“Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there?”
— The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Gil, the frustrated Hollywood screenwriter in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, has found a way to slip into the Paris of the 1920s and into the company of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Cole Porter, Getrude Stein, Picasso and other luminaries from the period. It’s a Paris washed in a cloying, honey-gold light. The light is everywhere: it suffuses the elegant flat where Cole Parter is to be seen singing “Let’s Do It”, radiates in the café where Gil meets Dali and Man Ray, imbues Gertrude Stein’s rambling flat and her collection of paintings and painters. It even seems to drip from the lanterns on the Pont Alexandre III and the streetlights. It’s a light that blurs the hard edges of the city; it turns the sparely furnished bar where Hemingway holds court into a cozy, almost familial interior that bears no trace of the down-and-outness of the original Dingo. It is the amber light of nostalgia, one that speaks of comfort and warmth and points to a place of innocence and play: a never-ending kids’ party. The Golden Age is quite literally golden. Or at least the light is.
The nostalgia takes the edge off of everything and everyone. Allen’s Paris is inhabited by artists and writers who’ve left their modernism home at the atelier. Gil can’t resist giving Buñuel a tip for a future movie (one that the filmmaker went on to direct in The Exterminating Angel). Make a film, Gil says, about a group of bourgeois guests who arrive at a villa for a dinner party and suddenly find that they can’t leave. Buñuel’s pedestrian reply, “I don’t understand. Why don’t they use the door?” is meant to be a joke, a knowing wink to the discerning filmgoer, but ironically enough calls to mind the very kind of remark an American innocent abroad would make.
Allen’s Paris, like all romantic nostalgia, is comfort food: easy to chew and digest, and stripped of the sour, the bitter and the burning. Watching Midnight in Paris and without the benefit of background knowledge, one would be hard pressed to imagine these characters as the artists and writers who were so radically questioning the established canons of prose and painting. These characters are the cinematic equivalents of grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna casserole.
At first I thought it odd that Gil could be nostalgic about a time in which he never actually lived. Nostalgia is literally the aching to return home, to that magical place where we were unconditionally accepted and loved. Paris was never home to Gil.
But then I thought, the world I remember of my own childhood is perhaps just as much an invention as Gil’s (and Allen’s) Paris. Perhaps the places we long return to never actually existed.
We dream of places we’ve never been, events we’ve never experienced, conversations we’ve never had. I’ve run through the stone streets of an ancient city as a volcano spewed forth a shower of lava rocks. I’ve fallen from a cliff onto a Mayan altar in the middle of a jungle. I’ve swum in rivers alongside great stone cities and grassy country fields. I’ve flown and I’ve died. Why should my memories—especially those of my childhood—be any more reliable?
I know I was a happy child, but beyond that certainty, the rest of the past is a landscape much like a painting by Dalí: a great expanse of empty space dotted with the presence of a number of enigmatic objects, laden with meaning and feeling. Toys, mostly. Models of monsters and knights in armor, Potato Heads and Mousetraps, Lionel trains and bubble-light trees. But sometimes an object so closely bound to memories it has become iconic, like the electric percolator my mother put out on the buffet table at the large extended family gatherings (they were too frequent and informal to be called parties) or the TV trays we’d set up to watch an episode of early-evening series en famille. There is food on this landscape, too, things like crumb cake, homemade ravioli and jam-filled thumbprint cookies and of course that very surreal food object, the Taylor ham sandwich.
The landscape of Gil’s Paris of the 20s is populated not with things but with artists and writers, but they are depicted so emblematically that they come to resemble objects, mannequins more than men (Hemingway’s lines in the film are so awkwardly Hemingway-esque that he seems at time to be parodying his prose.). And surprisingly for Paris, there’s no food either. No one ever eats anything in this world of reverie. But then again, as far as I can recall, no one smokes, either. Or passes out drunk. Gil’s Paris is the sanitized, almost cartoon-like Paris one would find in a children’s Guide to the Jazz Age.
But that makes sense in a way. Nostalgia is always regression. We are always younger in our own chosen Golden Age.
Back in the Paris of 2010, Gil keeps discovering objects that link to his midnight city: a record of a Cole Porter song, a journal kept by a woman who was Picasso’s mistress at the time (and whom Gil slowly comes to realize he wants to make love to). I have no things that can evoke for me the city of my childhood. I make do with the episodes of Mad Men, that paean to the innocent first half of the 60s, which, in its gorgeous art direction and fetishistic fidelity to the fashion, food and décor of the period—not to mention the tobacco, in Mad Men practically everyone smokes, even the pregnant young mother—is an orgy of nostalgia. As Ruth La Ferla wrote in the NY Times,“Mad Men is that rare TV show in which an ashtray, a lipstick or an aerosol tin gets star treatment, and is a protagonist in its own right.” And I see my star—my mother’s percolator, or something very much like it.
My brother collects vintage board games. I content myself with virtual memorabilia, embedded in a set where everything fits with everything else. I’ve bought all four series and have watched them twice. It is like comfort food, though the series is much subtler and more unsettling that its art direction would imply. Of course, I recognize that the exacting authenticity of Mad Men’s production design creates as much as fantasy world as the inauthenticity of Midnight Paris. It seems that everything in Mad Men is from the early 60s (as if people only started buying things in 1960), and (almost) nothing in Allen’s Paris of 2010 is later than Haussmann (the I.M. Pei pyramid makes the briefest of cameo appearances). But I wallow in it nonetheless.
The DVDs seem a fitting object to get rid of in this project. Dispossession is, among other things, an occasion to re-examine and re-interpret the remembered past, or at least to tell a story about it. It got to me thinking, I don’t need to watch this anymore. I need to write my own Mad Men. Or at least something about Taylor ham.