Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen, 2011) – I’ve tried, and I can’t get more out of this one than an extremely explicit theme about nostalgia and the film’s seemingly intentional refusal to apply its moral lesson to reality. Gil realizes that his nostalgia indicates a failure to live well in the present, right in the middle of the quintessentially fantastic scene in which he’s back in la belle epoque France, chatting with Paul Gauguin. But when he returns to the present, he walks off with the angelically named “Gabriella” in the Parisian rain, still living in a fantasy (albeit a spatial rather than temporal one) and still reducing existence down to what-makes-me-happy. That he walks off with a kindred spirit of nostalgia further makes you wonder if Woody is getting really soft in his old age, falling back on illusions rather than wrestling with reality. It’s a fun movie, but (1) it’s very simplistic for a film that assumes some fluency of the great literary & artistic works of the 20th century and (2) its ending is rather unsatisfying for a film that has Ernest Hemingway insisting that the purpose of the artist is to find the antidote for the emptiness of existence. What if I’m bummed out but can’t afford to live out my fantasy by moving to Paris? This film assumes that money is no object and that happiness via living out my fantasy is tenable. The pleasures Midnight in Paris offers are fundamentally vicarious, impossible for nearly 100% of earth’s population. Antonioni’s wealthy and yet bored and depressed characters work well precisely because he acknowledges that you can’t live out your fantasies in a satisfying way, money is far from enough, and the question of existence is actually very tough to answer.
This Gun For Hire (dir. Frank Tuttle, 1942) – It begins with its main character slapping a woman in the face, and then the narrative moves forward dispassionately as if the deed were one among a number of subtle elements building toward a meaningful whole. It turns out, though, that the film actually is kind of subtle, even throwing you a curveball toward the end that complicates the psychology of its antihero. Of course, contemporary viewers are bound to see this move as cheap, since we’re exceedingly accustomed now to playing the psychology card: grew up in an abusive household, can’t sleep, dealing with repressed guilt, etc. But come on, this is 1944, before such plot twists were overdone. You have to appreciate the complexity of the characters here, too. None of them is purely good or bad. One is torn by virtue of his upbringing, one is torn by divided love, the other is torn by love and loyalty to the badge. There’s no such thing as a simple good guy or bad guy, and the femme fatale makes things even trickier. During and after WWII, we’re all just trying to figure ourselves out, since we certainly can’t figure the world out. This is all to say, it’s a film noir.