Woody Allen Discusses His New Film Midnight in Paris, Hemingway, Magic Tricks and How the Yankees Are 'Specks of Light in an Eternal Void'
"Nostalgia is denial," says one character in Midnight in Paris -- a pompous intellectual hilariously played by Michael Sheen -- 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 Epoque 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, because when you're living now, you're living in reality, with whatever the real world is offering you at the time, and at best the real world doesn't offer you anything very hospitable, and it's often quite terrifying. 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 Epoque 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 novocaine, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Women died in childbirth -- there were all kinds of terrible problems. If you were an aristocratic gentile living in Paris at that time, that was a step forward. If you were not upper class, or you were Jewish, it would not have been such a dream existence. But you block that out.
"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. You go back and you don't get the novocaine, you don't get penicillin for your syphilis. You become disillusioned when you think it through, and even if you don't relinquish the fantasy, you become a little depressed because it can't be affected. You're living here, trapped in the reality of the moment. 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. Everybody imagines there's something better, because you can imagine something better but there isn't anything better. That's the problem."
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 there is no job of the artist. The artist does what the artist does. If you make a comic movie like Duck Soup, then you're an artist there. If you paint a pretty picture of apples in a bowl like Cezanne does, you're an artist there, and 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.
"If you become obsessed with films or baseball or your children -- or if, in my case, you're worried about how the third act is going to turn out -- you become focused on that and you don't think about the terrors of life. You become focused on something that's apparently meaningful, but it's no more meaningful than the outcome of the Yankees game. I'll say, 'Gee, the Yankees lost today,' and the non baseball fan will say, 'So what?' It's as meaningful as his life or my life. They're specks of light in an eternal void having no meaning whatsoever in a universe that's eventually going to not exist. In the end, like in Stardust Memories, we all get flushed. The beautiful ones, the accomplished ones, the Einsteins, the Shakespeares, the homeless guys in the street with the wine bottles, all end up in the same grave. So, I have a very dim view of things, but I think about them, and I do feel that I've come to the conclusion that the artist can not justify life or come up with a cogent reason as to why life is meaningful, but the artist can provide you with a cold glass of water on a hot day."