“You’re in love with a fantasy.”
“I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.”
“The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.”(dialogue from the film Midnight in Paris)
Midnight in Paris may be Woody Allen’s last great movie, and it’s one of my favourite films of all time. I relate a lot to the main character, Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson (who, as far as I’m concerned, is the perfect actor to play the Woody Allen part for younger characters). Gil is an aspiring novelist who thinks the best time and place is Paris in the 20s.
Here’s a clip of some dialogue between his fiancée (Inez) and two friends (Paul and Carol), after his fiancée starts to tell them about the novel Gil is writing. The lead character works in a nostalgia shop.
Here’s a thirty second clip:
Here’s the dialogue (from the Midnight in Paris script, slightly ad-libbed in the clip):
CAROL: What’s a nostalgia shop?
PAUL: Not one of those stores that sells Shirley Temple dolls and old radios? I never know who buys that stuff – who’d want it.
FIANCÉE (pointedly): People who live in the past. Who think their lives would have been happier if they lived in an earlier time.
PAUL: And just what era would you have preferred to live in. . . ?
FIANCÉE (teasing Gil): Paris in the twenties—in the rain, when the rain wasn’t acid rain.
PAUL: I see. And no global warming, no TV or suicide bombing, nuclear weapons, drug cartels.
CAROL: The usual menu of clichéd horror stories.
PAUL: Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.
FIANCÉE: He’s a romantic. Gil would be just fine living in a perpetual state of denial.
PAUL: The name for this fallacy is called, “Golden Age Thinking.” The erroneous notion that a different time period was better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those who find coping with the present too difficult.
I’m not sure if I’m entirely a Golden Age Thinker, but I’ve certainly used Gil’s exact words in my own life: “I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.” I long for an elusive simpler time. Earlier in the film Gil’s fiancée tells him that he’s “in love with a fantasy.” And the film is about Gil figuring this out.
It’s a really fun film: it’s set in modern-day Paris, but, through mysterious circumstances, every night at midnight in a certain spot in the city, Gil gets picked up by a chauffeured vintage car, which takes him to hobnob with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and a host of other famous artists (most of whose names I don’t recognize) in 1920s Paris. [SPOILER ALERT!] There he falls in love with a beautiful young Parisienne of the time, whom he later discovers wishes she lived during La Belle Epoque—Paris in the 1890s—because her decade—Gil’s favourite—is boring.
Eventually Gil realizes that “The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying,” which is a lesson I’m still learning. I think I can’t quite accept the fact that the present—beautiful, difficult, depressing, hopeful as it is—is all I have, as odd as that may sound.
Which is why Gordon T. Smith stung with some of his words in his book Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. In a chapter about vocational holiness (“Called to Do Good Work”), he writes,
We are called to be present to our circumstances, our world—to be agents of peace and justice in the world as it actually is rather than as we wish it were. This means we turn not only from pretense (wishing we were someone else or acting as though we are someone else) but also from wishful thinking and illusion regarding our circumstances.
…This means that we do not live emotionally in a previous time. We have no patience with “the good old days.” They are long gone. We discern in light of what is actually the case today. This also means we do not engage in wishful thinking. In other words, we do not dwell on what we wish were true but on what is actually true.
…We live in the world as it presents itself—no nostalgia, no pining for an earlier golden age. We are not waiting around for good fortune to suddenly and finally hit us. We stop investing emotional energy in the “what-if’s,” and we get on with it.
All of us are called to such a time as this. None of us are ahead of our times, and no one is born too late and able to complain that the opportunity passed us by. Rather, we are each invited to respond to the call of God for this day.(Gordon T. Smith, Called to Be Saints, 104-105)
Eugene Peterson, addressing pastors in Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, has much the same thing to say as Smith, but he says it much more succinctly: my work is “these people, at this time, under these conditions” (p. 131).
I have some maturing to do I guess. As we all do. But it’s not maturing I particularly want to do, even though it would make the difficulties of today that much more bearable. I think Gil’s realization that “the present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying” is in many respects a very Christian perspective. We recognize that we live in a broken world, and all is not well, even as we hope that eventually it will be.
I’m reminded of something I quoted in a post almost twelve years ago:
Our creation story does not call us to roam through life in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, that is the very thing from which we are saved. Our story portrays the great journey of God into his limited and needy creation.
Biblical hope is found when Christians hear the gospel and take their place in the great processions of the body of Christ. The proclamation of that hope is that in communing with Christ we discover all the grace we need to live joyful but limited lives. For in communing with God we encounter the mystery of his presence with us.(M. Craig Barnes, Yearning: Living Between How It Is & How It Ought To Be, p. 21)
Wishful thinking, the grass is greener, “Golden Age Thinking”. . . none of these things actually make things better. In fact, they probably make them worse.
Here is the moment of realization for Gil, which his Parisienne love (Adriana) does not understand, but is a lesson worth remembering. They’ve jumped from the 1920s to the 1890s, and Adriana wants to stay in the 1890s, Le Belle Epoque:
Because if you stay here and this becomes your present, sooner or later you’ll imagine another time was really the golden time. . . The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.
. . .if I’m ever going to write anything worthwhile I’ve got to get rid of my illusions and that I’d be happier in the past is one of them.(dialogue from the Midnight in Paris script, slightly ad-libbed in the clip)
Or, if I’m ever going to be a better pastor, or if I’m ever going to live a worthwhile life I’ve got to get rid of the illusion that I’d be happier in the past.