Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Raiders of the Lost Golden Age: Super 8 vs. Midnight in Paris

Let me be your spoil sport. The good times of summer, for me, are almost always accompanied by a melancholy taste of nostalgia for the moments while they're passing by: Living becomes an immediate memory, and so, summer is almost instantly sad. Maybe this is a symptom of my biographical youth, my own blossoming years of awareness being, at Valley Fair for example, fed the synthetic sounds of New Wave music, which is euphoric and sad in equal measure, struggling to hold onto its own high (which kind of makes it easy to understand why so many of the artists were on heroin). Strangely, Valley Fair remains an odd time vortex, where I can go back each summer – and still most of the music seems to be underground and across-the-pond pop music from 1984. It's like a doorway to my own hidden golden age, before things stopped making sense, or rather they started making sense. The slippery slope began with innocence lost, from domestic peril, to homework, dating, college, insurance, student loans, rent, and finding work. Before you know it, you're old, and too old to accomplish the things you had set out to do when the Golden Age withered away and you vowed to make a New Jerusalem of sorts. Then your prostate and eyes give you problems, there's gastroenteritis, your hair falls out, your gut expands, and you're 66 and have no savings. Scrambling for time, you beg the ref for a do-over.

The summers of my youth are so synonymous with the movies of my youth, which has become a sort of collective youth for the world of moviedom. In the late 1970s, Hollywood sort of determined that it was stubbornly not going to grow up and remain wrapped in its nostalgia. Before I was around, it was born with Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My earliest memories in a movie theater take me to images of Darth Vader (a re-release of the original Star Wars, I believe), who would become my personal hero, and horror on seeing a suffering E.T. drained of color. I fell asleep often during these early movies, but I was also alerted and terrified by them. Eyewitnesses testify that I had my eyes covered – when I wasn't sleeping – during most of E.T., and even I can remember locking hands on my ears during the Rancor sequence in Return of the Jedi. Around this time, I started "coming to," meaning I was able to begin experiencing moments linearly and process them to my memory hard drive. The images of Spielberg and Lucas, not to mention their buddy Jim Henson, fertilized the mythological soil of my youth, to say nothing of my bedroom. Toys, t-shirts, pajamas, Halloween costumes…and I was hardly alone. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas colored the land of innocence before it was lost, and so it's a place that in maturity many of us are eagerly looking back to acquire, a Lost Grail. I still remember the pinnacle moment, outside the Southtown Theater in Bloomington, prior to a screening of Return of the Jedi (perhaps my third). Handing balloons out in front of Wendy's were Darth Vader and Yoda. I talked to Darth, asking him about his dismembered hand, and also complained about how his action-figure had a cape that kept on ripping. I don't remember his replies. I do remember not taking a balloon.

That was, as they say, "long, long ago." We grew out of our action figures and space age operas. We graduated high school and had dreams. We were set for losing our virginity and going to college. But it never really died, did it? How could it. Most fortuitous for Lucas and Spielberg, and how they miraculously channeled the collective unconscious with archetypes of hope following a period of great social malaise craving optimism, they had not only a triumphalist Ronald Reagan ideology to follow them, but these new things, videotapes. So you could watch these movies again and again at home. You could own them and put them right up there on your bookshelf. Spielberg in particular played it very well with his E.T. Unavailable for years following its record-breaking theatrical release, its videocassette commercial release in the late 1980s was met with fanfare that I can only remember as being puzzlingly bizarre…particularly considering it was that movie, of all the era's blockbusters, that was perhaps the easiest for me to grow out of (though it was also, as an adult, the best one to grow back into). The Force was with Luke Skywalker, always, as Obi-Wan said, and our early movie memories were always with us. On tape. Or laserdisc, if you were kind of rich.

The respected late critic Robin Wood talks about the era of "sequels and repetition": "The success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and the Star Wars movies is dependent not only on the fact that so many people go to see them but also that so many see them again and again." Wood argues that the movies feed into our childhood desire for repetition, the same way a toddler, for instance, wants you to play a game with him again and again, doing the same thing…and if he grows tired of it, maybe throw in some slight variations – like a sequel! "The satisfaction of Star Wars is repeated until a sequel is required: same formula, with variations. But instead of a leap, only an infant footstep is necessary, and never one that might demand an adjustment on the level of ideology." Wood, a gay Marxist-Feminist academic, is conscious of the high-brow toil here. "To raise serious objections to them is to run the risk of looking a fool (they're 'just entertainment,' after all) or, worse, a spoilsport (they're 'such fun')…They work because their workings correspond to the workings of our own social construction. I claim no exemption from this: I enjoy being reconstructed as a child, surrendering to the reactivation of a set of values and structures my adult self has long since repudiated, I am not immune to the blandishments of reassurance." The problem, Wood pointed out, was that because these fantasies were being produced on such a prestigious platform, the public – and critics – had a hard time appreciating large spectacles that challenged them with cognitive dissonance, listing examples such as Heaven's Gate (which Wood, to his credit, believed was perhaps the best film released by a Hollywood studio decades following its release), Blade Runner, and The King of Comedy. And it is worth mulling over, isn't it? What are the all-time box office champions since the Spielberg-Lucas era, but wish-fulfillment fantasies? Star Wars, E.T., the Indiana Jones films, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Avatar… In 1972, The Godfather became the all-time box office champion, and it has as gloomy an ending that anyone could conceive; the same could be said of its usurper from the next year, The Exorcist, where Satan is cast out but with too many ambiguities for our comfort.

Wood wrote his critique on Spielberg and Lucas era cinema decades ago, claiming not to blame the filmmakers as much as he blames the critics. But what sticks out today is this: "The success of the films is only comprehensible when one assumes a widespread desire for regression to infantilism, a populace who wants to be constructed as mock children…The films are obviously very skillful in their handling of narrative, their resourceful, ceaseless interweaving of actions and enigmas, their knowing deployment of the most familiar narrative patterns."

Flash forward. Was it so coincidental that around the time a lot of us kids got to graduating high school and being readied for adulthood, George Lucas re-released the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters? The appetite of Geekdom had been primed and ready for the new trilogy beginning in 1999, regardless of how bad The Phantom Menace was (Lucas' return is, perhaps, one of the worst movies I've ever seen; it points to how Godfather III may have been a disappointment, but was also a good movie; The Phantom Menace was simply dire). Peter Jackson further fed into it with The Lord of the Rings. Throughout that decade, the post-modern cultural reflexivity of Kevin Smith and South Park tickled many of us with nostalgic mirth, both often being very intelligent and prescient. I admit this is a subject that has perhaps exhausted itself. But the Geek Generation, stirred into consciousness by the Star Wars paradigm – which also was in its own way compliant with the death of the New Hollywood of the 1970s – was now back with a vengeance. The illusion of special effects became a part of everyday life, with virtual images gliding along our phones and laptops at every moment, avatars pinpointing our unconscious Force-driven personas. The things we adored as children were reinvented for us as adults: our Star Wars indulgences, extraterrestrials, comic book heroes, videogames, weekly television characters, cartoons (The Smurfs are around the corner), and finally, toys (Transformers, an immensely profitable trilogy now). Jesus Christ. Board games are next.

Maybe my own experience of J.J. Abrams' new film, Super 8, was tainted by how it was the first motion picture I viewed after luxuriating with Terrence Malick's own descent into youth, The Tree of Life, for about a week (not including two weeks following my first screening, where the images persisted in invading my mind). But now it is not the hidden attic or underwater bedrooms that existed before your awareness, or the enigma of a plesiosaur pondering its wound, pointing direction to the Self, but the mass market toys you bought and TV shows you watched. In Abrams' film, the television becomes a marker for Truth, after all, as the adolescent characters express their certainty of a disaster-movie moment (a hilariously hyperbolic train derailment) only after they see the wreckage on the news.

Before thinking about Super 8, maybe I'm reading Abrams all wrong. He is very clever, but perhaps he's also a master ironist and is making sly commentary on the form that embraces him as its new master (M. Night Shyamalan was once dubbed by Newsweek "The New Spielberg," but that hasn't turned out so well…) Super 8 expresses a deep love for movies in its Spielbergian nostalgia, and it will certainly prove a steady crowd pleaser and perhaps become the sleeper hit of the summer. Its successes are more in line with Richard Donner's film of Spielberg's production The Goonies than to the maestro's own E.T.
Super 8 is a work that, taken on its own terms, is fairly humble and structured to do nothing other than please (though, for my money The Goonies is still better). But it's that air of nostalgia, even so, that will unnecessarily elevate it for a lot of people, who is simulating their pasts will believe that they've seen, I'm predicting, the best film of 2011…which is kind of what Abrams wants. He's made a Goonies or Gremlins-caliber Spielberg production, but it's so lushly dressed up as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, particularly in how well it hones Vilmos Zsigmond's and Allan Davieu's cinematography respectively, that the artifice, with a perfectly structured plot that works like a screenwriting teacher's dream (again, mark the contrast with The Tree of Life, a screenwriting teacher's nightmare), will sing audiences in search of lost time to rapture.

All credit to Abrams, who is a masterful engineer and has learned well from his mentor in how to trigger effects within the public. If the enthrallment of Geekdom has met with subpar critical success in movies (where it still secures a lot of money), on television it has proved endurable. Abrams is maybe emblematic of the problem cinema faces when set alongside contemporary television. Abrams' own shows, such as Alias and Lost, have a devoted following linked to their quality, which its fans would say is equal to that of respectable moviemaking. Television is not a weekly escape or ritual in Abrams' TV universe. It ranks alongside shows such as The Sopranos, House, Mad Men, etc. It is something a viewer immerses in. Most people with Netflix accounts do not use it to watch old movies, but rather to be kept up to date with television shows…which keep on coming. Lost is roughly a 200-hour movie. And quality television is primarily plot driven, week after week, with a host of new writers and directors recycling familiar characters. Even if they are well developed, the element that primarily drives the viewer's interest, as in a soap opera or serial, is what happens. In this process, the viewer primarily coasts over the surface of water on a joyride – but rarely gets submerged in the ocean. The experience is rich in content only. And that's fine, for Abrams: it is handled frugally, efficiently, properly. And it generates revenue.

Abrams has been successful in applying his plot-driven material for movies, as a producer of gimmick-based curiosities like Cloverfield, and as a director, interestingly of other peoples' material: Mission: Impossible III, the wildly successful reboot of Star Trek (considered by some to be the best film of 2009), and now Super 8. And yet his childish enthusiasm might be a hindrance. Star Trek was well-done, even getting the long-forgotten camera glares in the photography of outer space, which had been missing for as long as Douglas Trumbell's been an old codger. But for me, the reflexive winking stifles the material from being anything more than a geek fan's wet dream. The soul is there, but it's still like one of Steven Spielberg's mechas from AI: Artificial Intelligence. It is close, but not quite Orga.

Super 8 is Abrams' own original screenplay, but it wants us to know that it is the lost Spielberg film that never happened, set in 1979-1980, as the decade turned over and one paradigm of cinema gave way to another, Raging Bull and Heaven's Gate being a coda while Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky II, and The Empire Strikes Back bespoke the traits of the new. It is a personal story, about a young filmmaker finding his voice among friends in suburban Ohio, emulating his heroes and the movies than inspired him (in this case, a zombie film). Abrams apparently grew up in the industry with his father, and apparently was also instrumental in shaping John Carpenter's cutting of Escape from New York during a test screening, with the successful elder filmmaker taking the adolescent's advice for shaping a scene. His finished zombie film got Spielberg's attention and he went to work for the maestro/mogul. Super 8 is a love-letter to Spielberg and to Abrams' youth (for many of us, the two – Spielberg and our youth – are synonymous), who is credited here as a producer and, for the first time in many years, has allowed his Amblin Entertainment logo (with Elliot and E.T. on their mythic bike-ride) to open the film. There's then something loving here, something about memories and linking the sentiment of memory to film (we see the word "Memories" at a film developing shop frequented by the boys).

We also see the master engineer understanding his craft, as when the director/writer of the zombie film, the obese character Charles (Riley Griffiths), mentions a new scene: he needs his zombie-hunting detective to have a scene with a wife, where she begs him to stay home and not go. Why? Because it will make the audience care for them. It's about "story," Charles says. "You feel for them so you don't want them to die." The characters are given soul and we are given involvement and a reason to be interested. The Abrams alter-ego, the makeup artist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is given reason for us to care about him, because he is grieving the death of his mother, who died in a tragic – and grisly – factory accident. His own dad, a police deputy (Kyle Chandler), is forced to become an active father and fill in the mother's gap, but wants to keep Joe away from his zombie-movie friends and enlist him in baseball camp. The kicker is that the actress Charles wants to cast as his detective-protagonist's wife is Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the drunk indirectly responsible for the death of Joe's mom. There's thus friction between the two dads, while at the same time Alice is the girl of Joe's – and Charles' – dreams.

In other words, with the set-up, Abrams has given us a lot of plot devices connected to characters and how they feel for each other – which function to engage us dramatically. His movie can go full steam-ahead as long as he has the obligatory scenes that verbalize these emotions (such as fat-kid Charles voicing his resentful attraction of Alice to his best buddy…which really comes out of nowhere). And yet, I'm not sure that Abrams with his narrative smorgasbord gives us anything to chew on and richly ingest. It's all plot. It's television. It's simulation with the good and clever writing and one-liners of one of his shows. Indeed, this has much to recommend about Super 8. Like Spielberg's early films, the kids here talk as much like suburban pals growing up as can be put into a PG-13 movie (we even have an older character, the photo lab pothead in lust with Charles' sister – the hot one, mind you – drop the 'f' bomb). Spielberg's family films, even E.T., were not sanitized as too many are today (Elliot would never call someone a 'dickweed' in 2011; hell, the federal agents lost their guns in favor to walkie-talkies in 2002).

But I'm stuck on Charles, the director, talking to Joe about what makes us care about a character, and not wanting anyone to die. This, for me, hints to one of Super 8's weaknesses (if I'm not going to give it an ironic reading). For though we care about the kids, all of whom are well-grounded and do great work here, and maybe a couple of the adults like Joe's grieving pop, along with the comic relief of Charles' big and wealthy family, most everyone else lacks any depth here. The villains, government spooks trying to cover up the existence of an alien monster, are flavorless in their antagonism. One may allege a similar complaint about E.T., but those government scientists were not necessarily villains, and one of them (Peter Coyote) even has a certain kinship for Elliot ("I was just like you when I was your age."), and so they fit into the architecture of Spielberg's love song for loss in adolescence. We could say a major problem with big special effects movies is the hollow treatment afforded most secondary characters. They are docile bodies, disposed of conveniently, like the Enterprise crewmembers wearing red (I think it's red). Meanwhile, explosions and hurtling metal thrash everything everywhere in sharp shooting shapes – while the human body usually remains untouched. Abrams gives an example of this during many of his elaborate CGI disaster-movie set-ups, where the action is so hyperbolic that it must be experienced humorously (and so makes me wonder if there's more to Abrams' film than meets the eye). He begins his film with Joe's friends contemplating over the dead mother's coffin, their thoughts pertaining to the reality of her body. She was apparently flattened. Is there anything in there? If there is, what does it look like? The unseen, mangled remains are linked to the surviving son's mourning. For real people that we care about, bodies are real.

But what about people that we don't care about? The alien monster of Super 8 collects bodies and technological contraptions in constructing a spaceship to leave Earth – and its nourishment. We don't really care about anyone taken by the monster (aside from Alice, who becomes the object of desire that Joe and company have to heroically save). There is no emotional investment. I want to believe – and maybe this intuition is correct and so is redemptive of Abrams' otherwise middling effort – that Abrams is making a pointed commentary on how we interpret and care for characters. This reading is given some credence by how we may think about the monster, who is no E.T., either as a narrative/cinematic invention or as a cuddly projection of the hero's longing. The creature, pure fleshy plasticity in its CGI glory, seems to be an embodiment of cinematic visual wizardry. It is the technology of special effects cinema run amok, tainted and maladjusted, made hateful by how its handlers (the government spooks…or the faceless studio heads) have mishandled it. Only one character, a well-meaning scientist, understands the creature. Its thoughts and emotions have been linked to him since it grabbed him during laboratory research: "The moment we made contact, we understood each other….This creature is more sophisticated than any of us….We've turned him into an enemy."

One of the gifts of Spielbergian fantasy was how he manipulated us: in his special effects landscape of awe and sentiment, we felt exactly what he wanted us to feel, the grandest example being the connection between Elliot and E.T., where the alien watches a John Ford romance on the television, while at school Elliot re-enacts the passionate movie kiss that E.T. is looking at: Spielberg is E.T., touching us from a distance. Other examples would be the similar astonishments of the alien spacecraft at Devil's Tower in Close Encounters, or the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which are ingenuous moments born by the director's team of visual effects consultants. But, as the ill-fated sheriff says to a gas station employee listening to his Walkman, technology is "a slippery slope." This is what has happened to movies in the Spielberg era, where CGI, though effectively handled now and then, has stolen away the real-space magic of stop-motion spectacle (Terrence Malick's hiring of the retired Douglas Trumbell for the special effects sequences in The Tree of Life testify to the older format's superiority; Malick's meagerly budgeted $32 million epic is far more beautiful than its $300 million brethren). Spielberg, producer of Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy, is certainly complicit in this sin, as a lot of Geekdom is. Can it be possible that Abrams is also issuing a critique of his idol, just as he is giving a glowing letter of adoration?

This is unresolved for me, but its question at least holds me off on declaring Super 8 a sometimes frivolously enjoyable failure. The CGI Special Effects Monster that was first met and nourished with the best intentions now simply eats people, disposing of pointless bodies without a context. In his sway, weapons fire on their own and there is no integrity to real spaces. Could Super 8's nostalgia for a Golden Age of special effects moviemaking be a longing for a time before Loud Noises were simply an Invasion of Spectacle? A replacement for the Real? Before life was experienced as a movie, a post-modern thought? The train wreck is called like "something out of a disaster movie" by one character, even though they actually lived it. The mourning for the loving mother goes back to a moment of human connection, and Joe remembers his mom while looking at home movies: "When she looked at me it was like I existed." There may be poetry yet in Super 8, in its dialectic of film and real life. Cinema can communicate this human warmth.

Unlike Spielberg's great works, however, though Abrams engages us, he still lacks the master's magic – that warmth. For me, a random meditation on E.T. makes me misty-eyed, it's so powerful. The disconnections in families dealing with lost time is real sentiment, and whether I love it (like Spielberg's best film, AI, where Stanley Kubrick's framework tempers Spielberg's infantilism to nuanced perfection) or dislike it (as in Hook), the filmmaker's emotional engineering for a wide spectrum of audience members is almost without peer (though I should note, AI – which absolutely overwhelms me – left a lot of people cold). Abrams has so embraced and alluded to his master that I even saw nods in Super 8 to Spielberg's best historical drama, 2005's controversial Munich, as the boys climb a restrictive fence, framed in exactly the same way Janusz Kaminski films Palestinian terrorists sneaking into the Israelis' hotel. Abrams goes for the gold with his own "iconoclastic" Spielbergian image, with the alien's spacecraft pulling up Joe's locket (with an image of his mother) with its gravitational force. He lets it go, like Elliot lets go of E.T. But though I felt more here than I did anywhere else (the scenes between Joe and Fanning's Alice simply made me roll my eyes; she is, like many young females in this paradigm of film, a very young agent of the hero's desire, and little else…though again, maybe this is irony, seeing as that's the purpose of her role in Charles' film….), it was not close to being in Spielberg's league. Even the goodbye to Gizmo in Gremlins had a lot more punch to it.

Is Super 8 only a simulation, like the boys' amusing zombie film? Is it nostalgia porn? Why cannot Abrams make a film for his own era? Or is this his Far From Heaven, recalling Todd Haynes' wonderful homage to Douglas Sirk from 2002? But Haynes' picture matched Sirk's 1950s repressed America in quality and emotional potency while also being strangely relevant to its own time, in the same way that David Lynch's Blue Velvet transcendentally surpassed its 1950s teen-movie inspirations. I'm predicting that Super 8 will be a major player in this year's Academy Awards race, though, meaning that its very attitude of nostalgia for a Golden Age – even if that Golden Age killed off what many see as the real Golden Age of movies – will win it more merit than it's worth.

Indulge my spoil-sporting snobbery when I propose that Super 8's bid to be the surprise sleeper hit of the summer has been usurped by the most unlikely of opposing forces, the 75-year-old Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris is the season's true achievement as summer escapism. Allen, like Abrams, is also longing for a lost "Golden Age," in this case the 1920s of Paris, imagined by the frustrated writer Gil (Owen Wilson), vacationing in the City of Lights with his spoiled – but tolerable because she's so attractive – girlfriend, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Inez and her conservative parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) are materialists who want to exist with all the convenience they can afford in the present moment; the historical richness of Paris means nothing to them, and they scoff at Gil's dreams to be a part of that history, being an artist in Paris and finishing his novel. They'd rather he'd just live in California and punch out screenplays…for what are essentially Spielbergian productions. Inez' interest is hijacked by a pretentious academic and former classmate (Michael Sheen), while Gil discovers a strange time portal. At a specific location at midnight, the 1920s trot by in an old car, and drunken passengers invite Gil to come along with them to parties where the guests are all dressed…oddly. Gil discovers that the man singing Cole Porter songs at the piano is…Cole Porter. And that the bipolar married couple introducing him to the other guests is…F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He meets tough-talking Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and others. He finds himself in a sort of paradise that puts his present day in perspective: Inez is a hollow, sexually attractive person with irritating parents; she has absolutely no interest in his own interior life. Here is a place where his soul can dance in endless fascination.

But in the Golden Age, Gil discovers a receptive and beautiful socialite Adriana (Marion Cotillard), mistress and inspiration to Picasso and Hemingway, and fast-falling for Gil, who finds himself in a major dilemma of Time. Hilariously, he voices his predicament to…Dali, Man Ray, and Bunuel – the surrealists, who fail to see anything too outlandish about Gil's situation (though it would make for Bunuel a great film, for Man Ray a great photograph, and for Dali, a great rhinoceros). He even finds the present and past in perfect correlation, coming across Adriana's diaries at an antique shop, where she speaks glowingly of him and how she dreams that he will present her a gift of earings and make love to her. So…when he goes back into the past, he fulfills the details of her dreaming. He is also, meanwhile, able to be the Present in dialogue with the Past, trying to reassure Zelda that Scott really does love her – even though it's bad for him.

The problem- and Allen's ultimate theme – is that Adriana is also enamored with a lost Golden Age, the Belle Epoque Paris of the 1890's, where the decadent artists came together at the Moulin Rouge, and laid the groundwork for the modernism of Gil's Golden Age of the '20s. The time loops of nostalgia go back centuries (as an ill-fated detective, hired by Inez's suspicious father, discovers), and the Golden Age emerges as an illusory concept; the Belle Epoque artists, like Gaughin, comment on how their own generation is empty and has no imagination: they long to be a part of the Renaissance. People are the same, driven by the same jealousies, desires, and stupid things. The mask of Art, what is truly important in creating something that heeds a meaningless existence, simply changes. A beautiful aspect of Midnight in Paris, much like Allen's other great magical realist piece (and my favorite of his films) The Purple Rose of Cairo, is that there is no logic to the narrative. This is not "a dream" or an "invented story" within the larger framework of the narrative. These things are really happening to Gil, and Owen Wilson with his gee-gosh naivete, though critics have said that he is simply playing Woody Allen, is doing his best Owen Wilson yet. Midnight in Paris is the most genuine kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, while simultaneously, laced with Allen's misanthropy (here very benign, as this movie is very mirthful and perhaps Allen's most likable movie in decades), is also frank about the delusions we construct for ourselves.

Allen is mindful of the schism between high art and fluffy escapism, and he winks at us while making a fluffy escapist film about high art. The opening montage of shots, detailing the rich historical sites around Paris, is a deliberate cliche, as is Gil's attitude about the old Paris vs. the present day. But as Gertrude Stein (a wonderfully droll Kathy Bates) notes, the job of the artist is to find an antidote for the despair in life's meaninglessness - while also, to take a word from Hemingway (Corey Stoll), it should be "honest." Gil's novel is about a "nostalgia shop" called Out of the Past, which sells antiques from long ago that dually retain a sense of magic with time, while also "camp." Yes, Paris is photographed as a cliche (camp), but it's a city - more than most others - where History and its richness is present on every corner. It stands opposed to the year 2011, of corporatism (the reason why Inez's right-wing father is working in Paris), shallow materialism, and a time where, as Gil puts it, "people measure out their lives with coke-spoons." Inez' parents talk about enjoying a "wonderful but forgetful" comedic movie, which "lacked any wit or believability, but we laughed in spite of ourselves." That's fine, I think Allen believes, but that something so forgetful is processed so easily, while Paris with its rich history is rejected just as easily by the same people, gets to the heart of his artistic yearning. Tiresome and pendantic fellows (like Michael Sheen's academic) are able to spew a lot about history, but they're not in dialogue with it; they lack a sympathetic relationship to it, and so exist just as selfishly in the present moment, estranged from a perspective. Gil's a dupe (a very lovable one), but he's like the Last Man, always talking with the Past and asking for its advice. For him, the figures of the Past are not relics to be treated as museum objects, but are living, and in spite of their own flaws, they can teach us. To Inez, they're just "dead people," but Gil answers for Allen, "You can fool me, but you can't fool Hemingway." There's something to that, transcending nostalgia camp, which I think bears some reasonable wonder, and is essential for whenever we go inside an old book or film, or wonder about a masterpiece painting. Art means nothing, indeed, unless we are creative readers/viewers, in sympathetic engagement and bridging the discussion with incidents or feelings from our own lives.

Midnight in Paris is, like Super 8, its own kind of frivolous good time, eschewing the deep emotions of The Purple Rose of Cairo (while having just as much wonderful humor – though Cairo is the only Allen film that brings a tear to my eye), and not even attempting to sail to the heights of Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the deliberate frustrations of his recent wonderful offerings, like Match Point and Vicki Cristina Barcelona. It is Woody Allen escapism, and it works in its breezy 88 minutes as the best of its kind in a dense summer market, nakedly addressing the theme of escape. The Geeks who love Super 8, and the critics who acclaim it for its "perfect" (too perfect for my liking) engineering in story, will probably not grow out of their love for infantile regressions. Allen too is more in love with the past than he is with the present, but he understands the trappings of such a disposition. Super 8 offers possible ironies which lead me to ponder, but Midnight in Paris sent me out of the theater with the same kind of affirming adulation that, well, I used to feel as a child after a Spielbergian fantasy.


  1. I think that's a great analysis of Super 8, Niles, especially about technology being a slippery slope. I agree with that whole heartedly. And now I'd like to see Midnight in Paris.

  2. Wonderful analysis! This is an awesome blog.