Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a movie all writers should see. No matter what you write, you’ll find something to appreciate in this film. But what surprised me the most when I saw it last weekend was how much it moved me as a historical fiction writer.
I don’t intend this to be a review, so I’ll just touch on the high points of the plot, as they apply to this post. The movie is about Gil (played by Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter turned aspiring novelist who regrets never living and writing literature in Paris. On a trip there with his fiance and her family, he finds that every night at midnight he can travel back in time to the 1920s, a time he yearns for as an ideal age. After various adventures with the literary and artistic elite of the time, including his idols F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Picasso and many others, Gil realizes that everyone finds the present boring and longs for another time.
I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous of Gil being able to have his work reviewed by one of his historical idols (who wouldn’t be?!) And real-life quotes like Hemingway’s “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure,” and “If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer,” make the movie relatable on a personal level.
But what makes it truly great is a strong theme of living in the past. Anyone who writes historical fiction can no doubt relate to this exchange:
One of the two over-the-top antagonists (I wish Allen had been a little more trusting of his audience and more subtle in their characterization) has one of the most poignant lines in the film, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Is he right? Yes and no. I agree that yearning for the past is a way of dealing with a difficult present (if we didn’t have difficulties, what would we write about?), but I don’t think it’s a flaw. For some of us, it’s just the way our brains work. If wasn’t, there would be no historians and no record (romantic or otherwise) of what came before. I disagree that nostalgia is denial. It’s recognition that something in the past resonates with us more than the present. We can find ways of mining our love of the past to improve our present by incorporating the values or ways of life we feel our society has lost or is losing, or at the very least, capture them in our writing for future generations.
Historical fiction serves a great purpose. It not only entertains and provides a means of escape, it educates about a bygone time in relatable ways history textbooks never can. Until time travel becomes more than fantasy, it’s the closest thing we’ve got. We’re fortunate that history gives us such a rich tableau from which to draw in our writing.
By far my favorite scene is this one (I wish I could find a video clip for you):
Adriana: Let’s never go back to the ’20s!
Gil: What are you talking about?
Adriana: We should stay here. It’s the start of La Belle Époque! It’s the greatest, most beautiful era Paris has ever known.
Gil: Yeah, but about the ’20s, and the Charleston, and the Fitzgeralds, and the Hemingways? I mean, I love those guys.
Adriana: But it’s the present. It’s dull.
Gil: Dull? It’s not my present. I’m from 2010.
Adriana: What do you mean?
Gil: I dropped in on you the same way we’re dropping in on the 1890s.
Adriana: You did?
Gil: I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age.
Adriana: Surely you don’t think the ’20s are a golden age!
Gil: Well, yeah. To me they are.
Adriana: But I’m from the ’20s, and I’m telling you the golden age is La Belle Époque.
Gil: And look at these guys. I mean, to them, their golden age was the Renaissance. You know, they’d trade Belle Époque to be painting alongside Titian and Michelangelo. And those guys probably imagined life was a lot better when Kublai Khan was around.
Adriana: What are you talking about?
Gil: Adriana, if you stay here, and this becomes your present, then, pretty soon, you’ll start imagining another time was really your, you know, was really the golden time. That’s what the present is. That it’s a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.
The key point here? No one is ever satisfied with the time in which they live. It’s possible to view the past through rose-colored glasses, but the present is seen with painful clarity. That’s exactly why historical fiction has a market. Everyone has a different point in time that is their escape. Like Gil says about living in the past, if you read (or write) too much of one time period, you get comfortable with it and it gets boring, so you move on to another, seeking to fill a void created by the present. But for historical fiction writers, the past is the present, and that’s what sets us apart from other writers.
So what do you think? Have you seen Midnight in Paris? Did you like it? Can you relate to what I’ve said or do you think I’m totally crazy? Do you think living in the past is pointless or do you see some value in it?