Are things better or worse the second time around?
Can we really do anything more than once?
Midnight in Parisii is a movie that hugely captured my imagination when it came out. It was poetic, romantic, charming, and sophisticated, yet thoroughly anti-nostalgiciii – an ode to imagination and risk-taking – easily placing it amongst my favourite movies of all time back in 2011. So when I was feeling a bit wistful for Paris this week, having been deprived of my trip there this year, I went searching for a stream. Checking Netflix first, I was presented with Les Misérables instead,iv but that didn’t quite tick the box of placing me back in my home-away-from-home: la ville des lumières.v Only Midnight In Paris could do that – centuries matter – so thankfully it was on Prime.
So how did it take this latest watching? Well, all things considered, although it didn’t shine as quite as brilliantly as it once did,vi there’s still plenty to take home and chew on.
In the nine years since its release, I grew up. Like a lot. With that came a massive step forward in acculturation that frankly left the film standing still. Not that this isn’t an important function for art! To serve as a metre stick for personal growth is a hugely valuable service. What else can provide that, your mother? Your girlfriend? Hardly. That a fine films stands still is a feature, not a bug. When we return to this art, or any art, after many years away, it’s ourselves who are measured, not the film. The film marks its time, its zeitgeist, but it also marks its viewer.vii This is perhaps a banal observation, but for someone so addicted to novelty, to “moving the game on,” so allergic to nostalgia, and increasingly so interested in ownership of artifice,viii someone who rarely even attempts to walk into the same river twice, it’s actually worth noting.ix
Perhaps this objectified observation relates to Octavio Paz’ point made 54-years-ago about the transition of art punctuated by Duchamp:
The history of modern painting, from the Renaissance to our own times, could be described as the gradual transformation of the work of art into an artistic object : a transition from vision to perceptive thing. The Readymades were a criticism both of taste and of the object.
Not that this transition can ever be fully completed, for nothing can either be created nor destroyed – not capitalism, not marxism, not good, not bad, and definitely not art – waxing and waning though each do through time and place, in the pharmacy of memory if nowhere else. It was Proust who said:x
Car nous trouvons de tout dans notre mémoire; elle est une espèce de pharmacie, de laboratoire de chimie, où on met, au hasard, la main tantôt sur une drogue calmante, tantôt sur un poison dangereux.
Alas, it remains that the references woven into the tapestry of Allen’s critique of nostalgia are no longer as aspirational as they once were, not because they’re not worth aspiring to appreciate anymore, but rather because the values once aspired to are now so much more fully embodied.xi What once seemed delightfully esoteric is now normalised. The goalposts have moved. And that’s the thing with the treadmill of life: if you play your cards right, from decade-to-decade,xii the cars get faster, the champagne gets older, the girls get younger, and all the rest of that stuff just goes upwards and upwards until you crash head-on into infirmity. There’s no “point” to this exercise per se except for the fact that the alternative is death, or worse, irrelevance.
Si un peu de rêve est dangereux, ce qui en guérit, ce n’est pas moins de rêve, mais plus de rêve, mais tout le rêve.xiii
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- Voiced by Morgan Freeman on the recent track “Runnin“. Of course Herodotus made the same point about never being able to walk into the same river twice, but it’s not like H. was the first either, it’s an observation far more ancient than even he. ↩
- 2011 by Woody Allen. ↩
- To quote Proust, not for the last time in this article:
Le seul véritable voyage, le seul bain de Jouvence, ce ne serait pas d’aller vers de nouveaux paysages, mais d’avoir d’autres yeux, de voir l’univers avec les yeux d’un autre, de cent autres, de voir les cent univers que chacun d’eux voit, que chacun d’eux est; et cela, nous le pouvons avec un Elstir, avec un Vinteuil; avec leurs pareils, nous volons vraiment d’étoiles en étoiles.
The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with artists like these, we do really fly from star to star.
Which sorta sums up this whole film in a nutshell. ↩
- While it didn’t tick the right “Paris” box, Les Misérables did tick the box of catalysing the barely contained, heaving sob-fest I clearly needed to flush out of my system. What can I say, the new lockdowns and I aren’t getting along terribly well at the moment. There’s fucking icebergs of rather challenging and confused emotions under a very thin veneer of civility and acceptance. And I’m hardly alone. Most of the younger people I know are on the very same page. Thankfully Les Mis delivered. A good cry was due for the last couple weeks and I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel 10x better the next day, not that this should’ve been a surprise. Alors merci Épopine!
- Having never given this question much thought until this week, I can’t recall feeling more “at home” in any city in the world than Paris. What does it even mean for a Wandering Jew to feel “at home”? I’m not sure, but even looking at still photographs of the Haussmann-era Place de l’Opera is enough to calm my nerves like an optical tonic, as with David Burdeny’s work:
Although it’s been 15-years since I’ve been it the French capital and I almost universally despise Corbusianesque top-down urban planning, maybe it’s something about the rain… Then again, maybe I’m just too Western. To quote James Turrell:
When we want to go into the universe, we can’t look at a rock, like the Japanese. We have to actually go to the moon. We’re so literal… We have devices, sensors, alpha conditioning machines. The machines are just manifested thought. Technology isn’t outside us… We just go about it very clumsily and very wastefully. Because we have to actually make all the devices, we have to go to the moon, we can’t see the cosmos in a rock, and we can’t meditate without having this thing strapped on us.
Which really circles back to footnote iii innit. ↩
But perhaps I just wished I was back in 2011 again, fresh out of school, making my first decent paycheques, about to propose… To quote Proust:
La contradiction que c’est de chercher dans la réalité les tableaux de la mémoire, auxquels manquerait toujours le charme qui leur vient de la mémoire même et de n’être pas perçus par les sens. [...] Le souvenir d’une certaine image n’est que le regret d’un certain instant.
The contradiction that it is to seek in reality the paintings in one’s memory, which would always lack the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being perceived by the senses. [...] The memory of a particular image is nothing but the regret for a particular moment.
- Much like a child’s growth chart, come to think of it. ↩
- When you own something, you don’t measure yourself against it in the same way as an object encountered years apart. The fluidity of the relationship with an owned object is more akin to that of a wife, girlfriend, or mistress, which also happens to be why fine art is such an effective channel for sexual energies. The relationship is continual and therefore one of ever-increasing depth, but also defined by spontaneity and accidental glances. ↩
- Ironically, this is a domain-dependent note. In the sphere of tradition, your humble author whole-heartedly embraces repetition and revisiting as a means of self-analysis and self-knowledge, with Passover in particular. Yet somehow in the fine arts this function is a minor revelation. Go figure. ↩
- In English:
We are able to find everything in our memory, which is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison.
That “au hasard“, which comes from the Arabic az-zahr, “the dice”, is frequently translated in English to “chance,” “coincidence,” or “random”, tells us much about our perceptions of risk. It’s why, when our five-year-old asks to put on the LV cologne by the same name, a sample of which I have resting on my bookshelf from some long-forgotten swag bag, I tell him that it’s only for “Dangerous Boys,” which he obviously likes very much, while I spray a little mist on each wrist. After all, what’s a life lived without risk? And why shouldn’t I nudge him towards his responsibility to take as much risk as he can possibly bear? And what better way to link positive memories with positive behaviours than with scents? To quote Proust again in a footnote about a translation of Proust (how’s that for inception!):
Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.
But when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
- I should also mentioned briefly that Owens, McAdams, Cotillard, and Brody were all first-rate, truly embodying their characters with eminent believability. The rest were good enough. At least good enough to let the story shine through. ↩
- Year-to-year is too zoomed-in. There are always bad years, but no one “successful” has bad decades. ↩
- In English:
If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less, but to dream more, to dream all the time.