Archived Reading Room

A new take on the Paris of the ‘20s

Paris in the 1920s attracted multitudes of American writers and artists. Drawn to France by a sense of adventure, by a strong dollar, by French culture, and not least, by the fact that in France the wine and spirits flowed legally and copiously while America underwent its experiment with Prohibition, writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, and the young and unknown Thomas Wolfe all came to Paris in that decade. The city left a lasting mark on them, and they repaid the favor by writing of their romance with the City of Lights. “Paris was always worth it and you received return from whatever you brought to it,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, his account of his years there. “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Woody Allen’s newest movie, “Midnight In Paris,” which is a love-song to Paris both as it is now and as it was when those Americans first discovered it, offers viewers a pleasurable take on American literature and writing. In the film, which was both written and directed by Allen, a modern-day screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) has gone with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents for a visit to Paris. Gil, who idealizes the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, dislikes his own work and wants to finish his novel, a book in which he has little faith. Fearful that Gil may give up his lucrative position in the film industry for an impossible dream, Inez belittles his attempts at higher literature and has nothing but derision for his nostalgia.

One evening Gil becomes lost in the city while making his way back to his hotel. As the clock strikes midnight, some party-goers in an antique Peugeot pulls alongside him and invite him to come with them. As the car whisks Gil though the streets, he quickly discovers that he has somehow traveled in time back to the Roaring Twenties. He meets Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), then Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who agrees to read his manuscript. Night after night, Gil returns to this lost era, meeting artists and writers ranging from T. S. Eliot to Pablo Picasso, from Man Ray to Salvador Dali, and eventually falls in love with Adriana (Marian Cotillard), Picasso’s mistress. Though Allen takes liberties with some of the characters and their lives — Hemingway, for example, did not go to Africa for a safari while living as a young man in Paris — the sheer fun and pleasure offered to lovers of literature by this movie should overcome objections by purists to such insertions.

To say more about the plot of this delightful film would spoil the ending. What can be added, however, is that “Midnight In Paris” is not only a pleasure to watch — the movie opens with a mélange of shots of modern-day Paris so beautiful and moving that the viewer may leave the theater ready to take the next flight to France — but also offers a series of meditations on art and on time. We hear from Hemingway and Stein about writing and what makes it “true and good,” as Hemingway might say; we receive quick insights into how artists like Dali and Picasso thought; and finally, we see in Gil the struggle between the philistine and the artist.

Allen also cleverly makes an important statement about the nature of time, the idea of a golden age, and the present. In the movie, Gil wants to go back to the Paris of the 1920s. Adrianna in turn fantasizes about life in La Belle Époque, the 1890s, and men like Degas and Gauguin, whom we encounter briefly, think that the Renaissance was the best time for being an artist. By the end of the movie we come to see through Gil’s eyes the dangers of such nostalgia. We begin to understand, as he does, that the age in which we live has its own compensations, its own responsibilities, its own joys and sorrows, and that both the human being and the artist must live in their own time rather than pine for the past. Though we may not realize it until the movie is over, this message is embedded in the very beginning of the movie, with those lovely scenes from today’s Paris.


Related Items

In Listen (ISBN 978-1-4143-2433-3, 2010, $12.99), Christian novelist Rene Gutteridge tells the story of Marlo, a town where an anonymous person suddenly begins recording intimate conversations and transcribing them onto the Internet. Though this thief of secrets posts these conversations without identifying those involved, the townspeople and those involved in their lives easily recognize their own words. These conversations soon cause an uproarious falling-out among neighbors and family members. Some incidents turn violent, and the police become involved, trying to track down the person responsible for these episodes as well as to repair the damage done by the gossip and innuendo posted online.

Gutterridge will win no awards for style or finesse in Listen — like many other books published in the Christian genre, her workaday prose is flat and unexciting — but she is a fine storyteller who raises some interesting questions: How responsible are we for the words we speak? What effect do words have on those around us? How much weight should we give to words spoken in anger or passion?

For the past several years we have seen the consequences of words and images on certain people and events. This summer alone has given us the emails of Sarah Palin, which were largely innocuous, and the crotch shots of Congressman Weiner, which revealed not only his nether regions but also a near-unbelievable stupidity. Listen is a well-timed reminder that loose speech — and in Weiner’s case, loose drawers — often has unforeseen consequences.

Listen by Rene Gutteridge. Tyndale House Publishers, 2010. 432 pages.

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