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Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Politics of Nostalgia: and why it is nothing to be ashamed of (1).

This essay of mine, on the politics of nostalgia, appears in the anti-war magazine The American Conservative. It's quite a long piece, so I'll be posting it instalments. Here's part one.

The master is back. After some middling efforts in recent years, Woody Allen has once again hit the bullseye. His most recent film, "Midnight in Paris," is entertaining, extremely funny and charming. It also poses some very interesting questions about nostalgia and the yearning for a 'golden age' of the past, questions that have important political dimensions.

The film’s protagonist is a screenwriter from Pasadena called Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson. Pender is a man "born too late" who really wishes he’d been living in Paris in the 1920s. Miraculously, he finds himself transported back to that place and time, and gets to meet his literary idols F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, and to show his novel about a nostalgia store to Gertrude Stein. He meets and falls in love with Adriana, the stunningly beautiful muse of Pablo Picasso, but finds, to his great surprise, that instead of relishing living in what he regards as the golden age, she is yearning instead for the Paris of ‘La Belle Epoque'. When the couple get transported to the 1890s, they find that artists there are nostalgic for the Renaissance.

Like Gil Pender, I am a unashamed nostalgist-I don’t think I have ever  identified with anyone in a movie as much as I have done with Owen Wilson’s character- and Midnight in Paris really got me thinking. I've written scores of articles on how good the 1940s were, how good the 50s were, how
good the 60s were, how good the 70s were. And like Pender I also love the 1920s- who couldn’t love a decade where woman wore long pearl necklaces, smoked cigarettes through ebony holders and Cole Porter wrote "Let's Do It?". But could it be that like Woody Allen’s hero, I and others who look back to a golden age are simply being too romantic and are in denial about the positive aspects of life in 2011?

Well, yes and no. Don’t get me wrong: there’s an awful lot to like about living in the second decade of the 21st century. Being able to read online articles from all over the world from the comfort of one’s own home. Antibiotics. Travelling from London to Paris in 2hrs and 15 minutes by Eurostar. Being able to chat face-to-face to friends round the world for free via Skype. The films of Woody Allen.

But it’s clear that we’re also missing out on quite a lot too, and that over the past 30 years something quite serious has gone wrong. The malaise is widespread, but it seems particularly pronounced in the US and Britain.
Part Two to follow.....


jack said...

The last fairly high profile film I saw of Woody Allen was Match Point which was pretty good and shows that he can do films of main stream appeal.

I had not heard of this movie before you mentioned it which did not seem to get much if any media publicity.

Did you see it in the cinema or is it out on Blu-Ray/DVD?

Neil Clark said...

hi jack:
I saw the film five times-
it's fantastic. You're right- it unfortunately didn't get the publicity it deserved. Not sure if you can get it on Blu-Ray- perhaps other readers might know.

Douglas said...

American conservatives have their own nostalgic reverie that we indulge to our own detriment. It's a nostalgia for the 80's, the days of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II standing up to the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites.

Why do I say it's to our detriment? Because it's a different world now than it was then. Ronald Reagan was not the man for the conflict between the West and radical Islamic nations. While Reagan thought the Soviets were thugs, he thought they valued survival over conquest. When 241 US Marines were killed in Beirut by a group of suicide bombers, Reagan had no answer for that.

The American musical group The Eagles wrote a song many years ago called "The Last Resort," with the lines "Who will provide the Grand Design? What is yours and what is mine? There is no more New Frontier, we have got to make it here."

I regret to inform you that the politicians you admire from your beloved 70's wouldn't have a good answer for the problems of today. You might, I might, but they wouldn't.

On a different note, someone recently told me how much they enjoyed Midnight in Paris, and I thought of you when they did.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Douglas, thanks for that- a very interesting post. re the Beirut bombing, did you ever catch ex CIA-field officer Robert Baer's documentary on it? Part of a series I think entitled 'Suicide Bombers' or 'History of Suicide Bombers'. Baer is a very fair commentator, and a real expert on the Middle East.

Be interesting wouldn't it if the 70s politicians came back today and took over. Here in Britain we could really do with Harold Wilson in charge of the Labour Party- and the country- again.

Unknown said...

This article really caught my attention and I am writing a summary of it for a project in one of my English Lit classes and need to quote your thesis in my essay. Can you tell me what it is and quote 2 or more of your supporting claims?