a great ass. How long do you need to leave the camera on it? Lea Seydoux is gorgeous but do we need a woman who reminds you of Mia Farrow in every movie?

The only real pleasure I got out of this was the opportunity to explain who Man Ray was at dinner afterwards. I can be as snobbish as Woody.

Peter Selgin said...

My thanks to both Paulett[e]s for your comments. And especially to you John, for reconciling me to the fact that "phallic orifice" is not, under all circumstances, an oxymoron.

Wendy said...

I have always been a big fan of Woody Allen, but stopped watching after he basically got too old to realistically play in his own movies. They just seemed to turn into cliched in-jokes of past in-jokes. I miss the old days!

k said...

Great review. Not sure why all the critics and audiences were snowed by this one: not only was it lazy and offensive, it was incredibly boring. Yet, when I saw it, the audience applauded. I could not understand what I'd missed.

k said...

Great review. I can't understand why critics and audiences alike were snowed by this one; it was lazy, offensive, and, perhaps worst of all, boring. Yet, when I saw it, the audience actually applauded at the end.

* * * * said...

Just got back from the theater and could not wait to get home and read your review. Yes. I agree with Paulette -- smart review -- AND I enjoyed the film even as I saw all its flaws. (from the start there were too many shots of Paris standing still!) You're right. Again!

I suppose if you name drop enough famous writers and painters, you can fool anyone.

Well said, P.

Chef E said...

I have also always liked his work, even when I didn't understand him at a younger age, but I recognized its artistic values (and nerdy sex). I also watched the doc made on him a few years ago when his parents were still alive and found it endearing. In spite his quirks which we all have, his work has greater value to me know. Great review Peter!