I have a complicated relationship with the film Midnight in Paris. It was one of my favorite films in college, mainly because I loved that it featured 1920s Paris, time travel, and a plethora of my favorite actors. However, my feelings towards it have become more complicated as I’ve grown to understand more about Woody Allen’s films and who he is as a person. Generally speaking, I’m not a Woody Allen fan and, while from time to time I like his films, he portrays a vantage that’s a specific kind of white male centric. There’s a lot of controversy about his personal life and, while I generally try to separate personal life choices from someone’s work, there are times when I just can’t do that. This is one of those times. He’s simply exactly a creator I’m keen on supporting. While I dislike cancel culture, I also dislike supporting people who knowingly do harm and it distinctly colors the way I look at what they create.
That being said, Midnight in Paris was a film I continued to return to despite my dislike of Woody Allen. Now, revisiting the plot in a world where Trump is president, I’ve realized the story leaves a lot to be desired for me. It’s absolutely fun and I delighted in this just a short time ago. But looking at history with a 2019 vantage, where how we tell history and the dangers of nostalgia are a great deal more visceral, I began to think about what I would do if I were to re-envision Midnight in Paris.
In my heart, I have been and always will be a fanfic writer. It doesn’t seem absurd to me that I would take a film like this and want to tell a different story – one that expresses my view of the world. Now of course, I didn’t make this film, but when you’re already conflicted about a creator, sometimes fanfic becomes move of a reinvention process, rather than an expansion process and it feels powerful to take ownership of something which you feel distorts or hides certain voices. If you’re a fan of Woody Allen (and if you are, you are entitled to your opinion but I would ask you to think about the effects of men like Allen on masculinity and filmmaking), you’re probably furious that I’d dare change a film by a “great American filmmaker.” Midnight in Paris it’s own thing though – I’m here as my tired queer femme self to brainstorm some different ways to telling stories and create something else. So let’s begin.
Let’s start with our protagonist. In Midnight in Paris, we follow Owen Wilson’s character Gil as he tours Paris and travels back in time to meet some of Paris’ most famous residents. Gil, like many of Allen’s films, would seem to be a projection Allen’s ideal man – down to earth, sheepish, who’s really kind of a “nice guy.” I’m not terribly interested in this protagonist (sorry Owen Wilson). I am, however, interested in Paul, played by Michael Sheen in the film.
Paul is meant to look like an elitist, someone upper class who has lots of highfalutin knowledge he has to show off. And he does this well in the film – maybe a little too well. He becomes one of the better informed people on the trip (as opposed to the “Ugly American” stereotypes of Gil’s would-be in-laws who don’t know anything about the place they’re visiting). I propose that he’s a far more interesting person to fall into the time traveling plot line for a number of reasons.
For one, he has a lot of white privilege. If we’re going to talk about time travel from my view, we need to talk about white male privilege. In almost every narrative I’ve read about time travel, the person doing the traveling is a man (with the exception of Doctor Who, Outlander, a manga series called Fushigi Yugi, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Also, if you know more stories about time traveling women, share them with me). Perhaps this is because a lot of time travel stories are written by men. Perhaps because it’s “safer” or less suspicious for a man to be alone, making a story easier to tell. Time travel would be complicated for me for a number of reasons – I’m queer, I’ve got nine tattoos, dyed red hair, glasses, and some serious generalized anxiety disorder. Most eras in time are not going to be kind to me. I’m white, so I’ve got that privilege, and I have no physical disability. But if we only write protagonists who are going to have it easy getting sucked into the past, what are we saying about the past? It isn’t inherently better or easier (which I’ll discuss later on as I dig into things).
The point is, we make Paul our protagonist because it sets us up to discuss these things. He’s flawed – he’s really flawed. He’s a bit of a man-splainer, he’s got a whole lot of privilege, but he’s also got access to something we need to rumble with – historical knowledge. Hang on to that – it’s going to come back.
For all intensive purposes, Michael Sheen will stay cast as Paul (don’t give me that look, coworkers, friends and family. I know what you’re thinking. Hear me out). If you, like me, have only recently realized that Michael Sheen is in Midnight in Paris (or only realized by me telling you) and you’re reeling because you’ve seen it three times and each time thought that actor who played Paul was really quite talented and decides he must be some American actor you should look up, only to now discover he’s this Welsh shapeshifter you’ve seen in films for years but never recognize because… well, shapeshifter (but somewhere in your subconscious it’s caught on) – welcome to every experience watching Sheen in a movie ever. Craig Ferguson deemed him the best actor in the world and I’d agree. Thought there were at least three separate actors playing all his roles but no, it’s actually just one. If this alone doesn’t make you feel a little in love with him, I don’t know what to say. Sheen’s not the only actor capable of doing this kind of shifting but perhaps the one who is the most infuriatingly good at it and duped me for almost two decades.
Now that we’ve got that bit of fanning out of the way, let’s talk about the premise of the original film. Allen focuses on how people feel drawn to a certain period of history which is where they belong. Some people belong in the 1920s, some in the Belle Epoch, some in the present. While I too love certain eras of history, I feel no draw to live there (please see: anxious tattooed queer as mentioned above). I also really struggle to romanticize a past where women were trapped in abusive marriages, racism was rampant, and white supremacy was very in (more in than it is today, since it’s never gone away). Rosy retrospection is a real part of looking at history but when it becomes the only way of looking at history… it’s highly problematic.
The part of the movie that always makes me the most upset are the scenes with Zelda Fitzgerald. Notably, I’m viciously protective of Zelda Fitzgerald – this is a woman who never got her due, who struggled with mental illness her entire life in a society that had no idea how to deal with mental illness, whose husband went through her personal diaries to use in his writing, who was kept from writing by her husband and his friends who told her she wasn’t a good writer even though – and I will take this to the grave – she was a better writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald (don’t at me. I’ve read Save Me the Waltz and it’s glorious. Zelda was robbed). Every depiction of Zelda is of a flippant, silly party girl – and any basic research will tell you that there’s so much more than that. Okay, yes, we get hints of her struggles with mental illness in Midnight in Paris, but it feels stereotypical and overdone. This is not an acting issue – it’s a writing issue. We don’t get an idea that Zelda is really a person. Hell, we don’t get the idea that most of the people Gil visits are anything more than historical facades. Sure, Hemmingway talks in short clipped sentences, but are we going to talk about his misogyny or his obsession with masculinity? Are we going to talk about Dali’s radical politics? Or the fact that Gertrude Stein was really complicated but also one of the most prominent LGBT artists of the time (as was Cole Porter)?
Ultimately, one story can’t tell us everything about 1920s France. Nothing can tell us everything about 1920s France. We will never know what it was really like because we are not there. History always sells us a bit short, since it only tells certain perspectives and, as Bernard Shaw says in his introduction to Saint Joan, “The variety of conclusions reached show us how little historians know about other people’s minds.” History far too infrequently accounts of psychology – even historians themselves don’t do this. We are constantly looking back at history with a modern perspective and this changes how we and how historians summarize things. The entire process of creating history (something I’ve studied throughout my academic and theatrical career) is really freaking complicated. We can all look at a historical event and convey it differently. We can all know or read about a person and see them differently. But there are things we can – and must agree on. Though I’m building upon the original premise of the film, this is where things start to deviate a lot.
With Gil, Gil discovers information that only someone personally knew the people he meets in the 1920s would know, which he then shares during one of Paul’s smarty pants tours. Paul is baffled and more or less thinks Gil is making up history. On one hand, this scene is important to how history is made – certain things get remembered, certain things get forgotten. And some things get utterly destroyed or misinterpreted because the story being told is something those making history (generally white privileged men) don’t want to be remembered or accounted for. On the other hand, Paul’s thinking that this isn’t true history has some validity. In a world where facts are not factual enough and “fake news” and “post-truth” are all concepts we have to grapple with every day, Gil’s observations of his own experiences in history seem a lot less… well, trustworthy. History isn’t just what we think or feel is true. It helps that Gil was actually there but… we get into some murky territory with this. Which is important but not addressed other than to make Paul look like an asshole. We might actually need Gil in this case to compare/contrast this in this fanfic-y hodgepodge. Or at least references to the previously made film.
There’s a lot to to dig into here. And Paul can get really meta juggling through it all. Plot-wise, this film probably doesn’t look too different from the original – an American in Paris, though in this case who knows why Paul is there (you pick – is he traveling with Rachel McAdam’s Inez? Has he chosen to be an ex-pat like the historical figures he’s destined to meet? Is he doing some research that’s brought him here?). Either way, a magical cab takes him back in time. On some level, these are the people he’s read about – Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Zelda are what he imagined. But they aren’t. Because history can only tell us so much – and what we learn isn’t always the full story. Tom Hiddleston gets to play a complicated, dislikable Scott Fitzgerald, same goes for Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, and a far more interesting and sympathetic portrayal for Alison Pill to nail with Zelda Fitzgerald. And if I don’t get a queer Kathy Bates with Gertrude Stein, what’s even the point. Also incredibly necessary are more diverse representations – Paris wasn’t all white, heteronormative, cis, upper class, or of the same physical ability. Showing that only goes to reinforce the ideas of telling history we’re battling against. Josephine Baker and Jean Cocteau are two notable figures I found in a minute’s worth of research who’s stories deserve to be told – and I’m sure there are countless others.
Added on to all of this is the concept that history is not a stagnant thing – our perception of it changes as our understanding of the world changes. Historical facts are facts, but how we discuss them and analyze them evolves (ex: my generation feels WAY different about Christopher Columbus today than my parents’ generation, thanks to the discussion of his journals and personal feelings to indigenous cultures that previously was glossed over). The most important thing in discussing history, I believe, is that it’s not just one thing – you can’t make it look simple or pretty or nostalgic or simply say the past was better than the present. We can’t whitewash or sterilize history or leave out the parts we don’t like. Nor can we ignore the things we don’t know or the voices that have been obscured or the things that have been forgotten. It’s complicated and messy and we should show it in all its glory.
When, then, would I take something like Midnight in Paris to do this? Why not create something entirely new? Fanfic is a jumping off point – it’s a way to take something familiar and change it into something unfamiliar. Which is how the creative process works in general. All things are fan fictions in one way or another. Because this film has some lovely stylistic things to play with and Paul seems like the quintessential time traveler historical to challenge and change, I like starting there. But we don’t stay there. We need more perspectives – a fellow time traveler who joins Paul and shows him what it’s like to not be white, to not be a man, to have a different kind of body and set of experiences. White men aren’t the norm or the center of the world and this is really important to understand this if we want to transform our understanding of history and the world.
The more I think about this, the more fun I think it would be to create a graphic novel series around this concept – Paul might be a returning character, but maybe he’s not the central character. Maybe he gets swept up into someone else’s story, someone else’s reckoning with time and history. Each novel could be written by a different voice with a different perspective. And by the end of this you’ve got an entirely different story – which is generally what happens with fan fiction and why I love it so much. It takes a story and makes it change and evolve – not unlike what history and time does. If you’re still here after this long ramble about how to pull apart and lovely film and rebuild in a way that aesthetically would simultaneously please and displease Oscar Wilde (here I am taking something that’s art for art’s sake and going all historiography on it. Sorry, Wilde – you’d love/hate it, methinks), I thank you. I encourage you what else in culture can benefit – either for our own personal enjoyment or to enrich cultural conversation – by fan fic-ing or adapting known works.
Note: I will be adding more fan fiction analysis of art and culture along with more essay-type posts as we go along here. Fan fiction got me where I am a writer and I feel it’s important to pay homage to that legacy – especially since I’m still writing fan fiction. I’m open to feedback but I’m pretty set on including these pieces, so I hope you enjoy them!