“Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain?”
‘Midnight in Paris’ — Not a Movie Review
Imagine going back five…ten years. Taking a walk down memory lane and being one with all the things that used to be. Personally, the shock would be insurmountable. Maybe that’s extreme, but it would definitely be interesting.
Now, imagine you could go back 90 years. Now imagine that 90 years while in another country, a foreign city. That’s the position Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) found himself in. During a night walk in the beautiful streets of Paris, without the company of his soon to be wife, he becomes lost. He’s not at all too concerned; he enjoys it, especially in the rain.
The clock strikes midnight and suddenly it all changes. It feels different, the very air Gil breathes is altered. But how? A very old looking cab pulls up and the door opens. Gil thinks nothing of it, all of the other parked cars are modern, someone must have restored this one. With some confusion, and a little bit of carelessness, Gil gets in and the car turns around the bend. Nothing was ever the same.
Excuse my dramatics on that last part; let’s cover a few things first. During the film you find out that Gil is a screenplay writer in Hollywood, and he is not very fond of his career. He longs to spend time in places like Paris, writing novels (don’t we all). Gil is lost. He does not feel attached to the world in which he lives in, or more accurately, the era.
“Imagine this town in the twenties — Paris in the twenties — in the rain — the artists and writers — I was born too late.”
Gil finds the 1920’s to be the golden age. It was a time when writers and artists flourished, and in line with the film, all ended up moving to Paris. This ideology of being born in the wrong era, or at least not being able to take part in another, makes sense to me. I don’t believe that I could pin point one era, seeing that I have not lived in another, it would be difficult to make that judgment call. I mean think about it, would another era be better?
Over the course of the film, Gil continuously finds ways to escape his fiancée, and soon to be in-laws, to journey back in time. He meets the Fitzgerald’s, Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Dali, among many others.
DISCLAIMER: This movie is a love story. There are a lot of specifics that I am intentionally not describing. This post is about the concept of eras.
The struggling author meets his idols, gets advice from Gertrude Stein, and attends parties with Cole Porter. For a man who loves the twenties, wants to be a successful writer, and wants to escape the life he is a part of, this is perfection. He is in an absolute state of awe. Zelda Fitzgerald, in the film, sums it up best. “You have a glazed look in your eye. Stunned, stupefied, anesthetized, lobotomized”. Makes sense to me.
Personally, this would be an amazing experience. But why are we so obsessed with other eras? See the recent 80’s television obsession for example. Why do they always seem better than the one we are in? Is it only the romantics that feel this way? That could be one theory. Is there a cognitive dissonance when it comes to bad things about past eras? Think about it. We are constantly being shown negative information in our daily lives. We focus on our fears, and perhaps it’s because our view is micro in the present. In contrast, when we focus on the past it is in a more macro point of view — unless of course, you are a historian.
Certainly nostalgia is powerful. We associate our powerful positive memories with the past. Psychological research has shown this to be present too. Research out of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that the brain aligns ones favorite memories at the front, and the negative memories to the back. But certainly Gil Pender, and myself, don’t have memories of the 1920’s.
“The present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying”
Naturally, I don’t have an answer and I am not entirely sure there is one. As I previously said, I think going to another era would be marvelous, but living there is another conversation altogether. I would say that until time travel becomes possible we wont ever know the answer. Life is complicated. We wish only to be free of this complication, to place ourselves in a different time of peace and happiness. However, we overlook any negatives that would be present with us.
Think about it. Let’s use one of the greatest movies of all time as an example: Back to the Future. SPOILER ALERT… Actually, if you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. As I said, its one of the greatest movies of all time.
Anyway, Marty McFly is the average, cool, high school student. He dreams of being a rockstar and owning a Toyota 4x4. After accidentally being transported into the past, driving the coolest time travel car ever, he ends up in 1955 (Marty lives in 1985). Naturally, Marty can’t control himself. He is freaking out — which, as I said at the beginning of this post, would be my exact reaction. Now Marty is in a time he doesn't know, surrounded by people he thought he knew. What does this mean? Marty went back to 1955, in the same town he lived in during 1985. Marty is living in this past with his parents.
Holy shit what a shock that would be. Now I’m assuming, that like myself, your parents told you stories of when they were younger, and you listened in awe. We can all be sure that those people telling you parts of their lives left a lot of things out. For example, in Back to the future Marty finds out that the story of how his parents met, might not be entirely accurate.
I won’t go into too much detail but essentially Marty finds out that his parents aren’t exactly who he thought they were. No, they were not murderers. But they were in fact young, made mistakes, and lived like most kids. There are things in our past that we aren’t proud of, or maybe we even are. A better way to say it might be, that we have things in our past that we don’t want to share with family and/or friends.
So how does this connect? There are definitely things done in that past that some people may not be overly proud of. Going to a past era is living in someone else’s present. They are making decisions, and sometimes those decisions are wrong.
No, I am not saying that we should protect people’s past because they have messed up. What I am saying is that the power of nostalgia tends to remove the negatives from our point of view. My generation thinks the 80’s are awesome, but the people who lived through it might not feel the same way. Is it fair to go into a place, living without any really ties, without real issues, whilst everyone around you does? I don’t think so. It’s like ultra-tourism. It’s hiding the real scars of that time, and only showing the good.
Gil Pender doesn’t fit into his time, but he thinks he fits into the 20’s. I would call it a simple case of cognitive dissonance. Gil knows that he only loves the 1920’s because it all seems so wonderful on the surface, and this makes him uncomfortable, so his brain pushes it to the back. We can’t really help it, cognitive dissonance is an automatic response in the brain, but I think it is important to understand.
Nostalgia is powerful because it allows us to look back and smile. It connects us to a positive memory, even if that memory isn't ours.
I don’t have a time machine, so I don’t exactly know what it would be like to go into another era. What I do know is this. Twenty or thirty years into the future there will be a group of people who think the 2010’s were awesome. They won’t know about that job you lost, that friend you lost, that rent you struggled to pay. They won’t know about that one time you did something wrong and it made your life more difficult. They won’t know about that time you prayed you could just go back and change something. None of that will matter to them, they will simply think about a time when quality donuts became a trend. They will think about a time when technology reminded us that our dreams are possible, and when craft beer ruled the shelves.
Nostalgia suppresses negatives and promotes positives. Gil Pender wasn’t at all concerned that Ernest Hemingway would eventually commit suicide, all he cared about was meeting a man that symbolized an era which he believed to be better than the one he lives in. At the end of the movie I think Gil realizes this too. He understands that the era he lives in will be someone else’s golden age.