Sunday, January 22, 2012

Byron, Nostalgia, and Woody Allen

Today is the birthday of one of the most popular of British Romantic writers, Lord Byron.  If you came to this blog looking for a meditation inspired by his birthday, I'll refer you to last year's post.

If I could travel back to any literary time period, I'd go back to hang out with the British Romantics.  I've daydreamed about hiking through the Lake country with Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Coleridge.  I would have loved to be part of that household that issued the writing challenge that resulted in Frankenstein, along with several lesser works.

But then, my realistic self comes crashing in.  Would I really like to time travel?  No, not if I had to keep my current body.  As a female, I wouldn't be safe in most time periods; in fact, inside a female body, I'm not terribly safe in most of the world in our current day.  Would I really want to live in a world without the birth control pill?  Would I really want to live in a world where almost everyone suffered a tooth ache or two or three, before having the teeth yanked out of their heads?  Would I want to live in a world without antibiotics or anaesthesia?  No, I would not.

And yes, I realize that my status as an inhabitant of the 21st century, developed world delivers these luxuries to me in a way that I wouldn't likely experience, had I been born in the developing world.  I understand my phenomenal luck.

Yesterday, we watched a movie which warned against the seductive charm of nostalgia:  Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.  What a wonderful movie!  I haven't liked a Woody Allen movie this much since Hannah and Her Sisters.  I still like Hannah and Her Sisters best.  But Midnight in Paris was just as wonderful as everyone told me it was.

For one thing, it's a real English majors' movie, with lots of appearances by famous writers and lots of allusions to their work.  And I had just finished Paula McLain's The Paris Wife (see this post for a review), so it was a delight to travel back.

It was also a great twist in the story to realize that all the characters look back to a golden age.  The ones living in the 20's wish they lived in the 1890's, when life was at its peak in Paris.  I tend to do this both with literary ages and with my own life, often longing for time periods or places (like, say, grad school) that I didn't always enjoy whilst living them.

The movie itself is just beautiful, shot in golden, glowing light.  If only we could all live, or at least linger, in that light.  And of course, there's the backdrop of Paris, at least the lovely parts.  My first view of Paris was on the Metro, headed away from the beautiful part as we left the airport--what a shock to realize that Paris didn't look like Woody Allen's view, the popular view.  Of course, most of New York City doesn't look like the movies made by Woody Allen.  But that's not to say we can't enjoy the visions of cities at their most beautiful.

The actors manage to say the lines almost naturally.  So often, in a later Woody Allen movie, the lines sound stilted and odd (see this review of Vicky Christina Barcelona, for example).  You almost hear characters from older movies who have been trapped by more recent actors trying to channel those characters.  But with a few glaring exceptions, the dialogue and the acting worked.

The movie isn't a deep exploration of the dangers of nostalgia.  It's light and comic and perhaps a bit too frothy at times.  It doesn't attempt to explain how the characters travel through time.  If you're looking for a physics lesson, this movie isn't for you.

But if you need a little trip to Paris by way of the magic of movies, spend some time with this one.  You get gorgeous shots of Paris, lovely costumes, great music . . . there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.

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