The concept of time travel makes me severely uncomfortable. If we’ve ever talked about time travel, you know this. All the paradoxes freak my shit out, to the extent that I can’t handle most books, movies, and TV shows about it. My reaction is akin to the way some people feel watching awkward British humor. You understand that it’s entertaining, but you also feel like your bones are leading a revolt against your skin. And yet, I loved Midnight in Paris more than any Woody Allen movie since 2005′s Match Point. Time travel! Who knew?
I guess I have more of an appreciation for time travel when it’s explored in a less sci-fi context. Which is not to denigrate the genre at all—hello, I write for io9—but to suggest that while the technical aspects of time travel unnerve me, the emotional repercussions are fascinating. Judge me if you must: I really enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife. (The book, that is—I eye-rolled my way through the film adaptation.) And what I love about the time travel in Midnight in Paris is that it proves a point which I find both honest and profoundly upsetting: we are never, ever satisfied by the times we live in.
Allen is not exactly reinventing the wheel here. In the film, pretentious blowhard Paul (Michael Sheen) talks about the “Golden Age” fallacy: “everything was better in the past.” I’ve never felt that way exactly. Sure, I’ve thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be swell to live in the ’50s” after watching too many hours of I Love Lucy under the influence of marijuana. But even then, the more rational part of my brain counters with, “Gay Jews in the 1950s weren’t commonly regarded as keen.” For me, it’s not so much a belief that things were better in the past, but that life was less complicated. There were simpler pleasures. If you could just ignore all that nasty social injustice, wouldn’t it be nice to cruise in my T-Bird to the drive-in? (Oh, who am I kidding? I’d totally have an Edsel.)
Naturally, I relate to the character of Gil, because—despite being played by Owen Wilson—he’s the stand-in for Woody Allen. He is Midnight in Paris‘ neurotic writer, a man stuck in the past because he’s so disillusioned by his present. Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920s, palling around with great minds like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vincent Van Gogh, and Gertrude Stein. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because you should clearly see this movie, but it’s safe to say fascination with the past is a persistent phenomenon. (Though, in 50 years, will people look back on the Bush years with nostalgia? I’m sure the planet will be dead by then, but theoretically.) All you can do is make the best of the time you have, and learn to live with what you’re given.
Knowing that doesn’t really make it any easier, does it? Even as I took in the moral Midnight in Paris offered, I still longed to be in 1920s Paris. Who wouldn’t want to get smashed with Zelda Fitzgerald and sing along with Cole Porter? I don’t like drinking or singing in public, and I would eagerly do both of those things! I think part of what’s so wonderful about this film is that it shows the “golden age” fallacy for what it is—and then proceeds to offer us a delightful bit of escapist fantasy, anyway. Whether or not we decide that Gil would be better off in the present, we relish those moments in the past.
Because time travel isn’t real (THANK GOD), entertainment about the past is the next best thing. We watch period pieces in part so we can experience another time, and then safely return to our own when they’re over. But Midnight in Paris is unique in the way it shows us exactly what forces are at work. The film explains why we long for the past, and more damningly, why we’re wrong to, even as it’s giving us a non-chronological fairy tale. Luckily, we don’t have any choice in the matter. We can sit down and be grateful for a journey back to the Paris of before, and then acknowledge that, yes, maybe it is good to live in the now. If I were presented with the option of living in the past, I know what my rational response would be. But the heart wants what it wants, and this heart wants to drink whiskey with William Faulkner.