Midnight in Paris

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

25 October

Birth of Picasso, 1881

On this day in 1881, the Spanish artist Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was born. Prodigiously talented, Picasso was painting at a high level as a child, and continued experimenting with different media and styles – the rose period, the blue period, the African period, cubism, surrealism, and neo-expressionism and so on – right up until his death in 1973. Media included paint, sculpture, collage, cardboard, string, pencil, pen, photograph, torch (on film), chalk, oil, whatever was going. He’d draw on napkins to pay bills, draw on walls, any time, place or where. A key figure of hate for anyone who didn’t want to acknowledge that the functions of fine art, painting (call it what you will) had been redefined by the arrival of photography, cinema and mass literacy, Picasso was said by his detractors to produce work comparable to a migraine. Typical of the traditionalist view was the attitude of the British artist AJ Munnings who, in a speech to the Royal Academy, denounced Picasso (and Matisse) as “foolish daubers”. Though, regardless of whether you wonder why the cubist pictures have noses where eyes should be and so on, it is hard to disregard Picasso’s basic facility with a line – his simple drawings are still astonishing, and beautiful, concepts which many painters of the 20th century found to be incompatible.

Midnight in Paris (2011, dir: Woody Allen)

Woody Allen has a habit of coming back with a blockbuster just when he’s being written off as finished. He’s been doing it at least since Hannah and Her Sisters, in 1986. Midnight in Paris was his huge 2011 hit, a film which opens, vaguely along the lines of Manhattan, with a series of loving shots of Paris in all its picture-postcard glory, while Sidney Bechet’s clarinet swoons over the soundtrack. We then cut to the sort of fantasy you can imagine someone of Allen’s vintage having – to be transported back to the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. But being a man of a cynical, comedic bent, Allen puts a twist on it, having his stand-in (Owen Wilson in this case) – a current-day screenwriter in Paris magically transported back to the 1920s each night – finding out that the lives of these heroes weren’t quite as they are in the books. Allen pulls the Marshall McLuhan joke a few times, in other words. Which, if you remember, is the scene in Annie Hall where Allen is arguing with a schmuck in a cinema queue about something Marshall McLuhan said and drags the real McLuhan in to back him up. In Midnight in Paris, Wilson gains first hand knowledge from his nights out with Cole Porter, Hemingway etc which he then uses as a weapon in today’s Paris against the artistic know-all and rival played (brilliantly) by Michael Sheen. Midnight in Paris is one of Allen’s “funny films” in other words. And it has something to say about rose-tinted nostalgia, as Wilson and Marion Cotillard (as a woman he meets in the 1920s) go back even further in time to fin de siècle Paris, where Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Degas are all bitching about the current generation’s lack of imagination. Plus ça change and so on.

Why Watch?

  • Very funny
  • Beautiful, charming and romantic
  • The acting talent – Alison Pill alongside Tom Hiddleston, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Léa Seydoux
  • The name-dropping – TS Eliot, Dali, Man Ray, Matisse, Buñuel, Alice B Toklas

Midnight in Paris – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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