Why keep watching the movies we hate?
What is the purpose of the film critic? Why do some aspire to a life of watching and writing about film? The answer, I think, is pretty simple: to make the case for the movies we love. Despite the negative connotation of the word, critics are best remembered for their writings on the films they championed. Think Pauline Kael’s essay on Bonnie and Clyde, François Truffaut’s book on Alfred Hitchcock, and Roger Ebert’s collection of reviews on the “Great Movies.”
After all, why waste time on a bad movie? If a movie is terrible, tweet about it, write 800 words on it and move on. Right? Well, sometimes, maybe even 99% of the time, I would say, yes, throw those films in the rearview mirror. But, there are some films that we cannot quit, that we hate so much that we cannot help but watch them every so often and remind ourselves why we hate them. For me, that film is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
I hate Midnight in Paris. I hate it with all my heart. It is incredibly pretentious, cliché, and banal. Yet, why do I continue to watch this terrible movie? Because hate watching is important. It allows us to truly understand what makes movies terrible and better appreciate the ones we love. And because I had nothing better to do last night, I hate rewatched Midnight in Paris. Here’s what I learned:
The protagonist of Midnight in Paris is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), who has come to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. Gil is a “hack screenwriter,” who dreams of writing something more: a novel in the tradition of the Jazz Age writers (cliché).
Unsurprisingly, Gil views Paris as some sort of mystical land (cliché), the key to unlocking the novelist trapped inside him (cliché). His mental roadblock seems to be that he is convinced he has (wait for it) been born in the wrong time. This cliché is the basis of the film and fuels the plot. Gil is convinced that he can, as the tired saying goes, “breathe in the inspiration of the city” and channel the writers of the past. Need I say more?
Gil’s foil is Paul Bates (Michael Sheen), a professor and a college friend of Inez’s, who is in Paris to guest lecture at the Sorbonne. Paul, according to Gil, is a pseudo-intellectual with an artificial knowledge of artists and their work. Gil also hates him because Inez values Paul’s thoughts on art more than his own. (In one of the film’s more cringe-worthy scenes, Inez will admit to sleeping with Paul). Paul embodies the cliché of the snooty scholar who thinks he has everything figured out, while Gil is supposed to be the likable writer who can relate to these great works of art and their creators on an artist-to-artist level.
Early in the film, Gil and Inez travel with Paul and his wife to Versailles (cliché), where Inez tells Paul about Gil’s belief that he would be happier if he “lived in an earlier time…Paris in the 20s, in the rain.” Paul identifies Gil’s belief as Golden Age Fallacy, “the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the Romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope in the present.”
Despite the fact that Paul is supposed to be the pseudo-intellectual who, in later scenes, makes uninformed comments about wine and sculpting, here, he diagnoses Gil perfectly. Later in the film, when Gil travels back to the Paris of the 1920s, he falls in love with a woman named Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), who is in an unhappy relationship with Pablo Picasso. Near the film’s end, Gil and Adrianna fall in love. While on a date, they, like Gil, are transported into the even more distant past, to Paris at the turn of the century, the period known as Belle Époque. This is the period that Adrianna considers to be the Golden Age of Paris.
It is here that Gil has an “insight”: “Adrianna if you stay here and this becomes your present then pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was really the gold time. That’s what the present is, it’s a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.”
Is this not more or less what Paul, the pseudo-intellectual, said at the beginning of the film? Did it really take a trip back in time for Gil to realize that this cliché is in fact true? I guess so. And does this not make Gil the real pseudo-intellectual? I would say so
Gil unlocks his inner novelist one night after he takes a stroll and winds up being taken back to the Paris of the 1920s, the Paris to which he is convinced he belongs. While there, he meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, and more of the period’s great artists. Whether Gil actually travels back in time or these characters are manifestations of his imagination is unclear, and it really doesn’t matter. Either way, Gil has a chance to be among those he has only dreamed of having as contemporaries. Finally, he has a chance to engage, discuss, and live in his time!
As you may have guessed, Gil squanders this opportunity. Whenever he meets a Jazz Age luminary, he utters different versions of the same line, “Wow, [person], I can’t believe it. I love your work.” He says nothing of interest, offers no insight into his or their own work and seems completely out of place. He is a tourist in every sense of the word and the embodiment of the pseudo-intellectualism he claims to hate.
The lack of a semi-interesting character in the film is what makes it so contemptible. Allen succeeds in making us hate Inez and her parents, but he fails in making any of the artists complex and teaching us anything more than what we already know.
The film sets up two sides: the pseudo-intellectuals and the artists/intellectuals. We are supposed to hate the former since they are the ones who are holding back our protagonist from realizing his vision: moving to Paris and finishing his novel. The film is making the case for the artist, for pursuing one’s own intellectual interest in a genuine way. We are supposed to hate the superficial Professor Paul and the way in which he seems to wear his pseudo-intellectualism on his sleeve. And yet, Midnight in Paris is the embodiment of the kind of pseudo-intellectualism and pretentiousness it claims to be against.
Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, et al. are all are caricatures without any depth. It is as if they were written after Woody Allen skimmed their Wikipedia pages. Hemingway only wants to fight people, Fitzgerald just says “Old Sport” a bunch of times, Zelda is a partier, Dali obsesses over a rhinoceros, I could go on. If these characters are manifestations of Gil’s imagination, it is further evidence that he is a pseudo-intellectual, with no actual knowledge of their work. If they are not, well, then it is poor writing masquerading as parody.
Poorly portraying titans of the art world is a cheap ploy, used to buy the approval of audiences who are afraid to condemn a film for fear of being told they “didn’t get it.” The film becomes a referendum on the artists it portrays, not on the artistic vision it does or does not realize. If you do not like the film, it is like saying you do not like Fitzgerald, or you don’t understand Surrealism or the work of Hemingway. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that Midnight in Paris “is sort of a daydream for American lit majors.” It’s more of a daydream for people who skim Sparknotes and pretend they have read the book.
Clearly, I am in the minority when it comes to Midnight in Paris. It won the Academy Award for Original Screenplay and has a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Quentin Tarantino said it was his favorite film of 2011. And most everyone I have asked about the film has said it is good.
Still, I have yet to be convinced by anyone that there is anything redeeming about the film. Reading positive reviews like Roger Ebert’s have only strengthened my resolve. So, why do I keep watching? Is it because I am keeping an open mind? As much as I’d like to think so, not really.
Hate watching is important. It is just as valuable to understand why a film is bad as it is to understand why one is good. We should all be able to say more than, “I didn’t like it,” after walking out of a theater. We must articulate what it is about a film that causes such hatred. Above all, hate watching allows us to better know ourselves, and explore what it is we personally despise in film, what tropes and character types really get under our skin. It makes us better-informed viewers.