Film

Let the Golden Age Begin: Woody Allen's Parisian Affair

Allen's Midnight in Paris redefines the traditional summer film, and redefines the auteur yet again...but don't call it a comeback!


Midnight in Paris

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Owen Wilson, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Corey Stoll, Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures Classic
Year: 2011
US release date: 2011-05-20 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

Here's something you don't normally read when deciding what summer movie to see: the most buzzed-about film of the new season comes from Woody Allen. Midnight in Paris is not exactly typical summer blockbuster fare; there are no car chases, explosions, or gun battles. Instead, the spectator is treated to a fine ensemble of beyond-excellent actors in delicious character bits, sumptuous camera work by Darius Khondji (Evita, Funny Games), and a script that crackles with a wistfully-nostalgic wit and energy that only a seasoned director like Allen can bring to the party.

Yes, Woody Allen is the man behind this literate comedy for adults in a high season of cinematic junk food. What a novel idea, to actually have legendary directors making quality summer entertainment! This debunks the traditional wisdom that summertime at the movies is just for bored kids who are not in school in every way. With Midnight in Paris, Allen presents a welcome alternative narrative to the shoot-em-up, super hero, babes-in-tight-clothes nonsense that has (unfortunately) become the standard, in a way only a true master could. The film received thunderous, overwhelmingly positive buzz coming out of the Cannes Film Festival, and is poised to be Allen’s biggest success in years, with critics already talking about Oscar nominations across the board.

One of my favorite things about cinema is watching great film directors grow in their work with age. For example, Pedro Almodovar and Mike Leigh continue to make better and better films as the years go by. To crib an anecdote told by Teri Garr to Rosanna Arquette in her documentary Searching for Debra Winger (2003), if directors were shoemakers, they would be recognized for the increasingly good craftsmanship that only age and experience can bring. Shoemakers and directors should theoretically be adept at making both shoes for people on a budget and also for people with money to burn, but the quality is always evident and present in their work. I think in this respect, Allen, at least in the past ten years, has not been given his proper due as a craftsman.

There seems to be a singularly American obsession with building up and tearing down our greatest artists and deeming their projects “failures” and “comebacks” as if art is simply that cut and dry. Allen skewers this kind of trifling expatriate behavior of insular Americans abroad and their middle-class entitlement to the biggest slice of the pie in a globalized world where American thinking insists on trumping all else. At a certain point, when the public loses their infatuation with any master’s career – artist, film director, actor, musician (usually as they age) – there seems to be a prevailing sentiment that wants to put these figures out to pasture, and then celebrate their comeback when they inevitably make another later-in-life masterpiece.

Wags the world over will be hailing Midnight in Paris as Allen’s “comeback” despite ten years of strong work with such gems as Small Time Crooks (2000) Match Point (2005), and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). However inaccurate the terms “comeback” or “return to form” might be, the sentiment is right-on this time out: Midnight in Paris is the best Allen film since Deconstructing Harry (1997). Like that acid, stinging look at relationships, love, the past and time-travel, Allen’s newest rumination on longing and death looks at life’s hardest questions about the intangible through a gently romantic, comedic lens while still remaining arch in its depictions of life’s mysteries despite the fantasy milieu. The extended, painterly opening sequence of Midnight in Paris orients the viewer to Allen’s state of mind with a whimsical travelogue of Parisian imagery and the director’s favored tinkling jazz score.

The black and white titles and “Woody Allen” font remind the spectator just who is in charge here, though Midnight in Paris, despite surface similarities to other film’s in Allen’s oeuvre such as Zelig (1983), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or Everyone Says I Love You (1996), is magically unlike anything he’s ever done. Working within a crisp modern purview juxtaposed with a playful 1920s mise en scene, Allen’s art direction and costumes, as usual, are stunning. Art direction and set decoration, which are historically-overlooked elements of the director’s filmography, play a key role in transporting the audience into Gil’s fantasy and Anne Seibel deserves major kudos for balancing Allen’s complex, fantastic directorial vision with an ethereal groundedness in every era they visit, while costumier Sonia Grande’s elaborate period garb compliments her contemporary designs perfectly. Both women, along with Khondji for his camera work, deserve Oscar consideration for packing such a strong punch into their versatile, decades-spanning, technically-perfect work.

“You’re in love with a fantasy,” cracks the xenophobic American nightmare Inez (Rachel McAdams), which could be a perfect way to describe Allen’s rendering of Paris, of his newest characters (McAdams, Owen Wilson, Corey Stoll, Allison Pill, Kathy Bates, Mimi Kennedy and Marion Cotillard among the players), and even of his profession. “Love”, more specifically, “romance” is the key to understanding Allen’s newest film. To have love or romance, one must have passion for their object of desire, whether it is a person, a profession, a city, or art. One must be lost in these loves, consumed by these passions, in order for romance to work, in order to become intoxicated and lost in the process.

Characters such as Luis Bunuel, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso,and Gertrude Stein represent the idea of having a romance with art. Allen’s tensions around Hollywood versus true art, and his love of the greats shines through gorgeously. The director asks provocative questions about art’s relationship to commerce as well as addressing the key dichotomy of an artists’ inspirations, and how even the greatest minds often liberally borrow from the work of others, a rich tradition in Hollywood, writing, music, and art. We all travel back in time, in a sense, to borrow from one another in an ever-churning cycle of artistic time-travel. We always have those touchstones to refer to. We all have those imaginary conversations with our heroes.

“The past has always had a great charisma for me,” says Gil (a never-better Wilson), who is often dumbstruck by the icons he encounters in his voyage through time. Even though most jaded, cynical Hollywood-ite wouldn’t cop to this kind of hero worship in real-life, the way Allen highlights this facet of the character is sweet, funny, and full of heart. The concept of “hero worship” has become passé in modern popular culture, morphing into a complex, Hyrda-like hybrid where one head is that of a stalker, another the head of a sycophant, and yet another the head of an idiot, and so on. To admit admiration for one’s heroes seems to be not entirely in vogue anymore, something I don’t understand, because in my business, one’s heroes are actually made tangible. Case in point, last year at the Toronto Film Festival, I actually spoke to Allen during a press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a mythical experience not entirely unlike Gil talking to his heroes throughout Midnight in Paris.

For a kid from working class Detroit, Michigan, speaking directly to one of cinema’s great minds more than just inspired me, the encounter thoroughly sparked my own creativity, helped me to get lost in my own fantasy, made the world of great creators more concrete. For those of us who are fortunate enough to get to have a seat at the table, Midnight in Paris is especially sweet and poignant when it addresses the intersection of the mind and the heart in a tough business that often overlooks and devalues these essential elements. Allen shows us that it is not an ugly thing to have heroes and influences, and that being inspired by them while wearing your heart on your sleeve is a great tradition, not something to be ashamed of. This might not necessarily be a new message from the esteemed Mr. Allen, but it is nonetheless incredible to see that critics are actually giving him deserved credit this time out.

* * *

Midnight in Paris, the thinking-person’s summer film, is now playing in limited release.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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