The Philosopher’s POV: Midnight in Paris

October 9, 2011 5 Comments

Midnight in Paris: Fantasies, Past and Present

We all have our fantasies.  Some that I’m sure you all can relate to include: playing centerfield for the San Francisco Giants, having a philosophical conversation with Bertrand Russell, being Charlize Theron’s lover.  And we all have our heroes: Willie Mays, Bertrand Russell and…Charlize Theron.

Gil has his fantasies and heroes, too.  He wants to go back to Paris in the 1920s, a city populated with his heroes: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Salvadore Dali, Luis Bunuel, T. S. Elliot, and so on.  They are some of the literary and artistic giants of the early twentieth century.  They aren’t like the pseudo intellectual Paul with whom Gil’s fiancee, Inez, is smitten.  Sure, Paul will be lecturing at the Sorbonne and knows all about 17th century France (including the fact that Versailles means “place where weeds have been pulled”).   He also seems to know who was Rodin’s mistress, and who his wife, and what mistress inspired Picasso to paint a certain abstract nude.

But a tour guide says that Paul is wrong about who was Rodin’s mistress, and who his wife.  Because Gil gets to travel back to Paris in the 1920s, he has first-hand knowledge that the mistress that inspired Picasso is not the one Paul named.  Maybe Paul does not know as much as it seems, and much less than he would like people to believe.  Despite being a “marvelous dancer” and preferring a ‘61 french wine to a ‘59, because he likes a “smoky feeling” in the wine, he is a pretentious fraud.

Are Gil’s heroes back in the 1920s pseudo intellectuals, too?  Well, Woody Allen makes us laugh at the caricatures of them that he offers.  Allen’s Hemingway comes with super machismo and wants to handle most situations with fisticuffs or firearms.  When they first meet, he asks Gil if he boxes, and invites him to “put the gloves on” if he thinks that he is the better writer.  Later he talks about shooting charging lions and at one point asks if anyone wants to fight.  Further, this Hemingway mouths pseudo profundities about the relation of love and writing to death.  For instance, he says that love that is true and real faces death, and that Gil will never write well if he fears death.  (There are many other remarks like this that I was unable to quote because the film is not yet out on DVD.)

Gertrude Stein argues with Picasso over his abstract painting of a nude  and claims that it is dripping with sexual innuendo and sensuality, when clearly it is not.  Further, she says that art is the antidote to the despair of existence, which sounds deep until you ask yourself what it really means.

Salvadore Dali is portrayed as going about mostly just shouting, “Dali!”  And one reviewer claimed that F. Scott Fitzgerald appears “vapid” in the film.  Gill says that Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, is just the way we’ve come to know her through various writings.  However, Allen’s Zelda says that her main talent lies in drinking, and she is ready to commit suicide when her husband shows interest in another woman.  The artists and authors in Woody Allen’s 1920s Paris look like the people portrayed in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, people who live empty lives of drinking, partying and fornicating while  trying (but failing) to be profound.

What does Gil learn from his trips into the past?  He learns that everyone wants to live in the past, in some Golden Age that is not as dull and boring as the present.  Gil is smitten with the Adriana he meets in the 1920s, but she wants to return to the France of the 1890s and hang out with Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Gauguin, etc.  They, in turn, want to return to the Renaissance.  Gauguin speculates that Titian would want to meet Kubla Khan!  Gil comes to realize that it is crazy to live in the past, that it doesn’t really work.  He decides that in order to write he must rid himself of illusions, the biggest of which is the illusion that there was a Golden Age in the past which was more exciting and creative than the present.  He can now turn to work on his novel Out of the Past, which is about a nostalgia shop whose products are memories.   While the novel is about the past, his work will be in the present as he steps “out of the past.”

Gil comes to grasp what the pseudo intellectual Paul called the Golden Age Fallacy, the desire everyone has to live in some past age that they mistakenly imagine is much more exciting than the present.   Sometimes the fool in Shakespeare’s plays says some very wise things, and Paul is just such a fool.

Gil’s mannerisms and actions are just like Woody Allen’s in earlier films.  The film ends with his walking in the rain in Paris with Gabrielle, a young woman who is a dead ringer for Mia Farrow.  It’s not easy to give up all your fantasies, especially ones that involve the living.  I still long to get back in the batting cage when I watch Moneyball, and I discuss Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” every time I teach Philosophy of Religion.  I’d pretty much given up hope for Charlize Theron–until I heard a few weeks ago that she broke up with her long-term boyfriend.  But, of course, that is not a foolish fantasy, unlike Gil’s.


Dr. Bruce Russell’s monthly column explores the ethical, epistemologic and existential questions raised by interesting films.  He is a past chairman in the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University and currently a senior faculty member.  He writes extensively on the topics of ethics and morality, epistemology and the presence of philosophy in film.

The Philosopher's POV
5 Comments to “The Philosopher’s POV: Midnight in Paris”
  1. Nanette Carnick says:

    I love this review. He really nails it and his ending line is a hoot!

  2. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says:

    Can we ever make a present of the past? (Pun intended)…is the past a gift which permits us to celebrate or at least appreciate our current life or an unattainable(by definition) ideal whose very presence undermines our ability to embrace where we are…these are not easy questions(and often resonate with the challenges we face working as psychoanalysts)..I do think Woody Allen is right about (at least) one thing…Paris is the perfect place for Gil to wrestle(way to go Ernie H) with his placement in time…why?…its beauty (which Allen captures so lovingly) feels timeless or at least seems to transcend time,but not really… perfectly ironic is that?

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    The thing about “Either P or Q” questions is that sometimes the answer is “both,” sometimes “neither” and sometimes “one but not the other.” For instance, we might ask, “Is he honest or is he kind?” Some people might be both, some honest but not kind, some kind but not honest, and some neither.

    I don’t think that IN ITSELF, the past is either (P): a gift which permits us to celebrate, or at least appreciate, our current life or (Q) an unattainable ideal whose very presence undermines our ability to embrace where we are. For some people the past is (P), for some (Q), for some both, for some neither. So it might be an easy question whether (P) alone, (Q) alone, (P)and (Q) or neither (P) nor (Q) is true of some particular individual. Or it may be a hard question which one is true of a particular patient, and I can see why as an analyst you’d like to know. How to deal with that patient might be importantly tied to which one is true of him/her. Or it might be tied to which one you would like him/or her TO BELIEVE.

    As for the apparent timelessness of the beauty of Paris as depicted by Woody Allen: I think that stems from the fact that insofar as Paris displays the aesthetic properties seen in the film, it will be beautiful, as will anything else that exemplifies those, or similar, properties. That is a timeless truth. What is not timeless is that PARIS ITSELF will exemplify those properties. Like us, Paris will age and eventually “die.” If nothing else, one day the earth will crash into the sun, and then Paris will be no longer. In its decline, it won’t be pretty, nor in its demise. And the parallel with us (even Charlize Theron!)is obvious.
    Do you mean that it is ironic that no one, not Gil or anyone else, can transcend time (he really can’t travel into the past and he will someday die)yet there are timeless truths (about beauty and many other things)? But that doesn’t seem ironic to me. Or is it that contingent truths can make us aware of timeless (necessary) ones? I’m not sure where the irony you have in mind lies.

  4. jolyn says:

    Yes ..some individuals hide from the present in the past while others hide from. Their past in a truncated much and if it matters does depend on which individual we are talking about..generalities may sound profound but don’t do much I agree
    As for Paris and the irony…I meant the second…woody Allen finds the feel of timelessness in a city with a definite past and present that is fleeting..he knows it like we know it and yet feel it otherwise.wistfully ironic I think

  5. Bruce Russell says:


    Thanks for the positive response! And I’m glad you liked my ending. I worried that there was not enough philosophical content in the review and Jolyn would rename my section of the blog, “Some Idiot’s POV”!

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