Oublions Le Passé

Friday, August 19, 2011 / 12:16 PM

A late exchange led to a simple and sad truth the other night: "Life seems to be about learning lessons a little too late to apply them."

I've been thinking about films and stories that shake a person into realizations and wondering why more of us don't immerse ourselves in things that will "wake us up." Perhaps because there is a danger in drowning and getting lost in those stories, but Cheever always made a point to tell us to stay grounded and not forget to go back into the cave with the knowledge we attained outside.

For the past few weeks, Midnight in Paris has been on my mind--not just because it's a delightful film, but it contains a delightful message that isn't thrown in your face. While some films beat their message into your brain (I'm looking at you, Legend of Bagger Vance), this absurd romp through place and time makes you nostalgic and desperate for the days of yore, only to slowly pull that sweet morsel away from your mouth at the last second before you overindulge.

I won't spoil the film for those who haven't seen it (and you really should see it), but the story's hero, Gil (Owen Wilson), stumbles upon another decade in Parisian history when the clock strikes midnight and is tossed into the world of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso. But in the morning, he's back to the present and his less-than-pleasant fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her snooty parents and pretentious friends. Every night, he returns to his 1920s romp and flirts with the beautiful and enigmatic Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and every night he drinks in the freedom; every morning, he yearns for the night. Then he discovers, Adriana yearns for the past as well--except her past is even farther in history for Gil. That's when he realizes that his past, the one he yearns for, is Adriana's present. "Maybe the present is a little unsatisfying because...life is a little unsatisfying," he says to her.

This is the heart of the film, the message Allen is trying to convey. He doesn't need to explain the fantastical time travel and, by the end of the film, that's far from your mind. The realist who is bothered by the lack of explanation has clearly missed the point, and so I'm hoping you can wrap your mind around this realistic point: live in the present moment.

It's another thing Cheever used to always say, and I can point to all the times it was scrawled in large letters in bright ink on the top of my notes for the day. It's so much easier to be nostalgic for the past and think of it as a "better" or "simpler" time, or perhaps a more "interesting" one. We can ignore all of the problems associated with those past decades and focus on the things that interest us precisely because we don't actually live in those times. I'm sure a hundred years from now after we've colonized Venus, citizens will look back to 2011 and say, "I wish we could live in those days!"

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.
I think what Gil says is true: we are constantly dissatisfied with our present because it is human nature to be. We're always looking backwards or forward, never appreciating what we have right here, right now because we seem to have a hard time just being happy. And what is "happiness" anyways? We want to believe the grass really is better on the other side of the fence, so we're always searching. I think sometimes we take our own torment too seriously--is life really that harsh?

The general answer, in my opinion, is, "No," but we're so concerned with the idea of "happiness" these days. In last month's issue of The Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb examined this conundrum too in her article "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy": "Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way."

Which ties into another Midnight in Paris lesson, despite it having been said by one of the most annoying characters of the film: "Nostalgia is denial--denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is golden age thinking--the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in. It's a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present."

Now to just remember these lessons during the next existential crisis...

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  1. I always seem to do my best thinking during an existential crisis. Unfortunately, it's always the same crisis and the same thinking. It seems my crisis of memory is a more serious one!