The first time Woody Allen saw Paris, 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 tells me one recent morning, as he sinks into a green roller chair in the velvet-draped screening room of his New York office. “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.”
Allen lived in the city for 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.”
As the shoot drew to a close, two Americans from the wardrobe department, whom Allen had befriended, announced 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 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 from the first frames of his 41st feature, Midnight in Paris, which opens with a three-minute, dialogue-free montage of Paris street scenes both iconic and ordinary, day slowly giving way to night as the expat saxophonist Sidney Bechet's “Si tu vois ma mère” plays on the soundtrack. “No work of art can compare to a city,” notes the film's protagonist, 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 Light, 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.” 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? And then one day it came to me that somebody visiting Paris is walking around at night, and it's midnight, and 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, 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 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 in Allen's deft hands becomes something magical, as sublimely enchanting as any Allen film since 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo, where a movie hero steps 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,” Allen says of his recurring interest in fantasy and the supernatural, which also crops up to varying degrees in films like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Alice and the “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of New York Stories. “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.”
“Nostalgia is denial,” says the pompous intellectual hilariously played by Michael Sheen in Midnight in Paris, 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 Époque 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. 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 Époque 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 Novocain, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Women died in childbirth — there were all kinds of terrible problems.
“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. 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.”
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 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.”
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, 100 years from now someone will make a movie about New York in my time, and I would 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), to 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 cannot imagine why anyone would want to see it,” Allen deadpans.
“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 [Farrow], 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.”
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.”