When Art Mattered: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest film, is a love letter to Paris.  (Like all Woody Allen films, it is also a love letter to beautiful women.  Even the horrible Inez (Rachel McAdams) is sumptuous. And who can resist Carla Bruni as a brainy -beautiful museum guide?)  Gil, played with perfect romantic befuddlement by Owen Wilson, longs for the Paris of the twenties, when Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Picasso gathered at late night soirees and sought Gertrude Stein’s advice.  The movie also promotes but ultimately tempers nostalgic longing.  Romantics of every age, the film reveals, long for the romance of the past.  What is most striking, however, is not the larger point about nostalgia generally, but what Gil was nostalgic for, which is a time when art seemed to matter.  Art and writing and the bohemian cultures that surrounded them were serious but also fun in a way that surely has been romanticized, but for good reason.  The vision, even if it is not real, of an entire culture that embraced art is tantalizing.  Today, art and writing still matter, but the places where bohemianism and intense intellectual engagement about art and ideas take place are small, fragmented and scattered.  They are underground, localized, and/or digitized and remote.  I mean this as description, not criticism.  There are possibilities in the new and networked ways of taking art seriously.  But how then will particular places, like Paris, become metaphors for for our romantic longings of the future?  Where will we project our fantasies?  Onto invisibles 1’s and 0’s flying through space?  Gil’s desire to be born ceaselessly back to the past can be satisfied by moving to the Paris of today.  But where will romantics of the future long to be when the physical world offers no resting place for nostalgia?

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