Monday Movies Is Having an Insight Now. It’s a Minor One.
In college, I learned the phrase “I haven’t read it, but I know what to say about it.” The Internet, of course, has only made it worse. So I was thrilled to get only a couple of minutes into Memories of Underdevelopment at the Getty Center’s Soy Cuba contribution to the Los Angeles Film Festival and find that everything I thought I was supposed to say about it was wrong.
I had imagined a piece of highly intellectual agitprop; instead, I found a deeply politically incorrect (as we used to say, before they took it) movie that wallows in its ambivalence for the Cuban revolution and human affairs in general. Released in 1968, it takes place in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, much like X-Men: First Class. Its discussion of underdevelopment gives the film a spine of critical sophistication, but the essayistic qualities are simply one part of Sergio, the main character, to whose point of view the movie weds itself and does not leave. And the subjectivity of Sergio is the subjectivity of a bored, horny, bourgie creep.
Sergio is neither a revolutionary nor a counter-revolutionary; whether that makes him “nothing,” in the words of one character, is a proposition about which his own personal jury is out. An ex-landlord who has been given a transition window in which to collect rent, he ambles around Havana in randy flanerie, blaming “underdevelopment” for the stilted pronouncements of intellectuals and the sexual backwardness of peasant families. He’s happy that his bourgeois wife, parents and friends have fled the country. His reveries include memories, fantasies, and newsreel montages; in one of the latter, a group of Bay of Pigs prisoners are paraded before the camera. “The truth of the group is in the murderer,” reads Sergio, remarking on the different roles that all of the prisoners played — priest, businessman, philosopher — and the common purpose that united them. Sergio takes a girlfriend to visit Hemingway’s Cuban residence, and ponders “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” He admits that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next in Cuba, but he’s too aware that something is to feel even the too-short fulfillment from that story.
“There’s something happening here/But you don’t know what it is,” goes the song. Sergio seems to exist at both ends of that accusation. I feel that way too.
Below the fold, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s worth seeing unspoiled, so don’t read on if by some chance you haven’t seen it and still want to.
Thinking about Midnight in Paris, I grew sad that I probably won’t have the chance to take my (hypothetical) children to new Woody Allen movies. I have no doubt that I’ll force-feed them the classics — I was raised on a holy comedy trinity of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and Woody Allen, and I will defend the canon — but I don’t think there’s anything past Crimes and Misdemeanors (or maybe Husbands and Wives) that will make the core curriculum.
Midnight in Paris is the latest in a series of sketches of variable quality; this is one of the better latter-day efforts. Owen Wilson’s Gil is a Hollywood hack (i.e., that to which I aspire) who has come to Paris to write the novel he’s always hoped to, in the city that transports him to a memory of a Golden Age, that being the Moveable Feast of Hemingway’s 1920’s. He’s traveling with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, and one night, he gets lost.
As church bells ring out midnight, a car arrives to take Gil to a seductively fashionable party. He chats up a girl named Zelda while someone plays Cole Porter at the piano. The pianist turns out to be Cole Porter, and the Zelda turns out to be Fitzgerald. She introduces him to Scott–he’s starting to figure it out now–who drags him to meet Hemingway, who won’t read his novel but Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, olé!) will. At Stein’s place, he meets a girl who’s negotiating a brambly affair with Picasso — the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard). And, in the movie’s splendid irony, Adriana adores Gil–but she can’t be truly happy until she reaches her own Golden Age, the Paris when Toulose-Lautrec and Gauguin hung out at Maxim’s.
With the exception of Kathy Bates, the historical figures are fun, one-note cut-outs. My college improv group used to do a game called “Writing Styles” in which five performers would tell a continuous story, each in a different audience-supplied style; Hemingway sounded exactly like our approximation of his style. (And someone always suggested Hemingway.) As Gil tries to figure out what’s happened to him, only Man Ray understands; “but you’re surrealists!”
Gil’s novel is about a man who works in a “nostalgia shop.” The sumptuously recreated flapper balls are not, of course, the first indication that Allen is ‘fessing up to his own nostalgia shop. The film is a provocative instruction on how to read its writer; it flatly repudiates Allen’s entire aesthetic. It’s executed with some interesting thumbs on the scales. Gil’s present is exasperating. There’s really no reason for him to stay with Inez for another minute, and the film would have been stronger if it had made her sympathetic. (Her parents are also wealthy monsters, but you get the sense they’re a type that Allen spends a lot of time around, and they feel worth the satire.) From another angle, however, Gil’s rotten, glitzy present makes the movie’s negative case–the siren song of the past–all the more powerful. It’s challenging for Gil to wake up to the charms of his present-day life. It’s much more so for Allen.
Midnight in Paris is not his best recent movie–I’d place it right under Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, especially in how the latter’s female protagonists gave Allen less familiar ground to tread and wound up in some interesting places. It is, however, his clearest cry for help.
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