Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.
I am not dreaming.
Last weekend, my wife and I saw Woody Allen’s latest film, “Midnight in Paris.”
It’s about a Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson), a self-described “hack,” who arrives with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) in the City of Lights looking for creative inspiration that will change his life and work. In particular, he’s struggling with a novel about a nostalgia shop.
Wandering Paris one evening, he hears a clock strike midnight. A vintage auto pulls up. Out pops author Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, straight from the 1920s. They beckon a befuddled Gil to join them for a night on the town in the era he’s long romanticized.
Over the next few nights, the process recurs. The clock strikes 12. The car pulls up. Someone famous today (but a work-a-day artist or writer then) beckons Gil to ride along. Gil travels from parties to bars hobnobbing with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Josephine Baker, Man Ray, Ernest Hemingway and others.
At one party, Indiana’s own Cole Porter tickles the ivories, crooning “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).”
For Gil, it’s a nostalgic dream come true. But it also compounds his doubts about his 21st century reality—complete with know-it-all friends, an unfulfilling job, and a would-be wife and in-laws obsessed with money, materialism and the trappings of suburbia.
But one night, Gil learns a valuable lesson. He gets to see the drawbacks of his obsession with the past.
At the home of Gertrude Stein, Gil meets a woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who’s kept company with Picasso and Hemingway. He’s much enamored with her, and she with him.
Like Gil, Adriana is nostalgic. But his romanticized 1920s past is her disillusioned 1920s present. She longs, instead, for the Belle Epoque, the era of the Moulin Rouge, the Paris of the 1890s.
And so, Adriana and Gil travel further back in time for an encounter with Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas. Adriana wants to abandon her present altogether and live in the past.
“Through his relationship with Adriana,” says the film’s website, “Gil rethinks his idea that he’d be better off somewhere else, and recognizes that being somewhere else carries with it its own issues and problems.”
Actor Wilson and director Allen concur.
“I think he has to find a way to be happy just where he is,” Wilson said.
Said Allen, “If he’s going to take himself seriously, not just as an artist, but as a human being, he’s better off facing reality and recognizing that the contentment and happiness and spiritual peace that is required to get through life is something that’s inside you. So the movie is hopeful in that Gil comes to that conclusion that it’s better not to delude yourself. Even though it’s more pleasant and less painful, it’s still better not to.”
On Amazon last week, I saw a blurb for a WFYI television documentary. It says: “Relive Indy in the 50s … Reminisce about what was in fashion, on film and what people did for fun. See historical photos and footage, and hear unique perspectives from local celebrities like basketball legend Oscar Robertson … Get ready to go back to a simpler time of hula hoops, black-and-white television, jazz and drive-ins.”
In an e-mail last week, a high school classmate shared news of a 35-year class reunion. He wondered if I had contact information for any long-lost friends. He hoped I’d travel to Fort Wayne in October to see the old gang.
Online last week, another high school classmate friended me on Facebook. She said she was writing from northern California. But the mere mention of her name sent me back to a walk in the rain along quiet suburban streets in the spring of 1976.
In a meeting last week, I found myself reminiscing with my first client about a conversation we’d had with then-Indianapolis mayor Steve Goldsmith 17 years ago.
Hearing via Twitter last week about mass layoffs at The Indianapolis Star, I found myself longing for something I once loathed: old-line, single-family ownership of our local newspaper.
“The past seems so much more vivid, more substantial, than the present,” said New York Times critic A.O. Scott in his review of “Midnight in Paris.” “And then it evaporates with the cold touch of reality.”
I wonder, sometimes, how Paul McCartney views his life and work. Does he feel he did his best stuff with the old band (the Beatles)? Does he reminisce about penning songs with John Lennon on Abbey Road? Does he long to go back?
Or has he, like Gil, come to realize that while past is prologue, the key to happiness and spiritual peace lies not in lingering and delusion, but in living here and now?•
Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at email@example.com.