The first time Woody Allen saw Paris, he tells me on a recent morning in the velvet-draped screening room of his New York office, the year was 1964 and his first original screenplay, What's New Pussycat?, was being turned into a movie starring Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole. “Like everybody else, I grew up getting my impressions of Paris from American movies,” he says as he sinks into a green roller chair and pulls up a hassock. “So before I ever went to Paris, I was in love with the city, because Hollywood was in love with the city, and whenever you saw Paris it was the city of romance, music, wine, beautiful hotels, Gigi. Then I went there, and the city lived up to its hype. When I saw it, it was so beautiful and so charming and so romantic and so amazing. Of course, everyone who goes to Paris does fall in love with it.”
Allen lived in the city for a total of eight months, playing a supporting role in Pussycat and remaining on call for new jokes and rewrites. “On the one hand, I was having a wonderful time, because I was living in this magical city all expenses paid,” he remembers. “On the other hand, I hated what was going on with my movie, because I felt they were ruining it.” Then, as the shoot drew to a close, two young American designers from the movie's wardrobe department whom Allen had befriended announced that they would be making Paris their new home. “And I said, 'I love it too,' but I was afraid to stay. I thought, gee, I'd love to stay, but I could never leave New York, I have friends in New York, and I just don't have the courage to uproot my life and move here. Now, that is a decision that I've regretted many times.”
Allen's love for the city is obvious right from the very first frames of his 41st feature film, Midnight in Paris, which opens with a three-minute, dialogue-free montage of Paris street scenes — some iconic (the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Élysées), some ordinary — as the expat jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet's “Si tu vois ma mère” plays on the soundtrack, day slowly giving way to night. “No work of art can compare to a city,” notes the film's protagonist a bit later, a successful American screenwriter (wonderfully played by Owen Wilson) who, like Allen, lived in Paris as a younger man and now finds himself there once more, on vacation with his high-strung fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, while trying his hand at his first novel.
When French producers first approached Allen (who has directed five of his last six pictures abroad) about making a film in the City of Lights, he happily agreed. “But I had no idea for Paris at all — none,” he says. “So I asked myself: what do you think of when you think of Paris? Well, romance is what you think of — at least it's what I think of. I'm not going to do a political thriller in Paris. If I was making a film in Berlin, a different thing comes to mind.” Then Allen hit upon the film's title, but still had no story to go with it. “And I'm thinking to myself for months, well, what happens at midnight in Paris? Does someone meet and fall in love? Are two people having an affair? And then one day it came to me that somebody visiting Paris is walking around at night, and it's midnight, at suddenly a car pulls up and he gets in and it takes him on a real adventure.”
That adventure, which (spoiler alert!) has been carefully concealed from the Midnight in Paris trailer and other publicity materials, is a journey through time, in which Wilson's character finds himself spirited away to the Lost Generation Paris of the 1920s, rubbing elbows with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, soliciting writerly advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and falling in love with the muse (Marion Cotillard) of Picasso and Modigliani. It's a premise that might have seemed incredibly corny, but which in Allen's deft hands becomes something magical, as sublimely enchanting as any Allen film since 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo, where the hero of an innocuous Hollywood programmer stepped down from the screen and into the life of a Depression-era New Jersey waitress.
“A certain amount of people in the world become obsessed with magic, and as a boy I was one of them,” says Allen of his recurring interest in fantasy and the supernatural, which also crops up to varying extents in films like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Alice and the “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of New York Stories. “I was an amateur magician, and to this day I can do sleight of hand and card tricks and coin tricks. And I always feel that only a magical solution can save us. The human predicament is so tragic and so awful that, short of an act of magic, we're doomed. Many people feel they will be saved by their religion in some way, and that's a version of magic — some all-powerful magician is going to give them an afterlife or in some other way make life meaningful. But in fact, that doesn't seem to be the case. If they suddenly discovered tomorrow that the universe had been created by a god and there was meaning to it, then everyone would be very cheerful and it would be a big help. You'd notice a lot of smiling faces.”
“Nostalgia is denial,” says one character in Midnight in Paris — a pompous intellectual hilariously played by Michael Sheen — before going on to define a condition he terms “Golden Age thinking” as “a flaw in the romantic imagination of people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” One such person is Wilson's Gil Pender, whose novel-in-progress takes place in a “nostalgia shop” and who longs to live in a time other than his own — at least until he discovers that everyone in the past seems consumed by a similar desire, yearning for the Belle Epoque or even the Renaissance. There are those, surely, who would peg Allen as something of a nostalgia merchant himself, from the number of films he has set in a rose-colored yesteryear to the jazz standards that routinely comprise the soundtracks of even his contemporary tales. Yet if Midnight in Paris is undeniably one of Allen's most personal films, it is also one as skeptical of “golden age thinking” as it is susceptible to it.
“Nostalgia is a trap, there's no question about that,” Allen says matter-of-factly. “It's based on the idea that now is always terrible, because when you're living now, you're living in reality, with whatever the real world is offering you at the time, and at best the real world doesn't offer you anything very hospitable, and it's often quite terrifying. So there's always a sense that if you could have lived in a different time, things would have been more pleasant. One thinks back for instance to Gigi, and you think, well, this is Belle Epoque Paris, they have horses and carriages and gas lamps and everything is beautiful. Then you start to realize that if you went to the dentist, there was no novocaine, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Women died in childbirth — there were all kinds of terrible problems. If you were an aristocratic gentile living in Paris at that time, that was a step forward. If you were not upper class, or you were Jewish, it would not have been such a dream existence. But you block that out.
“Naturally, if I'm sitting here now, and they're dying in Libya and the economy is going under and we have a terrible split in the country and they're patting us down in airports, I think to myself, God, wouldn't I be better off sitting at Maxim's in the 1890s? But it doesn't really work that way, and that's how nostalgia trips you up. You go back and you don't get the novocaine, you don't get penicillin for your syphilis. You become disillusioned when you think it through, and even if you don't relinquish the fantasy, you become a little depressed because it can't be affected. You're living here, trapped in the reality of the moment. For movies it's great! In movies, you can create the past as you want to see it. But I do think that's the sad note in my movie, that everybody doesn't want to be where they are. Everybody imagines there's something better, because you can imagine something better but there isn't anything better. That's the problem.”
I ask Allen if he agrees with the lines he wrote for Gertrude Stein in the film, in which she states that the job of the artist is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence. “I don't know if I believe that myself,” he replies. “That's all easy enough to attribute to a character in a movie, and one could make a case for that — that the job of the artist is to show why life, despite all its horror and brutality, is worth living and is a valuable thing. But one could also take the position that there is no job of the artist. The artist does what the artist does. If you make a comic movie like Duck Soup, then you're an artist there. If you paint a pretty picture of apples in a bowl like Cezanne does, you're an artist there, and it's not the job of the artist to do anything at all — just to make the best art that he can, because art gives pleasure and pleasure gives distraction, and distraction is the only thing that gets us by, really.
“If you become obsessed with films or baseball or your children — or if, in my case, you're worried about how the third act is going to turn out — you become focused on that and you don't think about the terrors of life. You become focused on something that's apparently meaningful, but it's no more meaningful than the outcome of the Yankees game. I'll say, 'Gee, the Yankees lost today,' and the non baseball fan will say, 'So what?' It's as meaningful as his life or my life. They're specks of light in an eternal void having no meaning whatsoever in a universe that's eventually going to not exist. In the end, like in Stardust Memories, we all get flushed. The beautiful ones, the accomplished ones, the Einsteins, the Shakespeares, the homeless guys in the street with the wine bottles, all end up in the same grave. So, I have a very dim view of things, but I think about them, and I do feel that I've come to the conclusion that the artist can not justify life or come up with a cogent reason as to why life is meaningful, but the artist can provide you with a cold glass of water on a hot day.”
Once upon a time, Woody Allen believed himself to be living in a Golden Age. The time was the early 1940s, when valorous GIs were in the streets, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were on the radio, and New York City hummed with a vibrant nightlife the likes of which would never be equaled. “People were going to El Morocco and the Stork Club and going to the theater late and staying out late and going to supper clubs after and dancing until one o'clock in the morning and walking home safely through the streets, and dressing for dinner,” Allen recalls with more than a touch of wistful longing. “You know, when you watch a picture like Adam's Rib, Tracy and Hepburn are living on Sutton Place, and they have friends over for dinner at their apartment, and he puts on a tuxedo to have dinner in his own apartment! It was a very elegant and magical way of living.”
Allen then tells me of his first trip to Times Square, in the company of his father, in either 1941 or 1942. “I came up the stairs having ridden the subway from Brooklyn, and saw row after row of one movie house next to the other: the Paramount, the Roxy, the Capitol, the Rialto,” he says. “Now, in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, you had a movie house, and 10 blocks later you had another movie house. It was a neighborhood with occasional movie houses. Here, there were 20 on either side of the street, and over there were sailors shooting air rifles and guys with those dancing dolls on a string, which I could never figure out. And upstairs, I remember it very clearly, were all ten-cents-a-dance dance halls. You could see people dancing up there, and it was sensational to my eyes. Now, maybe if I looked at it now, I would think, gosh, this is very seedy, these poor girls are earning a tough dollar dancing with strangers, and it's not so great. But it certainly seemed seductive then.”
When Allen tried to capture some of those memories on screen in his 1987 Radio Days, he endured a rebuke from the literary and social critic Irving Howe, who had come of age a generation before the filmmaker. “He said there was tyranny and Nazis all over Europe and there was an enormous amount of anti-Semitism in the United States that could have fomented if the war didn't go well,” Allen says. “He said it was not a very nice time. Now, I saw it through the eyes of a seven-year-old, an eight-year-old, and that is as close as I can think of to a great time. There were many shows running on Broadway — the writers were Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and William Inge and George Kaufman and Moss Hart. It was an era, even as I got a little older, of Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady. That does seem like a very enchanted era when you look at what's on Broadway now, and that we go to the theater at eight o'clock instead of eight forty, and that things were redesigned to meet the needs of the suburban people, so they could get home at a decent hour.”
Now, at age 75, with a career as a comic, writer and filmmaker that spans a half-century, Allen himself has become an iconic part of American cultural lore — something that gives him more than a bit of pause. “I was thinking with great horror the other day that, since I'm a known person, a hundred years from now someone will make a movie about New York in my time, and I will be, let's say, not an important character in it, but a peripheral character,” he says. “Someone will go into Elaine's, and there I'll be, played by some schlemiel, because I'm conceived of as a schlemiel, and he'll have glasses on, and he'll be a gloom-ridden recluse who shivers at the thought of going out into the country — some execrable exaggeration of what people think I am. And that will be my hell. If I'm ever in a work of fiction as part of the atmosphere, they'll be doing to me the same unjust things as when I show Ernest Hemingway sitting at a bar talking the way he talks.”
In the nearer term–this fall to be precise — Allen will find himself the subject of a two-part, three-hour American Masters documentary directed by Oscar nominee Robert Weide (Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth), whom Allen granted unprecedented access to his personal and professional life during the making of last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. “Now, I say this with no false modesty: I can not imagine why anyone would want to see it,” Allen deadpans. “There's a certain amount of interesting tidbits here and there. But I don't see why it's any different than anything we're talking about here, or that I've spoken about a million times. You know, there are pictures of my parents, and those kinds of peripheral things. The reason that it's in two parts is that I've had a long, productive resume.
“It's funny, I'm always interested in those things about people that I like, so I guess there will be people who will be interested. But to me, I feel there's not enough. With the exception of my one encounter with scandal with Mia, my life's been very, very dull. I mean, I work, I've always worked, and even that thing with Mia was really blown way out of proportion by the press; the actual facts are not very fascinating. But there's been nothing to even approach that in terms of excitement in my life. On a morning like this, I got up, I took my daughter to school, I came back home, I did the treadmill, I did a few weights, I came over here, I'll go back home, I'll practice the clarinet, I'll lay on the bed and write a little bit. There's nothing going on.” Allen pauses for a moment, as if contemplating some bigger picture. “It's not the kind of life, let's say, that Hemingway led, where he'd be deep-sea fishing off Cuba and then hunting lions or kudu in Africa, and then his plane crashes but he survives after going missing for two weeks in the jungle. Mine's been very middle-class.”
Midnight in Paris opens in Los Angeles on May 20.