Woody Allen – always the same

Champs Elysees in Paris by night

I’ve very little to write about these days. The new job that I took with a view to earning enough money to take time off has subsumed all my time, energy, friends and hobbies.

So the only thing I’ve really been doing is what I usually do when big voids open up in my life – going to the cinema at random. One Friday evening I walked past a cinema on my way home, and went to see the late showing of Drive. I missed the first 10 minutes, and as a result the whole plot seemed significantly more mysterious, and the main character much more attractive. In fact I liked it so much that I went to see it again, with the start this time. That first car chase makes it a pedestrian story of ruthlessness from the start. It’s a nicely done hommage to 1940s gangster movies, or for that matter Dick Tracy comics, but I’m not sure that showing in very bloodstained detail what a psycopath will do to obtain his goals is particularly novel – even if the goal in question is romantic.

So from one derivative theme to another, I went to see Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris last night at the Swiss Cottage Odeon. As the title suggests, the action takes place in Paris, and I was very entertained when I realised that the UGC Danton shown in the opening shots was the cinema I watched the last Woody Allen that had a central theme of jazz in the 1920s (Sweet and Lowdown, which I was convinced also took place in Paris, but apparently doesn’t).

I love the way that the characters in Woody Allen movies are always recognisable, and always predictable. There will always be a tortured artist stuck in a moral dilemma, with an intellectual epiphany at the end. Sometimes the character is a woman – Rebecca Hall in Vicky Christina Barcelona,  sometimes a man – Owen Wilson in the latest movie. They always move through a plot that features other artistic types, but typically the other characters will fail to emerge from their solipsistic bubble, and hence are never likeable – the Penelope Cruz character in Vicky Christina.

It’s a lovely film though, and a topic that everyone can relate to – the temptation of being caught up in nostalgia for a bygone age. As the protagonist eventually realises, his yearning for the 1920s is just an expression of his dissatisfaction with his own achievements in the present. I may not succumb to the naivety of thinking that 1947, say, was a wonderful year, purely because Dior’s New Look may indeed look wonderful in the Vogue archives. I know that the average person had nothing to eat and nothing to buy, and never hear my 94-year old grandmother praise the past; she talks about rationing, and cold houses.  I do however often find myself reflecting on events in my own past, and wishing I had appreciated them more at the time.

Those student days of wandering around on my own in Paris, they look wonderful in my memory; it all seems like in the film, with the writer feeling inspired by his surroundings. I have memories of simply sitting and writing in cafes for entire afternoons. I still have some of the little reflections I wrote then – which for some reason focus quite a lot on how much I hated Starbucks, as well as how much I loved the Musee D’Orsay, the garden of the Musee Rodin, and the bridge that linked my flat just off Rue St. Dominique to the Champs-Elysees. I would wander home from watching yet another  movie on the Champs-Elysees, across Pont Alexandre III, in the wet darkness of January, loving the exuberance and silliness of the baroque curves and the gold paint, and feeling lucky to be alive. The bridge also features in the movie, and reminds me of all that surging emotion that youth lent to every trivial event. It’s as if life felt more real because your younger self thought that you mattered, whereas your careworn present self is mired in the cynical realisation that nothing really matters. You will never change the world, and if you have no children, then your death will leave no trace of your time on earth. In many ways it makes life a whole lot easier, living for today.

Of course, when I think of this younger life in artistic Paris, I don’t think of all the grubby and often very frightening downsides of both the city and my own stupidity; the endless hassle from men who for example tried to grab my house keys from my hand as I opened my front door; being groped; losing my wallet on a drunken night out; a friend severing a tendon in his finger on a wine bottle (that was quite gross); someone stopping their car across my path in a very dark and deserted suburb, and asking me very aggressively if I wanted to be in his “sexy movie”. Most surreal of all was the day I was hanging out in Footlocker on Boulevard de Sebastopol with a friend, and saw someone shoot themselves in the head. Looking back, I can certainly see how it’s a city that has nurtured creativity.

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