One of this year's key award-season memes is an undercurrent of hazy, happily unchallenged nostalgia for times past, notably present in The Artist, Hugo, War Horse and My Week With Marilyn. Of the films aligned with this trend, only Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris — which unexpectedly became his biggest hit in decades — directly grapples with the tension between nostalgia and the now, the way in which an idealized notion of then can get in the way of one's appreciation of the contemporary moment.
Allen isn't the first filmmaker to look back at Paris in the 1920s with a romanticizing gaze. Alan Rudolph's 1988 film The Moderns — screening Saturday in the Getty Museum's "Dream a Little Dream: Artists in Film" program — makes for an illuminating analogue to this current nostalgia trend, set as it is amidst the same Parisian milieu as much of Midnight's time-travelogue and also placing its fictional characters among such real-life guideposts as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
Long the most public acolyte of Robert Altman (until Paul Thomas Anderson came along), Rudolph's work most strongly resembles his mentor's in their common strong interest in the teeming bustle of people in places. Rudolph, like Altman, most likes to capture scenes — that is, the specifics of a certain time in a certain space. In The Moderns he sketched out the Parisian artists and hangers-on of the 1920s, in a manner similar to his previous exploration of the social lives of mid-'70s Angeleno strivers, Welcome to L.A., and his later examination of the '20s New York literati world, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
In Allen's Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson's character is a modern-day Hollywood screenwriter who idealizes the bohemian freedom of his literary-fueled fantasy of jazz-age Paris. When he is somehow transported back to that time, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a flapper muse who wishes she were part of the earlier belle epoque. Once the pair are transported back to that time, they encounter artists such as Gauguin and Degas who wish they were a part of the Renaissance. Everyone feels born in the wrong time, always.
Instead of idealizing the past from a contemporary point-of-view, The Moderns uses the past to point to the present. In only a single shot (given a certain emphasis from its inclusion in the film's original trailer), the camera moves across a crowd of nightclub revelers to land on a bar populated by totally-'80s punk rockers in leather jackets, and rockabilly kids with clothes trimmed in Day-Glo. Just as Sofia Coppola included a quick glimpse of modern-day Converse high-tops in a montage of 18th-century shoes in Marie Antoinette, The Moderns looks to draw a line of continuity forward to what would have been the film's contemporary subcultural demimonde, as a way of saying, "This is about you, too."
Where Allen seems to expect audiences to get a kick out of the mere ticking off of famous names, Rudolph has more fun putting those references to work. The Hemingway in Midnight describes Adriana as "a movable feast" before bellowing, "Who wants to fight?" In The Moderns, Hemingway moodily declares Paris "a portable banquet," eliciting a journalist played by Wallace Shawn to offhandedly note, "You should work on that."
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No one goes to a Woody Allen film for the sex scenes, but the raw sensuality of the moment in The Moderns where John Lone's arriviste collector shaves the armpits of artist's muse Linda Fiorentino in the bath (an act at once tender and controlling) makes the stock supporting females played by Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard in Allen's Paris seem positively bloodless. It's a difference that also may explain why The Moderns was a seductive talking point with the coeds of its own era, its atmospheric Mark Isham soundtrack the score to afternoon make-out sessions. If The Moderns complements undergrads in heat, Midnight in Paris is a movie for their parents to snuggle to.
There is, of course, a dry irony to the fact that audiences seem to have willfully overlooked that the twist in Allen's nostalgic fable is to encourage people to really live in their own moment, as Wilson's character finds a present-tense muse all his own to walk off with. As music writer and cultural critic Simon Reynolds posits in Retromania, his recent book on the recycling of pop culture, "It's the strength of this conviction that History went awry at some point that enables the time-warp cultist to contradict pop's imperative to 'live in the now' and to assert that then was better."
Near the end of The Moderns, Wallace Shawn's character bemoans the arrival of a fresh crop of the young and aspirational by saying, "Paris has been taken over by people who are just imitators of people who were imitators themselves." More than Midnight in Paris, The Moderns avoids the dead end of nostalgia altogether. It's a film set in the past but not trapped by it.
DREAM A LITTLE DREAM: ARTISTS IN FILM | Jan. 14-15 | The Getty Center | Free, with required reservations | getty.edu