Soukie's Place

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The Charms of a Pessimistic Workaholic

The top grossing film from Woody Allen ever, Midnight in Paris, is sweet and nice like a Belgian chocolate. It is like a dessert after some of the more substantial films of Allen’s career, even though – judged on its own – it is somewhat unsatisfactory.

That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.

The movie is about human feelings – nostalgia, romance and disagreements – but more in the sense of the characters talking about rather than living through them. Contrasted with Allen’s lowest grossing film, September, where the characters also spend a lot of time talking about these issues, in Paris the protagonist and audience are somehow insulated from feeling the pain.

The root of the problem is not that September or Another Woman are ‘serious films’ and Paris is a comedy. Annie Hall is a comedy too, and the deservedly acclaimed Hannah and Her Sisters does not have less humor in it than Midnight in Paris.

If Allen’s other films seem more substantial, it is because their characters are actually living through the things that the characters here are just seen discussing.

A still picture from Midnight in Paris

A scene that felt particularly alive and true to camaraderie between men with a drink: Gil is stopped by Salvador Dalí, obsessed with an image of rhinoceros. Gil explains his predicament, and the scene closes with Man Ray saying: “I see a photograph,” Luis Buñuel: “I see a film,” misunderstood Gil says: “I see an insurmountable problem,” and Dalí: “I see a rhinoceros.” Apparently, Woody Allen saw in this story a film too, but he decided to withhold showing us the insurmountable problem.

Many critics claim that Woody Allen’s recent attempts (roughly after Manhattan) are mediocre at best and allow for two exceptions: Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Even though these are great films, I cannot agree with that assessment. Other comedies from that period such as The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, or ironic dramas like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (which sadly almost nobody went to see) were as good or better than many Allen’s older flicks.

I do not know of any writer/director who would be producing one solid movie a year with the reliability of a Swiss watch. Allen has maintained that tempo for forty years, and his hit-or-miss ratio is not worse for that.

Being in Woody’s shoes is not the most cheerful place to be: he sees the universe as a cold place, with no ultimate meaning; transient, unsatisfying; with nothing to hold onto other than temporary distractions from these cold truths. Allen’s favorite distraction is getting absorbed in work (which explains the volume of his creative output). Another distraction we fall into are relationships with other people.

Woody is keenly aware why the life feels unsatisfactory, and he is good at unmasking the fallacies of the usual ‘coping strategies’ (such as hoping to achieve satisfaction by leaving something behind which would outlast oneself, or even his self-prescribed absorption in work). Because of this, our life and Allen’s films are full of illusions that we build like walls between ourselves and the reality.

Interestingly, quite a number of his films feature magicians and fantastical occurrences. Midnight in Paris also offers this more literal movie magic, and in terms of analyzing and breaking down the illusions, it simultaneously depicts and disproves the attractiveness of the years gone by.

At the end, the protagonist gets the point: “That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.” The problem is not in the when or where we live, but it is inherent in the experience of living. Allen’s films are moving because there is the realization of the distraction being just that, a distraction, but embracing it never-the-less because it is the best thing we have.

I am grateful for having Allen’s movies as beautiful distractions. It is hard for me to distinguish whether Allen’s worldview happens to coincide with mine, or whether my views were shaped so much by watching and admiring his films since my early teenage years. Where we differ is that I also hope that when we face the cold universe – as we do from time to time whether we want to or not – we can wait a while before blocking it out again, and perhaps discern something that has a real value amidst the fleeting time. But Paris might still be the preferred place for this.

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