My husband and I will be married ten years this December. We have three kids (two of them old enough not to go to bed so early on the weekends anymore), two careers, an old house, and various sports allegiances that suck up most of our television-viewing time. Hence, we don’t often carve out the necessary hours for watching non-kid-friendly movies. Several years ago, we made a pact that, when we have time to view a whole film, we will always watch one that we have not seen before. For the most part, we’ve stuck to it.
But, the other night, despite our good intentions, we found ourselves rewatching the 2011 Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, which was one of our favorites from the year when we were engaged.
Midnight in Paris
In the film (alert: spoilers ahead), a writer named Gil is dissatisfied with the practical choices he has made in his own life, convinced that he was “born too late” and that the 1920’s would have been his era to shine. Gil travels to Paris with his material girl of a fiancée and her comically snobby, conservative parents. While there, at midnight each evening, he enters a fantasy world of 1920’s Paris, peopled with all his heroes: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein, among others. He also falls in love with a soft-spoken young woman as different from his brash fiancée as day is from night.
But it turns out that Gil’s 1920’s love interest feels about the 1890’s the same way that he feels about the 1920’s. So, she abandons her present with Gil for an opportunity to live in what she perceives to be a golden era. This leads Gil to realize that his idealized version of the past is just an illusion, and that limitations and imperfections haunt every era because they haunt every person.
Fashions and ideas may change, but the human condition—in all its dissatisfaction—does not. For perhaps the first time in his life, Gil decides to live fully, right now.
In 2011, my husband and I had found Midnight in Paris enchanting. In 2022, we found it prophetic.
Modernity and its Discontents
Politically speaking, I am a moderate. That’s partly because, temperamentally speaking, I am a conservative. That is, I tend not to support rocking any reasonably sea-worthy boat too hard; after all, while things could get better, they could much more easily get worse. Civilizations and institutions take a long time to build and an instant to destroy. And so on.
So, I am by nature a prime candidate for the kind of nostalgia that Gil entertains: What time would you go back to? When was really the golden era?
What has always prevented my falling into that kind of idealized historical navel-gazing, however, is the knowledge that every “once upon a time” was, for so many people, far less free and fair than the here and now.
After all, I worship at a Catholic church that was burned down by its Protestant neighbors in the nineteenth century. I also happen to be the daughter of a Jewish mother, the product of an interfaith marriage, the wife of an African American man, and the mother of three African American boys. So, I don’t have to stretch very far to know that “Make America Great Again” is an offensively myopic fallacy at the societal level.
What Midnight in Paris illuminates, though, is why idealizing the past is also a fallacy at the individual level. At one point, Gil realizes that artists in the 1890’s long to be living 400 years earlier. He also realizes, in a way that is simultaneously humorous and profound, that his 1920’s compatriots have no access to life-saving antibiotics.
The grass is, as the movie illuminates, always greener. Sure, there are serious problems with life today. But the problems are as much about me, and you, as they are about any set of realities external to us. Eve wasn’t content even in paradise; that’s why she ate the apple.
At the end of Midnight in Paris, Gil takes the initiative to make the present worth living, rather than pining for an idealized and ultimately untouchable past. A lot of us today, perhaps especially those that lean conservative, could stand to do the same.
Nature and its Discontents
If conservatives are prone to idealizing an illusory past, progressives are prone to idealizing an impossible future.
The conceit of today’s conservatism is that Eden once was (it was, and we weren’t happy with it) and could be again if only we retraced our steps backwards. Meanwhile, the conceit of today’s progressivism is that Eden never was but could one day be if only we could conquer all the ostensible social constructs (the so-called “sex binary,” for one) holding us back from paradise.
Now, this is the stuff of pure fantasy, just like Gil’s vision of a 1920’s golden age. After all, sex existed long before humans were around to socially construct anything (how did the dinosaurs figure it out?) and differences in the sexual and societal roles of males and females remain remarkably consistent across species. Moreover, nature (as in, red of tooth and claw) doesn’t much care that gender studies departments aspire to a future in which sex is semantical rather than biological. And nature (in which nearly everyone, save a very small minority of individuals born with biological or biochemical abnormalities, is either a man or a woman—regardless of attire, profession, or sexual orientation) ultimately will out.
That’s why moving toward a utopian future is just as much a self-deception as returning to a utopian past.
In Midnight in Paris, Gil intends to get married to a fiancée that he does not even like, let alone love; but he resolutely refuses to look at this glaring issue with the future he has laid out for himself. Changing his plan to comport with the truth is too hard. In the end, though, he recognizes reality as it is, rather than as he would like it to be, and breaks up with his fiancée.
This requires him to accept the imperfectability of the future along with the imperfection of the past. A lot of us today, perhaps especially those that lean progressive, could stand to do the same.
No Golden Era
Yes, watching Midnight in Paris made me nostalgic for the political culture of 2011. Before “Make America Great Again,” before the now endemic fetishization of pronouns, and before the proliferation of quite so much social media.
Then again, it wasn’t a golden era. There is, I keep reminding myself, no such thing.