Monday, October 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris and the allure of nostalgia

Is nostalgia a dirty word?

Last night I saw Woody Allen's new movie. Apart from the tedious opening pastiche of street scenes in Paris, set to some music, and apart from the distracting Allen mimcry of Owen Wilson's speech patterns, pacing and vocal quality, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the appearances of Ernest Hemingway when the Owen Wilson character slips back to the 1920s and comes across various famous artists and writers who were hanging out in Gay Paree in the early 20s.

'Have you ever shot a charging lion?' was arguably one of the best lines in the movie, and one of the best scenes was when Wilson and Marion Cotillard (who played lover and muse of Picasso) slipped back to her favourite era which was the belle epoque, and where they stumbled across Toulouse Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Matisse who were all sitting around moaning that the best time to have lived and been an artist was the renaissance.

Another wonderful scene showed Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali in a cafe talking about rhinoceroses, then joined by surrealists Man Ray and Luis Bunel. Marvellous stuff.

But back to Hemingway.

I'm still reading the Carlos Baker biography of Hem and am up to page 700 or so. It is riveting. A previous biography was by Jeffrey Meyers and it was good but not this good. A lot of people seem to have decided Hemingway really just wasn't a very good writer or person or both. I just can't accept this, it's too black and white and doesn't give credence to the fact that some of his writing was genius and some of his characteristics as a man were admirable. But he was flawed. Fascinating and flawed. And so terribly clumsy and accident-prone, and for such a robust healthy strong men, vulnerable to illness, like chest colds and infections. He also suffered amoebic dysentery once in Africa when three inches of his large intestine dropped out of his body. He had 150 bowel movements a day and had to wash his prolapsed intestine with soap and water and push back into his body. He shot himself by accident while trying to wrestle a shark onto his boat. He was almost shot in the head by a friend who accidentally discharged her gun while he was bending down tying his shoe lace. He had skylights fall onto his head, he had several car accidents, lots of concussions, and I'm not even up to the plane crashes yet (x2) or the suicide. He got skin infections, knee problems, eye infections and ulcers. He managed to keep off the booze at various times, particularly when his last wife Mary had an ectopic pregnancy and he had to look after her and be kind. But when his writing was going badly or not at all he became mean and miserable.

Some of the things he said are funny and sharp, like A man can't really be a good writer unless he's had syphillis.

But saying that 'The best writing is certainly [done] when you are in love...' makes me wonder. Hmmm, and when you are in love you have a long-suffering wife to care for you and the house, yes?

He believed you'd lose it if you talk about it (but then seemed to let all and sundry read his stuff before it was finished. In Paris int he early days he would breakfast at Cafe Dome and read his stories to 'anyone who would listen'. '... he was willing tobe ruthless with himself or with anything or anybody that got in the way of the perfection of his work.')

Zelda Fitzgerald (who Hemingway hated) commented that "I notice in the Hemingway family you do what Ernest wants."

He really only kept a couple of friends to the end including Ezra Pound; he burned people constantly via scathing telegram, letter or by including them in his books either thinly veiled as a fictional character or in non-fiction form under their own names.

But what I admire about his writing is this. '[His] technique was matched by his higly innovative stule - the most influential prose in the 20th century. The short words, limited vocabulary, declarative sentences and direct representation of the visible world appealed to the ordinary as well as the intellectual reader. He prided himself on his purity of expression and suggestive simplicity. [His] style was characterized by clarity and force. He stressed the function of the individual word, wrote five simple sentences for every complex one, used very few similes, repeated words and phrases, emphasised dialogue rather than narration. He expressed his violent themes in limpid, focused, perfectly controlled prose... His style was precise and exact, yet hightly connotative; sparse and bare, yet charged with poetic intensity.'

In Woody's movie, Hemingway's 'typecast' essence was captured with several remarks, especially the ones about writing the 'one true sentence', but the delivery was kind of tongue in cheek, but gentle, not in a 'he was a real dickhead' way. I was surprised by the absence of James Joyce though, he was there hanging out with his family in Paris in 1922 as well but perhaps he wasn't one of the rabble rousers; he and Nora, maybe they ate dinner went home and kept to themselves?

After the movie ended we sat in the cinema talking about it. My mum, my sister, my daughter and me. My mum said that she missed Woody, meaning seeing him acting as male lead. I said I didn't. I've had my fill of him, and I actually prefer it now that he is using 'surrogates' for himself. It was good, though, that the Owen Wilson character didn't have the typical Allen eccentricities and tortured egocentricities and hypocondriac tendencies that were Woody's 'specialty' in the late '70s and through the '80s. Even in Hannah and Her Sisters, where Allen plays a role, the Michael Caine character is Woody'istic in his lust for his wife's sister and his childish inner musings and self doubts. No, I've had enough of all that really, you can always watch the dvds of the old movies.

I wonder now whether he'll do a New York movie that's like a swan song too? I can't imagine how he could come up with an homage that is more poignant and more successful that this Paris one, but I can't wait to see what comes next.

I don't care if nostalgia is suspect. While it may be the opposite of the realism you find in many contemporary movies or novels, I love its softness and blurriness. Its comfort.


Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the movie and don't know anything about the life of Hemmingway. All I can say is that: a) There should never have to be any correlation between how you feel about somebody and how you feel about their work. And: b) There's probably not a lot of point in trying to decide whether a person was "good" or "bad". Especially if you didn't know them personally.

Melbourne Girl said...

But there is Alex, there is a lot of point to trying to work out if someone was good or bad, even if I don't know that person. Because what you can figure out in the abstract helps you with the real world; in human relationships.

You're more sciencey and so I expect you like to operate with known facts and quantities? I'm not sciencey in that way - I like to explore the nebulousness (it's a word?) of human nature and character.

It's not as if I'm setting myself a task of trying to nut out this man, or any other, where it's causing me confusion or frustration or angst, not at all, I love musing on this stuff, but I do like to try to understand people and how they 'work'. I also like the exploration of those concepts of good and bad; no one, it seems, is all one or the other, and so a person who is flawed and has darkness, yet who then can display something heartwarming and tender, THAT is the interesting character.

Anonymous said...

I also like the exploration of those concepts of good and bad; no one, it seems, is all one or the other, and so a person who is flawed and has darkness, yet who then can display something heartwarming and tender, THAT is the interesting character.

Well, yes, that's pretty much where I was going. I mean, just thinking about myself: I've done many vile things in my time, but I've also done some things that I'd like to think were fairly decent. I've treated people well and I've treated people appallingly. I also think I've changed considerably for the better over the course of my adult life. So am I a good person or a bad person? Does it even make sense to ask? How are you going to weigh these things? Does it matter that I now actively try to do good, or are some things so big and shitty that I'm forever tainted? How much knowledge would a person need to judge?*

Outside of your fringe cases, I assume this all more or less applies to everyone. Even you'd be in the same boat to some degree, wouldn't you? That's why the idea of figuring out whether someone was simply good or bad just seems to me to be deciding which bits of the story you'd rather focus on and which bits you want to play down.

*Maybe that is too sciencey, but I honestly don't know how else to approach something like this.

Melbourne Girl said...

Yeah I'm probably happy with the musings about it rather than feeling I have to arrive at some sort of Answer.

The shitty things I've done I don't think are that bad, but then the people I've done them to may. This is the other fascination. Like history there can be multiple perspectives and there is never one truth.