Just following up on my previous post, C and I went to see Midnight in Paris last night. It was quite amusing, but I came away feeling somehow a little unsatisfied. I expressed this immediately afterwards by saying that I thought there was a far better film below the skin of this one, and today I have been gently exploring that intuition.
The film hinges on the encounters between the main character and his c.1920s literary idols. These parts were all enjoyable, but I realized that I responded to them in the same way as the main character – as an idol, not as a person. Their dialogue seemed formalized in some way, structured around their persona rather than deep human beings. You encounter Earnest Hemingway The Author, rather than The Man. The referent for the portrayal is exactly their mystic, their aura. This aura is partially a product of the original, but it is also crucially a construction of the subsequent evaluation and interpolation from their work and the stories about them.
This is a concept we have encountered before, via my old drinking pal Baudrilliard: these are simulacra, being a simulation whose referent is itself a referent, and the concept of a real original has been lost. The dissatisfaction arises from the essential lack of a reference to any kind of real human because the characters are formal archetypes simply going through the motions of a story.
Yet, I wonder whether this is the full extent of what’s going on in this film. If we considered that the historical characters are simulacra, and that the main character and supporting characters are similarly artificial, is this useful for understanding what the film is about?
There are a couple of interesting clues left regarding the loss of reference in the form of two autobiographies. Gil Pender writes his own life into his novel, it is by analysis of this autobiography by a third party that he learns of his fiance’s affair. Secondly, he realizes that the attraction he feels to one of the characters from the past is mutual due to buying a copy of the diary she wrote in the past.
This suggests that real people exist primarily in relation to the stories they tell about themselves: Gil knows about his life because of the stories told about it. This is more than just a restatement of the hyper-reality, because it is through these recognitions inside the fiction that Gil is able to make decisions about the future course of his life. This is hyper-reality not as a means of ignorance, but as a means of control: by controlling the narrative that you tell about yourself and your environment, you can effectively alter your circumstances.
I think this gives much needed weight to Gil’s only real moment of insight, which is that we construct narratives of a golden era because we’re seeking something satisfying and conclusive, because life is inevitably a little unsatisfying inasmuch as its incomplete, untidy and uncertain. A golden age is none of those things. Gil redefines the present as his preferred time of existence as a result of his exploits in time travel, validating hyper-reality as a functional way of existing.
All of which is very interesting, but does place rather a heavy analytical burden on what I still think is a work without aspirations to such weight. I am still considering how this fits into my understanding of Allen’s work as a whole, but I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that it shares a large number of elements with Manhattan, beginning with the mythologising of a city and the use of narrative as a tool of defining people, though the protagonist of Manhattan is defined by others through biography. I expect a close comparative reading of these two films as companion pieces would draw these issues out as long-term interests and help clarify them nicely.
Which, nevertheless, leaves me unsatisfied with Midnight in Paris. So it goes.