Another Midnight: A Reimagining of “Midnight In Paris”

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Source: IMDB.com

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!

A Way Forward

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For those of you wondering: is this going to be a personal blog now? Here’s the answer: No, note entirely. But also yes. Yes and.

In order to write about writing, theater, and the arts in general, I need to show where I’ve come from. The past couple years of my life have drastically changed me as a person (somehow simultaneously bringing me back to a more authentic self, more connected to who I was when I was growing up and also someone different – a little less afraid, a little stronger, a little more scarred and accepting of my scars.

I’ve changed greatly as a writer too – I used to have this sense of blockage that kept me from writing frequently. Post-heartbreak, post-world turned upside down, I don’t have this same struggle. Finding time to write is a continual issue but, after a lot of work soul-searching, and writing when I didn’t feel like it (especially when I didn’t feel like it), I have more ideas than I can handle. Not that I was short on ideas before but wasn’t like this. Have I exorcised what was blocking me or am I possessed by something new?

Everything in my writing goes back to current events and my personal philosophy that is growing and evolving with me as I evolve and grow. This is also why it’s important to know the background of where I’m coming from, why current politics have greatly effected my writing, and why it makes writing all the more important. Many of my friends who are artists and I sit around wondering how and what we create in a world where every day is like a fight to survive. The world has always been this way for many of us, of course, more so for some than others. It’s wound tighter now and it’s more visible than before and many of us who have privilege are experiencing this struggle for the first time. Some of us are more likely to take risks and say things we were afraid to say before – because if not now, when?

So – yes, this is a personal blog. This is a theater blog. This is a writing blog. This is a blog for me to rant and hope and fight for change. This is me to talk about fighting against mental health stigma, against ableism, against homophobia and biphobia and transphobia. This is a place to reckon with white privilege, to denounce racism and white supremacy, and to recognize how it continues to work on me – and resist it. This is a place to support femme and nonbinary voices, resist the patriarchy, and fight against toxic masculinity. These things have become clearer than ever for me and I expect they will become more clearly expressed on my blog. And so away we go.

Screaming into the Void

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I wrote this post last March but hadn’t gotten around to typing up and posting it until now. Why? Excuses mainly (busy, not ready, other self-sabotage to share it I suppose). While I enjoy reviewing, I really want to expand this blog to talk about playwriting and theater-making in a larger way, especially about my own writing process and current struggles and thoughts about making theater. So, here we go.

Writing, at times, is like screaming into a void. You’re not really sure anyone is listening but there’s something inside you that needs to be released and something you hope is eventually heard.

I initially wanted to write a post like this in February but I felt blocked and unsure where to start. So I posed this question to my Instagram story: What do you want to know about playwriting/writing? I began to get worried as I got no responses. My anxiety kicked in, saying, “No one cares. You’re an unproduced playwright. No one cares about playwriting – it’s not interesting like acting. After all, it’s not rocket science, you just slap some words on a page.”

Fortunately, my rationale kicked in, reminding my most of this is invalid. After all, 25+ people viewed this post and, while I eventually noticed I got one response, I realized that maybe no one else knew where to start either. If I as a playwright can’t decide, how can anyone else?

So I’ll start by yelling into the void – this is a job where most of the world is done where no one sees us, as Christina Ham wisely told our MFA group my first year at Augsburg. We may not be very glamorous, but I love what I do and I think it’s fascinating. Playwrights want to be heard and seen – especially with new plays – and I hope to provide a little more visibility to the work we do.

Dear Grace (#metoo)

Dear Grace,

I know this is not your real name, but hello. I read the article that was posted about you on Babe.net in which you discuss a situation that happened with Aziz Ansari. I would like to first say I believe you. There are plenty of reporters right now from CNN, the New York Times, and especially the Atlantic* who would rather complain about how you are making mountains out of molehills or accusing Ansari of not being able to read minds or any possible rhetorical strategy they can find to belittle your story. Do not let them belittle you. Your struggle is real. I understand it well. Because #metoo.

I admit that I was shocked when I initially heard about the allegations against Ansari. I enjoyed his book Modern Love and like his work. However, at this point, I’m finding that a lot of people I admire have done less than admirable things and, while no one is perfect, there is a difference between making mistakes and owning up to them, and hiding them and pretending to be a perfect of example and using your power to do so. I work in theater and I hear about how all too often someone’s success is used to protect them. It is part of the reason I am so afraid to discuss incidents that have happened to me. I am also afraid because of the responses to your stories, in which people blame you for being too ignorant, of not saying “no” clearly enough, of not facing the issue head on and feeling upset about it later and using it as “revenge porn” (clearly the reporter from the Atlantic who uses this phrase has absolutely no idea what revenge porn actually is). As a person who has felt upset about an incident and later was unsure how to handle it, I feel these are unfair attacks. I have been in situations where I could have more clearly communicated how I felt but I was so surprised that I was never asked or it was assumed that I wanted something a certain way that I wasn’t sure how to proceed from there. The point of your story is that men do not ask – they take – and that we live in a culture that socializes them to be this way. They assume if we are sexually active that, even if we are drunk, our mumbled yes is consent. They assume that if we say yes to one thing, we are okay with anything they do. They think that the moment they are done with us, we should be done with them and they do not care about our emotional well-being afterwards. They think that we can read their minds and we can completely understand what they want and that their needs come first. They think because they talk about feminism and post about feminism, it makes them a feminist and it some how absolves them of the sexist things they do in their personal lives because they present themselves as a feminist generally but fail to practice those things in their personal life. I of course am using “they” broadly here to talk about issues I have seen in my experiences. For those who would call me out, I don’t mean “all men” but several I have had encounters with. The fact that I still have to say “not all men” is an issue of how I’ve been socialized to excuse and avoid and pardon the flaws of men while women are constantly being reprimanded and people of other genders are kept invisible in most of these discussions. People of other genders are affected too. The patriarchy is not good for anyone. Why we perpetuate it and continue to give it power is beyond me.

Here is one of the many reasons why this matters: of the partners I have had (a statistic I will not disclose because that’s no one’s business), I have had exactly one who has asked me what I wanted, who has checked in with me, who has made sure that I am comfortable. He has taught himself to do this – I have not had to ask him to listen. We are working to listen more to each other but the fact that he started by asking, that he started by listening is something I have never experienced before. He is my current partner and we’ve been together for many months and still I am surprised when he checks in with me, when he wants to know what I want, when he asks questions. This should not surprise me. Having a male partner like this who is like some rare unicorn in the midst of everyone else is not the way things should be. But I’m afraid that the desires of women are terribly misunderstood and misrepresented. These reporters are not helping but reinforcing what has already been built against us. We are like birds, throwing ourselves against the bars of a cage and hoping the bars will break. I believe that one day the bars will break, or that someone will open up the cage. But it is going to take time. Until, stay strong, and I will keep fighting for women like you, like me, for all women. I hear you. I believe you. And #metoo.

 

*I am not linking to these articles because I do not want to be sending readers directly to them. They are poor excuses for reporting and opinion and the Atlantic piece is especially badly written.

A Young Playwright on Sam Shepard

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Source: bbc.com

It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.

I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith  and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:

To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.

And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.

So, Sam Shepard, one last thing: thank you.

Juliet: a poem

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Source: author’s photo

I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it. 

Juliet
“beautiful flower”
A contradiction
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways

Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
senseless hatred
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages

Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told

She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice

Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion

Juliet
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
her innocence
her love
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on