Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011), is a Woody Allen film that, at its core, is about choosing between fantasy and reality. Super short synopsis: American writer Gil Pender has always fantasized about 1920s Paris. He dreams of living the way his writing idols did, rather than living his own life- that of a sold out Hollywood screenwriter engaged to a woman (Inez) who totally doesn’t share his values. On a trip with Inez to Paris, Gil stumbles into a time slip that allows him to visit the 1920s, where he meets his idols, comes alive as a writer, and even falls in love.

When Gil first meets Adriana, the woman with whom he falls in love, she mentions that her favorite time period is La Belle Epoch, in Paris at the turn of the century. Gil is astounded; how could anyone who lives in Paris in the ‘20s long for anything else? At the end of the movie, the two of them stumble into another time slip that brings them to Adriana’s golden age. Here we get the movie’s lesson: people are never satisfied. We fantasize and romanticize about other times because we don’t know their reality and, in Gil’s words, “the present is… a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.” Gil learns that it would be nice to escape into a world whose representation has been shaped into something magical by the passage of time, but that even that world has its flaws.

I, however, am with Adriana: “That’s the problem with writers. You are so full of words.” Honestly, Gil’s epiphany is probably the one that I would have, because it’s the one that affirms imperfection and embracing real life as it is. But let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a movie in which characters legitimately have the option to time travel. They don’t have to live with real life as it is, which is why Adriana has every right to “stay and live in Paris’ most glorious time.” Gil, on the other hand, believes that he needs to be rid of his illusions in order to be a good writer. But which illusion is he really giving up?

Gil wants to live in Paris in the ‘20s. He gets the chance. Then he decides that this chance isn’t real, that he needs to muddle his way through real life instead, and I think that that’s cowardly. Think about Gil’s and Adriana’s first exchange: Adriana tells him that he should stay in Paris to finish his book. Gil replies, “I would like to, but it’s not that easy.”

How many times have we said this sentence about things that would make us so happy? What if everyone- gasp- actually did what they wanted? We’d overthrow this stupid system of burning out your best years on unfulfilling jobs, and instead the world would be so much more healthy, more connected, more artful, more fascinating. I truly believe this. But, according to Gil, it’s not that easy. What a shame that even those of us who have slaved away for 16 or more years to get an “education” are willing to dismiss something just because it’s not easy.

I propose a different perspective, one which meddles with fantasy and reality, which Woody Allen so loves to do. I believe that Gil, instead of honorably learning how to deal with his life (although I do support his breaking up with Inez), should subscribe to the versions of reality posed by his new friends, Hemingway and Dali.

“Love that’s true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing, and when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face… it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds until it returns as it does to all men.”

That’s how Hemingway responds when he learns that Gil fears death. Death is real, Hemingway tells us, but if you live your truth and your dreams strongly enough- completely letting go of the realities and the “shoulds” and the “it’s not that easies”- then you can achieve this feeling of immortality, this feeling that reality does not apply to your life because your life has surpassed meaningless categories such as “real” and “unreal” and has instead reached a realm in which what matters is not what is real, but what is true. And what is true can only be defined by you.

As Gertrude Stein (casual) puts it after reading Gil’s manuscript, “we all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Gil is so afraid for life to end because he has no idea what to do with it while he has it. Stein and Hemingway aim to show him that people who are secure with what they’re doing in their lives are not afraid of death because they know that, when the time comes, they will have no regrets.

Take Gil’s brief meeting with Salvador Dali (again, casual). Gil laments the struggle of his engagement to Inez in 2010 and how it conflicts with his love for Adriana in the ‘20s. The artists surrounding him see no problems, just inspiration for works of art- in Dali’s case, something having to do with a rhinoceros. These artists do what they want to do, say exactly what’s on their minds without fear of judgment, think about rhinoceroses when they want to think about rhinoceroses. This is why, to them, petty realistic problems such as time-traveling love triangles are simply fodder for a film or painting. These people are so committed to being true to themselves and to following their passions that they don’t have to worry about realities.

In fact, these artists show us that real life and fantasy are not even the right distinctions. The real distinction is between people who live their truth and people who don’t. If your truth is traveling back into the 20s every night, okay. If your truth is thinking about a rhinoceros, okay. There is no wrong truth. But if your truth is writing novels in Paris and instead you’re writing screenplays in Hollywood, that’s when life no longer matters. You have wasted a precious life, and that’s why you’re afraid of death.

Gil could have been legitimately happy staying in the ’20s. It would have been one thing if he was disappointed by the era after fantasizing about it for so long, but that’s not the case. He loves it. Of course, not everyone living in the ’20s feels the way that he does because, for them, it’s the present. But for Gil, the rough edges of the past have become blurrier over time.

Adriana loves La Belle Epoch because she knows what the ‘20s are like. Gil loves the ‘20s because he knows what the 2000s are like. What if the real lesson, here, is this: in order to be truly happy with life, you have to blur its edges. You have to see things with imagination in order for them to be worth seeing at all. Whether that means viewing life through the lens of a different era, a paintbrush, or a camera, it’s all the same idea. The real world is rough, and life is meaningless, so we have to mold it and give it meaning through stories and art and fantasies. That’s the only way to make life worth living.

To finish, a few quotes from awesome people. In the words of J.K. Rowling, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “Of course it is happening inside your head… but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

And, finally, Ernest Hemingway (by way of Woody Allen): “Think about it.”

What Are We?

Being “cultured” is extremely important to me. I want to appreciate all kinds of art and music, and as such I sometimes agree to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise care about. For example, I hate to admit it, but I don’t particularly like classical music. However, if I see an opportunity to go to the symphony, you know I’m there, because I want to be the kind of person who appreciates classical music and whose intelligence and ability to connect with others improves because of it.

But as much as I try, art in particular is hit or miss. I’ll go to museums, but when I don’t get something I really don’t get it. And I’m loud about it, too. (“This is literally a red square! I can draw this! Why is it here!? Gahhhhh!) So this week when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts I felt no surprise at the fact that certain works of art completely underwhelmed me.

For example, this painting by Paul Gauguin, entitled “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

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“No,” I said to myself, staring at the huge canvas. “This painting is not trying to tell me that it asks the biggest questions of human existence. This artist is so pretentious. This is a bunch of people standing around outside, that’s all.” I may not be attuned to the deep symbolism of art, but I am always open to learning, so I gave the painting’s description a try. It turns out that this painting depicts life’s journey. Viewing from right to left, we witness birth and childhood. In the center, at life’s prime and standing out possibly the most, is the adolescent or young adult. And moving further along, we see adulthood and, finally, weak and dark death.

I admit that the painting’s purpose makes sense to me now that I know the description, but I’m not sure whether everyone would have quite put it together given only the title. On one hand, it’s frustrating; why put this piece in front of me that has so many hidden meanings and secrets, if I’m never going to be able to figure them out? But on the other hand, isn’t that life? In life, potentially meaningless things are put in front of us all of the time, and it’s our job to attempt to appreciate them. When people show up in our lives, we see in them what I first saw in this painting: an appearance. But we have the potential to ask for the description, to find out what makes that person tick, to discover the secrets and hidden meanings. Maybe it takes more work, but I think it’s certainly more rewarding.

I think that art, even if we don’t enjoy it, teaches us an important life lesson. Everything has a meaning, if you’re willing to see it. Maybe when I frustratedly stare at a red square, that’s all I see. But maybe the artist saw the red square as a movement, a rebellion against religious depictions. Maybe he or she saw it as a metaphor for all-encompassing power. Or maybe that artist just wanted to make people think. As humans, we can go around being angry that not everything fits into our personal understanding of the world. But, in the words of one of my favorite meaning-finders, Ted Mosby, “Or…”

Or we can decide that even if we don’t understand someone or something, that someone or something still deserves to be understood. Or we can give each person and thing in life the benefit of our effort. Or we can learn to live with acceptance of the confusing, un-pattern-able world around us. Or we can recognize that every person is more than meets the eye. Or we can rejoice in the fact that we don’t know everything, that there’s always more to learn. Or we can exercise our minds, forcing ourselves to find a deeper meaning in everything. Because there is always a deeper meaning. Always.

Our artist friend Paul Gauguin asked, “What are we?” Not who, but what. Because we’re not just people. We’re a collection of a trillion bits of atoms and memories and experiences and organs and a soul. There is so much more to us than we, let alone anyone else, will ever understand. We’re more than people just standing around. We’re going through the journey of life, and maybe it’s hard to understand, but we have everything to gain if we just try.