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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Draw Fan

I remember the sound of the draw fan in the ceiling at the top of the stairs by the linen closet, thrumming through hot summer nights. My father, an inventor, had rigged up a crude timer switch, with a little pulley wheel for a dial. I used to imagine that a mysterious creature lived in there, half vulture, half vampire, a bird-monster that made its home in the fan’s louvered nest (that opened mysteriously when the fan turned on).

Though the fan was off-limits to me and George, my twin brother, I’d sneak out there in the middle of the night and give the dial a hefty turn, so it would go on and on all night long, billowing the blue curtains next to my bed. Most nights, my mother would wake up and sabotage my wish; I’d hear the closet door (where the switch was kept) open, and then the fan would stop, and I’d lie there, awake on top of the sheets, hostage to the sizzles and chirps of cicadas and crickets singing their stifling songs.

Running the fan all night was an extravagance, sure, but it comforted me. It wasn’t just coolness I was after, but the sound—that roaring, rumbling rhythm, like rolling thunder, or ocean surf, or the turbines of a passenger steamship—a sound that conveyed power, authority, and steadfastness: a soothing masculine growl that assured me that together, somehow, no matter how hot and humid and long, we’d get through the night.