Page and Screen: Woody Allen is right to have fun with classic literary figures in Midnight in Paris

For the arty cinemagoer, after something more substantial than the resurrection of Rowan Atkinson’s clownish spy Jonny English, there was a choice to make this week. Accomplished actor Paddy Considine’s directorial debut Tyrannosaur faced screen legend Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in a battle for Britain’s “alternative” vote at posh theatres and screening rooms.

Considine’s story, which stars Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman and revolves around domestic abuse, has been praised to the rooftops by a range of critics. Allen’s film too has garnered praise so that whispers about a comeback have grown into audible chatter. But even though Midnight in Paris has been hailed his best film in years, Allen’s recent track record has been so woeful that all this effectively means is that it’s passably entertaining and perceptive. It’s not great art or great cinema.

It is, however, based on fantastical encounters with some of the greatest creative types in history. Owen Wilson’s disillusioned scriptwriter Gil magically and mysteriously meets the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, TS Elliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He doesn’t just meet them either. He interacts with them, whining about his artistic insecurities and the unsatisfactory nature of existence.

We’re often told not to meet our heroes. Our expectations are too high, too inflated by impossibly perfect ideals, for the reality of a flesh and blood human being to match. However Gil, as usual the character Woody would’ve once played himself, is somehow not disappointed by the literary greats he encounters on his midnight Parisian strolls. And he has good reason to feel letdown.

The instantly recognisable authors and artists are charming enough but they are comprised almost entirely of clichés. Scott Fitzgerald says “old sport” a lot, as his most famous creation Jay Gatsby is prone to do. Hemingway’s conversational style is blunt and stripped of convention, much like his economical and observational prose. Dali is reduced to a series of surreal catchphrases about a rhino.

In short these are cardboard cut-out versions of such famous faces. We are left with neither a believable representation of their brilliance or a more human, accessible character that we can “know”. Tom Hiddleston and others are simply fooling around in their roles.

But Midnight in Paris is a fantasy and there’s nothing wrong with the actors evidently enjoying themselves. In fact the tone of the entire film is extremely refreshing. It never takes itself too seriously and doesn’t become dependent on pretentious in-jokes. And it never stops asking intriguing questions about the past, art and the way we live either.

This column is often too focused on the great weight placed on the shoulders of anyone trying to adapt something from the page to the screen, rather than how much fun the intermingling between literature and cinema can be. There’s no doubt that the whole business of adaptation can become too serious a slog. By creating something original but also dabbling lightly in the best literature has to offer for influences, Allen has written and directed a film that is at once thoughtful, bookish and full of fun.

P.S Just because Allen had the easier sell, don’t neglect Tyrannosaur, which looks like a superb, if brutal, example of pioneering British filmmaking.

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One response to “Page and Screen: Woody Allen is right to have fun with classic literary figures in Midnight in Paris

  1. Well argued though I dont agree with much of it.
    The film is one of the realized products of Woody Allen type of cinema-witty and wistful. Such films are generally a frantic description of a slice of time in the lives of the protagonists, who are perpetually bewildered and slightly dissatisfied practitioners of intellectual professions like writing, painting or acting. During that slice of time these protagonist undergo an even more heightened level of bewilderment and dissatisfaction. This makes a Woody Allen film a jaunty ride of gentle wit, fluent intellect and rising confusion.
    http://modernartists.blogspot.com/2011/10/woody-allens-midnight-in-paris-movable.html

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