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Culture Warrior: ‘Midnight in Paris’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ Are (Sort of) the Same Damn Movie

By  · Published on June 14th, 2011

You’d be hard-pressed to find two filmmakers who are more wildly different than Woody Allen and Terrence Malick. One is a notably prolific and economic filmmaker who still releases one movie a year well into his senior years, while the other is a perfectionist who labors over his films and has thus far released, on average, barely more than one movie per decade. One has an unmistakable public persona, while the other is a notorious recluse. One makes films about life in a great city, while the other turns his lens to nature and the experience of the rural. One is as much an atheist as his characters, while the other is a spiritualist who searches for “God,” whatever that may be, through the lens of the camera. Allen and Malick are, in many ways, perfect opposites.

But after watching the strong new work by each of these talented filmmakers this past weekend, it became apparent that, at least in the shared thematic preoccupations of Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Malick’s The Tree of Life, these two ostensibly dissimilar filmmakers may have more in common than meets the eye.

The Summer of Nostalgia

The cinematic summer of 2011 has already and persistently been branded as the “Summer of Nostalgia.” But to define precisely what kind of nostalgia is driving the output of this summer has proven a frustrating and largely fruitless exercise, as it is essentially an act of applying the same paintbrush to canvases of different shapes and dimensions.

Entries like The Smurfs present the most unfortunate kind of schizophrenic nostalgia-banking that’s uncertain whether it wants to be about then or now and ultimately ends up being neither. Then there are films like X-Men: First Class, Cowboys & Aliens, and Captain America: The First Avenger which are ultimately not so much ruminations on the past as they are hybrids of genres that have specific temporal associations. Then there are movies like the weekend’s box office champion, Super 8, which go one step further in totally conflating genre and “the past” through an enveloping nostalgic haze for both movies and time period without distinguishing the two. Of course, this summer’s cinematic preoccupation with the past isn’t as much unprecedented as it is accelerated, as nostalgia, the past, and the ever-blurry intersections between the two have been powerful storytelling and promotional devices for quite some time in American cinema.

This, however, is where Allen and Malick’s respective films distinguish themselves from the pack.

The Cinematic Time Machine

Whereas most of this summer’s Hollywood fare takes nostalgia as simply a mode of encountering a familiar experience, Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life take the reality of nostalgia at face value, in that nostalgia has little correspondence with reality at all.

As Allen’s film shows, the very existence of a “Golden Age” – be it in creativity, art, innovation, etc. – is only available through the privilege of hindsight, and is never something experienced in-the-moment. As Owen Wilson’s Gil inexplicably travels back to 1920s Paris, he doesn’t experience Paris in the 20s, but “Paris in the 20s,” an enthralling but undeniably false selection of the best memories and figures in that time and space to the ludicrous degree that nearly everybody he encounters is a living legend (it is worth note here that late and early 1920s Parisian artisans here impossibly occupy the same time and space). Gil eventually realizes its falseness (after all, while he would want to drink with Hemingway and Dali, he would be without modern necessities like advanced medical care), but that doesn’t make the creative inspiration he continues to take from that time any less valuable.

These two films are unique in that they realize openly the strange selective experience of nostalgia, but do not deny its value by dismissing it because of its falseness. The Tree of Life presents nostalgia realized not through selection of an era’s greatest hits, but through the resonance of personal emotional memory. The emotions are no less complicated (in fact, they’re likely heightened) by nostalgia, but the emotional fragments of memory are still fragments nonetheless: important in the formation of character and judgment for one’s later life, but still distressingly inconclusive. The puzzle pieces that make up Malick’s narrative style are decidedly incomplete as the more dangerous false nostalgia is that which pretends to bring closure.

That there’s no direct explanation of the traverses through time that each of these films make is exactly the point. While the conversations around these devices have treated each of them as far from equivalent (the presence of dinosaurs and the cosmos is held up to greater critical scrutiny for demanded justification than the low-stakes whimsy of Wilson’s journeys through time sans logical rationale), the travel through time each of them makes is constructed for thematic purpose rather than employed as a narrative device.

In their obscuring of any conventionally adequate or direct explanation (Tree of Life as the ostensible perspective of God or eternity, Midnight in Paris as simply a means to get to the film’s thematic point), the act of time travel simply draws more attention to itself – not, certainly, as a gaping plot hole, but as a storytelling possibility that continuously has the potential within and because of cinema. In traveling to a highly constructed, selectively remembered, and highly aestheticized time (periods that exist not unto themselves but through the cohesion-forcing and narrative benefits of hindsight), these films simply make open and frank the act of time travel that so frequently persists within much of mainstream cinema, especially exemplified in the voluminous crop being offered this summer.

The devices ultimately need no “adequate” explanation: time travel exists simply because of, is made possibly by, and summarily is cinema itself. Save for the reactionary movement of “slow cinema” which inevitably reinforces its difference from the norm, most films collapse time and space quite frequently, even when not portraying a specific time period outside the realm of the contemporary. One could argue that it is part of cinema’s formal fabric, its “language,” and makes up one of its most important unique and defining properties. Films that take place in a cinematic version of “the past,” or movies that collapse time and history through genre or other means, come across as natural, not exceptional.

However, in being projects of nostalgia, these conventional films feel like natural traverses into the past because of familiarity through the framework of genre and/or narrative convention (e.g., while Cowboys & Aliens may be a somewhat unique concept, it is only through the merging of two very familiar frameworks: sci-fi and the western). While both Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life feel “familiar” to the extent that they are the unmistakable work of unique cinematic voices (they each feel like Allen and Malick films, respectively), they reject the “middlemen” of (high) genre, narrative convention, or even storytelling logic.

The result was, for me, quite liberating in each case. Narrative explanation should be worthy of defiance if it’s in favor of pursuing thematic opportunity and/or aesthetic achievement. Midnight in Paris is an endearingly magical cinematic experience not because it is a work of epic fantasy, but because the experience of watching it allows us, through nothing more than the wonderful artifice of film, to experience in a dark room for 90 minutes exactly what it is impossible to experience in reality. It’s a film that remembers cinema itself to be magical. Similarly, I have yet to find a way to rationalize the portrayal of the big bang within the larger structure of The Tree of Life, but in being forcibly removed from this unnecessary deference to an arbitrary logic of causality whose very “logic” exists only in cinematic convention and not in the actual experience of life, the initially demanding but ultimately rewarding and hypnotic experience of Malick’s film permitted my witnessing of something beautiful not in defiance of causality but in transcendence of it.

Why aren’t there more films like these? Neither of these are perfect films (far from it), nor even my top favorites of the year thus far, but they did give me a sense of joy and introspection that is all too rare during these exponentially streamlined “blockbuster” summers. More importantly, they took me on a journey, which is something that so few films dare to do.

These aren’t the most defiant of films in terms of challenging convention. What they dare to do is deceivingly simple: they find the possibilities available when accepting cinema for what it is and can do, rather than what it has done and has been. In portraying the past, so many other movies are stuck the safe paradigm of expectations already tried and tested by the past. Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life do little more than ask “what if,” and try to answer that question. What they eventually come up with couldn’t be more different, and definitely isn’t something for everybody, but in a time where the sequel/remake The Hangover Part II is the highest grossing movie of the year, I’d rather a film challenge itself by bothering to ask the question than simply give me another answer I’ve heard before.

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