The other day I was watching the 1931 film Kameradschaft, set around a coal mine on the French-German border (mined from both sides, with a dividing wall in between); when a devastating accident occurs on the French side, the Germans put aside their differences (not a small thing, since this is barely more than a decade after they were slaughtering each other in the World War One trenches) and rush across to aid the rescue effort. At the end, the two communities come together, agreeing that their shared identities as miners will define them in future, not the dictates of their masters. Ten years later, of course, this would have seemed like the most tragic of roads not taken. Watching it today…well, the borders have largely dissolved, and the French and German workers are united at last – in bailing out the Greeks.
Why we need Europe
That’s flippant of course, but you don’t need to be a Nobel-winning economist to grasp the essence of where it went wrong – the risks became pan-European, but the rewards (conditioned by the cultures of individual countries and the degree of responsibility of their political masters) remained local. The miners of Kameradschaft were right about one big thing – their unity revolution would have to start at the bottom and work up, rather than be hatched in offices of state and shoved down. As it is, it’s pretty obvious no one knows what to do to fix the mess (any more than they do in the US).
There may, for sure, be trouble ahead. And it’s tragic, because if you engage with the world to any degree at all, and think about this gorgeous, messy, contradictory creation we’ve sped and stumbled our way into, I’m pretty sure you’ll conclude eventually we need Europe to be the way it is. The glory of Canada is largely predicated, really, on not being that necessary to the world’s aggregated image of itself; that’s why we have such equanimity and perspective. In contrast, America is being rapidly smothered by the heavy illusion of its own exceptionalism – it’s an increasingly dull, off-putting national narrative. Europe’s historical and cultural exceptionalism, and the depth of its heritage and resonances, are far more fully established - being in Paris, for instance, approaches sensual and intellectual overload. Europe is festooned with absurdities, many of them archaic and unsustainable, but if we ever let those go, we’d be on a headlong rush toward cold functionalism. I mean, it’s economically ridiculous to think you should be entitled to retire at 62, but thank God there’s a country somewhere with the audacity to argue it.
Midnight in Paris
The literal reason why Woody Allen - for so long the emblematic downtown New Yorker - now works mainly in Europe seems to be that they keep inviting him there, and they have the money. But it would probably be necessary anyway, because his career has become one of those anachronisms that need nurturing, and they’re much better at doing that over there. Clint Eastwood, to compare, is even older than Allen and just as productive, but he sets out to make prestige pictures and/or major hits (usually achieving one if not both aims). Allen, on the other hand, just makes Woody Allen pictures, and frankly, it often seems like everyone (at times, even including him) has had enough of them to last a lifetime. But who wants to call an end to such a long-standing tradition? Not the Europeans anyway.
And not me – I’ve seen every film he’s directed. I reviewed his last movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, less than a year ago in this space, and now he’s back with Midnight in Paris. In that last review, I noted how the film’s last few minutes (with a vintage version of When You Wish Upon A Star playing on the soundtrack) “looked kindly on dreamers and modes of escape,” and noted that although his own work has been mostly earthbound, he’s often acknowledged (for example in Purple Rose Of Cairo) the power of cinema to transform reality. As if on cue, Midnight in Paris is perhaps Allen’s fullest embracing of that theme. A hack Hollywood screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) is in Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents; he wants to move there and to try writing a serious novel, but she can’t think outside the privileged box she grew up in. Walking alone one night, he’s summoned into a passing vintage car, and inexplicably finds himself thrown back in time, rubbing shoulders with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds and Cole Porter. He falls in love with a Picasso muse (Marion Cotillard) and soon falls into a happy rhythm of alternating between the two worlds, mostly of course to the disadvantage of the present one.
Midnight in Paris is one of Allen’s most coherent and sustained films in a long time. He doesn’t sweat the details here – there’s no explanation of how the magic actually happens, and the rules governing Gil’s oscillation between worlds seem highly bendable. Although the protagonist may exhibit some of the director’s longstanding tics, the film itself is as un-neurotic as anything you’re likely to come across nowadays, confident enough to leave opportunities galore on the table. For instance there’s a funny scene where Gil tells Luis Bunuel the plot of one of his future films, The Exterminating Angel, and Bunuel doesn’t get it: Allen could have filled his movie with variations on that gag, but doesn’t need to. Adrien Brody pops up as Salvador Dali – it’s his best work in ages, but it’s just one scene. A relative marvel of economy overall, the picture wraps up after barely more than ninety minutes.
Allen also raids his nostalgia file for yet another portrayal of an overbearing intellectual (Michael Sheen), and also shows off his blinkered side by dumping McAdams into a miserably shrewish, superficial role (not the first actress who’s suffered that fate at his hands; his treatment of Cotillard, in contrast, is immaculate). The film is full of echoes of his previous creations, including short stories like The Kugelmass Episode. A few shots at right-wingers and Tea Partiers make you realize how little politics and social consciousness has figured in his work. But this is how it is with the late films of aging legends – you don’t expect to cross new borders, but rather to relish the frontiers they’ve long been exploring (although, miraculously, sometimes you get both!) Although Allen is almost excessively self-effacing in recent interviews, discounting his own work to the point of saying he doesn’t think any of it will last, Midnight in Paris exhibits a consistent quiet pride of sorts, and a relief at being home.