Appropriating Postmodernism: Narrative Play in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

Rupsha Mukherjee
Presidency University, Kolkata, India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


The idea that has been explored in the article is what makes a film postmodern and if there is an inevitable gap between form and content, between postmodern techniques and the narrative structure in the same. The article addresses how Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which has been touted by certain critics as postmodern, adopts postmodern multiplicity of time and spaces and Allen almost plays with theses ideas but does not entirely succumb to them. Michel Foucault’s idea of heterotopia has been employed in studying the other space depicted in the film . The other space showcases Paris in the 1920s and Allen through his protagonist Gil highlights this as a celebratory digression and a moment’s liberation. The narrative is plugged into modernist attitudes, including a narrative closure, which does not allow it to be regarded as a postmodern film in its entirety.

Keywords : Allen, Midnight in Paris, Space, Nostalgia, Postmodern, Belle Epoque, Golden Age, theoretical, cultural, heterotopia, Gil

The reception of films and the notion of spectatorship underwent a significant change with the emergence of film theory, which around 1980s started being closely associated with a number of theoretical concepts developing during that period. New forms of studies associating film with domains like science fiction, psychoanalysis and specific ideological concerns came under what is known as the wider spectrum of cultural studies. According to Fabio Vighi( 2012) , “In the light of [the] … philosophical critique of Critical Theory, the study of narrative cinema, and especially film noir , provides a vivid cultural exemplification of the speculative identity of subject and object…Whether in its modernist or postmodernist guise, Critical Theory postulates the limit and deadlock of any representation of reality, which consists in the failure of such representation to give us an objective depiction of a stable other”( pp.116-121). From this perspective, the question that needs to be addressed is whether a film that imbibes critical thought in itself, can be so structured as to give an impression, quite explicitly, that a certain theoretical framework has been consciously applied in a visual medium. On the other hand, the film in the course of its narrative may as well address certain critical concerns, which in turn may not have been a deliberate move on behalf of the film-maker.

Whether we intend to make a Marxist or a Post-colonial or a Psychoanalytical reading of a film narrative, the maker may not have been aware of the possibility of such readings while the film was being made. It may not have been a conscious move but in the twentieth century, with the emergence of forms of art as representatives of a cultural milieu and for the understanding of conceptual frameworks in relation to reality and the society at large, films began to emanate explicitly from certain schools of thoughts. Dianne Waldman( 1977), while elucidating upon Walter Benjamin’s position on the changing contours of reception of films, says, “According to Benjamin, mechanical (as opposed to manual) reproduction created a profound change in both the concept and function of a work of art…[yet] when the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based in ritual (the reason for the unique value of the authentic), it begins to be based on another practice – politics” ( pp. 41-42).

From this standpoint the paper intends to explore whether the culture industry has made a claim to appropriate critical movements and theories and if there is a tendency to narrativize such a cinematic representation, in popular culture. The focus will be to explore the terms and conditions in which the idea of the postmodern was appropriated in one of the highly appreciated films of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The idea will be to elucidate on how a narrative structure juxtaposes certain mutually opposing tropes and the cinematic rendition ends up as an amalgamation of contrasting theoretical frameworks. For the purpose of achieving the same, the objective is to make an extensive reading of Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, which was widely attributed as a postmodern film by critics post its release. In Midnight in Paris, themes like magic realism and intertextuality have been amply explored and according to the reviewer Ania Wroblewski, “[Woody]Allen exploits all the different cliches, epochs, literary and artistic references pertaining to Paris in a witty, clever, and, of course, self-conscious way without making them seem forced, irreverent or academic. The film is emphatically postmodern. It is a quick-paced, tongue-in-cheek pastiche meant to be taken lightheartedly and it succeeds at portraying one man’s struggle to define who he is and who he wants to be”(n.d.). Postmodern aesthetics have been strategically employed in films to achieve a certain stylization in artistic and cinematic efforts. Does that necessarily make it a postmodern film? Non linear and disjointed narratives are considered as some of the significant tenets of postmodernism but a sense of narrative closure leaves no room for that ambiguity.

In Woody Allen’s film, the protagonist Gil, an aspiring writer, indulges in a time travel that takes him back to the Paris of the 1920s from his modern day existence. These surreptitious time travels happen during the midnight hours, during his stay at Paris, which he considers to be drop-dead gorgeous in the rains and claims that there is no city like Paris in the world( Allen, 2011). He discusses the prospects of settling in Paris with his fiancée , to which she vehemently disagrees. Time and again Gil keeps associating the cityscape of Paris with writers, artists and the rains. The spatio-temporal premise of Paris gets muddled with romantic notions of idealism and nostalgia in his imagination. He quotes Ernest Hemingway’s famous saying that Paris is a “moveable feast” and talks about a restaurant where an acquaintance of his met the avant-garde writer James Joyce. The sentiments that Paris of the 1920s evoke in Gil can be paralleled to that of a lover or a muse and as Peter Eubanks (2014) rightly points, “… there is no one, true Paris that all observers objectively share; Paris is malleable…She lives and flourishes in [the] subjective subconscious of our imaginations”(p.170). This love letter that Allen writes, addressing the city of Paris, suspends the logic of time and space as Gil inhabits Paris of the present at daytime and experiences a rendezvous with the Paris of 1920s with the likes of Scott Fitzgerald and Salvador Dali among others after the clock strikes twelve at midnight. The past and the present co-exist and every night a car whizzes away Gil to the Paris in its “Golden Age”. The Paris of the 1920s is characterized by the inns and taverns, where Gil comes across the likes of Ernest Hemingway, who in turn sees Gil as a competitor and not as someone from a later time period who is almost in awe of him. The postmodern techniques of pluralizing cityscapes, bringing out multiple voices, intertextuality, magic realism and questioning a teleological notion of progress are exhibited in the course of the film but it is cardinal to note that the film may have hinged on postmodern tendencies but one should be careful before terming it as ‘ a postmodern film’…Full Text PDF

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