The Eiffel Tower Viewed From Pont Alexandre III Bridge
A Magical Realist Fable
From the moment I saw the notice that Woody Allen had written and directed a movie set in Paris, in which the central character was captivated by the artistic history of the “City of Lights,” I knew it was going to be a fascinating journey. With America’s most consistently intelligent, inventive and uniquely visionary filmmaker exploring my second favorite city – New York is in first place – I figured it was a can’t miss proposition.
I was not, as it turns out, altogether accurate in my expectations. Still, the film has many notable achievements. Since I have long felt that Woody Allen’s work has more in common with the European art film – ala Luis Buniel’s “Discreet Charm Of the Bourgeoisie,” Lina Wurtmueler’s “Swept Away,” the films of Frederico Fellini, etc. – he seemed completely at home exploring Paris.
For these European filmmakers Ideas, character development and artistic photography is preferred to guns, explosions and car chases that dominate the content of American films. Deep explorations of complex human motivation and interactions are privileged over ostentatious exhibitions of the technical capability for creating fantastic illusions that is available to the contemporary filmmaker.
Since these films are so costly to produce their primary objective is not artistic but financial success. This is the reason why some of the most interesting films, moving pictures whose narratives increase our knowledge of the world and enrich us culturally and even spiritually, are confined to the small “art movie houses” like the Angelica.
Visually Midnight In Paris may well be Woody’s most beautiful film; his approach to his subject was like a fine artist painting a pertty woman and is determined to faithfully capture her most alluring features and compelling charms. Although he was helped by the incredible beauty of the City – no American city can match Paris’ timeless beauty; New Orleans is but a pale imitation – Woody managed to present a unique perspective on a cityscape that we have seen many times before.
The lush photography, much of it shot at night, composes a love poem to this celebrated city…Woody’s adoration is palpable. If it takes one to know one, I think it fair to say that he is a worshipful admirer of this crowning achievement of French civilization.
The tale revolves around a highly successful Hollywood screenwriter who feels that he has missed his true calling as a novelist, and yearns to leave the cultural desert of “La La Land” to relocate in Paris where he hopes to find the muse that inspired the great artists of post war Paris in the 1920’s. Especially that fabulous coterie of American expatriates collectively known as “The Lost Generation,” whose cross cultural interactions and exchange of aesthetic ideas with the European avant garde created modern art. A milieu that one of its most illustrious figures, future Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway, called: “A Movable Feast.”
Wonderfully played by Owen Wilson, the bumbling, self-deprecating, somewhat clueless, yet thoughtful and intelligent young American seeker of wisdom and truth is the kind of role that woody usually plays in his films. I would hazard the guess that Woody cast Owen in the role because he is too old to play it himself.
However it is clear that age has not eroded the incisive wit, penetrating intelligence and riotous humor of Woody Allen. Like any imaginative writer who is at all familiar with the fascinating history of this city, the temptation to explore that illustrious legacy is ever present. And he makes the most of it.
By juxtaposing the materialistic obsessions and cultural indifference of our hapless hero’s fiancee and her parents – who are visiting Paris on a business trip – he establishes what many people believe to be the central difference in the values of French and the American civilization: Americans worship commerce and the French revere culture.
Hence in America becoming a billionaire is the pinnacle of achievement, while in France it is the great intellectual or artists that is the height of human aspiration. He does this not by preaching, but in cleaver telling lines casually dropped like silent but deadly farts. It is also made clear in the aspirations of the writer and his fiancée.
Star Crossed Lovers
Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams were entertaining in the roles
While he has become bored with the sterile conspicuous consumption paid for by writing commercially successful but simple minded Hollywood flicks – and the even more banal rewrite jobs on the scripts of less talented writers – and wants to relocate to Paris and live the bohemian life typical of the engaged artists of the 20’s, his future wife dismisses his dream as dangerous foolishness and aspires to own an even bigger house on posh Malibu Beach.
Woody brings all of the disdain of the cosmopolitan New Yorker who finds life in the US nearly impossible outside of Manhattan – a sentiment shared by this writer – to his characterization of the vulgar materialism and cultural impoverishment of the fiancée and her parents.
Since none of the things that interest the writer also interest her they soon end up going their own way. After wandering off and getting lost in the winding streets of Paris, unable to speak the language he ends up sitting on the steps of a building trying to gain his bearings. As the clock strikes midnight a cab filled with champagne drinking revelers suddenly stops and insist that he join their party.
This is the beginning of a series of surreal encounters with ghosts from the past, the mythical figures who populate his fantasies. They are all there, and in a series of encounters over the next few days he engages in conversations that take us back to that halcyon era when the most influential creative personalities of the age were working out the aesthetics of what we now understand as modernism.
“Music gives resonance to memory” wrote Ralph Ellison, and Woody Allen evidently believes it too. A clarinetist of mediocre talent but longstanding interest in traditional New Orleans Jazz and the great American songbook, he demonstrates the power of music to evoke the ambiance of an era. No composer’s music captures this era of Gay Parisian life like the witty literate lyrics set to the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and blues based music that characterized the songs of Cole Porter; who was a prominent presence among the band of gifted American expatriates that included the poet T.S. Elliot, Novelist Earnest Hemingway, the abstract painter Man Ray, writer/critic and patron of the arts Gertrude Stein, et al. All through this unique and clever movie the music of Cole Porter plays in the background, supplying the soundtrack of a unique era. Along with the excellent costumes and elegant settings we are convincingly taken back in time.
The Americans are joined by an equally gifted cast of Europeans that include the film makers Jean Cocteau and Luis Buniel, painters Degas, Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Salvadore Dali and Tolouse Le Trec, the talented dwarf whose paintings of Parisian showgirls and whores continue to fascinate art lovers around the world. That we encounter him sitting at his table in the Moulin Rouge, where many of his paintings were composed, is a measure of the extent to which Woody Allen has attempted to maintain the authenticity of the era in the telling of his revealing fable about the folly of seeking a return to “Golden Ages” long past.
I shall say no more about the plot, or the lessons it teaches, because then I will have said too much and ruined the experience for those who read this. Which in my view would be something of a sin and a shame; I will have denied to you gentle reader the exquisite pleasure I experienced in the theater just to demonstrate how clever I am.
It is enough to say that this beautifully achieved film reaches a level of intellectual gravitas that one associates with a well written novel of ideas. In fact, some of the aesthetic devices Woody Allen employs remind me of the “Magical Realism” of great novelists like the Brazilian Jorge Amado, the Columbian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Afro-American Ishmael Reed.
In fact, the way Allen moves back and forward in time as if traveling from one room to another, and his use of satire and parody to eviscerate the ideas of his philosophical adversaries, remind me very much of Reed’s Novel’s “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, “Flight to Canada” and “Japanese By Spring.” Although it is rumored abroad that Mel Brooks filched the aesthetic concept for his hit movie “Blazing Saddles” from Reed’s “Yellow Back Radio,” I would not suggest that Woody is guilty of the same practice; although one cannot copyright concepts and all writers plagiarize each other all the time. At the end of the day however, it is the magnificent city of Paris, with its striking architectural beauty and endless cultural attractions that is the star of the show.
When I visited Paris for the first time to attend a conference at the Sorbonne, which explored the history of black artists in that city, I wrote an essay titled, “Le Professors Noir et Paris: Uncovering a Cultural Legacy,” which was published in Ishmael Reed’s cultural journal Conch. But when that failed to assuage the urge to explore the city’s colorful history, I wrote five big chapters in the second volume of my yet unpublished novel that delves into the it’s exciting past.
Once I took a walk around that magical city I immediately understood how France’s colonial subjects who came to Paris to get a university education fell in love with French culture and was willing to assimilate. Its ambiance is intoxicating, its culture infectious and its grandeur cannot be denied.
Alas, while this brilliant master work by Woody Allen captures much of the Parisian milieu of the 1920’s, he fails to present a completely faithful portrait of Americans in Paris in the same way that his contemporary portraits of Manhattan also fail. This failure lies in his treatment of the black presence.
Even as the music playing in the background displays the marked influence of the Blues, Ragtime and New Orleans Jazz – characterized by the syncopated rhythms and prominence of the wailing bluesy clarinet – Allen ignores the tremendous influence of black Americans in the era of “Le Jazz Hot” in Paris.
So prominent was Jazz music in Paris during this period that Anthropologist William Shack, who studied this development tells us: “Between World Wars I and II, Paris became the center for the diffusion in all of Europe of that emerging popular musical genre called jazz. Introduced to France by African American soldiers during World War I, jazz captivated the French, sustaining a despotic hold over them throughout the second Great War. France’s fascination with jazz continues to this day.”
The Parisian love of black American instrumental music began when French musicians heard the great military band of the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment of New York, which was called “The Harlem Hell Fighters” by the French! They were the most highly decorated American regiment by France in world War I, and wherever they went they were celebrated by the French people. Especially the mademoiselles!
James Reece Europe Conducting his band in France
They mesmerized the Crowd and confounded French Musicians
Composed of great black New York musicians, and led by master musician James Reese Europe, a pioneer in the development of Afro-American complex instrumental music, this band was called “The greatest military band in the history of the western world” by James Weldon Johnson – himself a twentieth century Renaissance man. Whether Johnson’s assessment is true or not – and as a founder of ASCAP and brother of J. Rosamond Johnson, one of America’s greatest musicians, he is a reliable critic. And as the Puerto Rican musician, poet, and musicologist Aurora Flores points out “Sixteen of the horn players were Afro-Puertoricans that Reese recruited directly from the Island. Among them the internationally acclaimed composer Rafael Hernandez who then remained in N.Y. opening the first Latin music record store in East Harlem in 1927!”
Afro-Puerto Rican Composer Rafael Hernandez
Jim Europe’s orchestra’s presence in France during World War I changed French music and had a profound effect on French culture. When the Harlem Hellfighters’ band played a concert of French marches and Afro-American Ragtime music in Paris after the Armistice, the French musicians refused to believe that they were not playing specially designed instruments. And they changed their minds only after they gave the black American musicians their instruments to play and heard them produce the same exotic sounds.
As Aurora pointed out, one of those brass players that so astonished the French musicians was the great trombonist Jaun Tizol, who went on to world wide fame with the premiere American exponent of Afro-American classical music: The Duke Ellington Orchestra! In fact he co-wrote one of the Orchestra’s major hits; the American standard “Caravan,” which has been recorded by some of the greatest singers of the twentieth century. Ellington remembered their collaboration: “One day in 1936, trombonist Juan “Tizol came up with part of it… it wasn’t in tempo, he stood and sort of ad libbed. He played the first ten bars, and we took it and worked out the rest of it.”
Jaun would visit Paris and thrill music lovers many times after his historic performance with the Harlem Hell Fighters Band. They were just as big a hit when they marched down Fifth Avenue with the incomparable dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson marching out front as Drum Major!
When Jim Europe returned from France, he made the following statement about that experience in an article published in a 1919 edition of the Literary Digest titled A Negro Explains Jazz: “I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negroes should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies…. We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.”
This was a decision that had a profound effect on the direction of Afro-American and French music. In the post war period that followed, many blacks decided to remain in France where they were not the objects of racial hatred but admired liberators. Afro-American style became en vogue with the dawn of the “Jazz Age.”
Hence during the period covered in this movie, anthropologist William A. Shack tells us in his study Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars, “Harlem-style nightclub culture rapidly paved the streets of Montmartre. Like missionaries of jazz, black American musicians spread the gospel of hot sounds in tiny cafes and a few sumptuous settings that attracted rich and famous British and American tourists, and French socialites. In the Parisian music idiom, this era of the Roaring Twenties was often called the era of Le Jazz hot.”
“Paris, in the twenties, witnessed the rise to stardom of black American Josephine Baker in her musical La Revue Negre; she later became the toast of the City of Light. Ada Smith, better known as “Bricktop,” brought to Paris her experience of nightclub life gained in the cabaret worlds of Chicago and Harlem. Eugene Jacques Bullard, the United States first black combat pilot, who flew for France during World War I, held forth at his nightclub, Le Grand Duc, where he served up jazz and soul food, in equal proportions.
“These developments in the Montmartre jazz scene coincided with the making of the Harlem Renaissance, which shaped the professional and personal lives of black American musicians, composers, writers, and artists. In Paris, their interactions among themselves and with the wider Parisian society molded the day-to-day character of Harlem in Montmartre.”
Eugene Bullard: The World’s First Black Military Aviator
Any one of these personalities deserve a movie of their own, especially Eugene Bullard, who was not only became an Ace fighter pilot in the French Air Force, after first distinguishing himself as an infantryman, but married a beautiful upper class French woman with the family’s blessings. However Bullard was not the only dashing black war veteran making the rounds in Post war Paris. There was the colorful Senegalese prize fighter Amadou M’Barick Fall, whose ring name was “Battling Siki.” Having won the highest awards given by the French government for valor in combat – the Croix-de-Guerre and Military Medal – Amadou was one of the most decorated veterans in France.
Ready To Rumble!
The First African World Champion
On September 24, 1922, Battling Siki won the World Light-Heavyweight Championship, before a crowd of forty thousand spectators at the Buffalo Velodrome in Paris. The crowd was stunned by his spectacular victory, in which he stopped the Frenchman Georges Carpentier in the early rounds with his famous “Windmill Punch.” Among the astonished spectators was none other than boxing aficionado and amateur pugilist Earnest Hemingway, Who would later write about it.
A fairly typical American racist, who barred Jackie Robinson when he invited the Brooklyn Dodgers to his home in Cuba, Hemingway resented Siki’s humiliation of the white champion – like Muhammad Ali some forty years later Siki taunted Carpentier by telling him “you don’t hit that hard” every time the champ landed a blow. Siki was an elegant dresser, big partyer and ladies man.
But despite the fact that he was a highly decorated war hero and spoke several languages including reading and writing French, he was often ridiculed by jealous Frenchmen as an “African Savage who spoke in grunts”and the Championzee. Clearly the admiration that the French felt for the dashing Afro-Americans was not extended to all their African colonial subjects, in spite of the thousands of Senegalese soldiers who died on the the battle field in defense of France in the Great War.
Nevertheless Siki had plenty of admires – especially among the ladies – and cut a dashing figure promenading about Paris with his pet lion on a leash. He was also known for firing his pistol in the air after a bit too much champagne. He was murdered in New York’s Hell’s kitchen by a gunshot in the back in 1925, after having survived an incident with a southern sheriff when he defied segregation laws as a French citizen. A full fledged biography was published on him by the University of Arkansas Press in 2006, “Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race, and Murder in the 1920s,” by Professor Peter Benson.
Then there was the fabulous Josephine Baker, who promenaded about Paris dressed to kill with her pet leopard, and later became a secret agent for the French resistance against the Nazi’s. How could Old Woody, who shows so much insight otherwise, overlook these marvelous characters that would have added vivid color to his tale – pun intended.
“La Bakiar” and Her Cat!
In Naughty Paris….
This entire cultural phenomenon, as fascinating as it was, is given only a brief cameo in the film when Zelda Fitzgerald – a vapid suicidal drunk – suggested that they leave the posh white party they were attending and go over to Brick Top’s club where the real action was. Brick Top, who got her nick name because her hair was the color of red bricks, was a fascinating figure. she learned about the night club business from World Heavy-weight Champion Jack Johnson, who opened the most fabulous night club in Chicago after he won the the title from Tommy Burns, and gave it a French name: “Cafe du Champion.”
Brick Top was the featured singer and Girl Friday in the club, so she learned the night club business from the top of the food chain. She was actually on stage performing when Jack’s white wife blew her brains out upstairs because she was despairing over his open affairs with other women – most of whom were also white!
Once in the club we hear the exciting sound of black Jazz, and observe a beautiful elegantly dressed black woman doing a sensual dance that mesmerized the crowd. However we are left to surmise who she is, for no one speaks her name. Viewers who are knowledgeable of this period, like the present writer, can assume that she is Josephine Baker.
But why should we have to wonder when he gives ample space to Zelda, who couldn’t wash Josephine’s drawers if talent, beauty, and cultural influence are the measuring stick! But then, if as spike Lee and others have pointed out, blacks are invisible in Woody’s films about New York – where black people are everywhere – what can we expect when the setting is Paris in the 1920’s.
However all this begs yet another question: “Is this what white folks mean when they talk about the “color blind society?” Are we to go from objects of derision to the Invisible Man? Is that to be our fate on the silver screen? The answer to that question really lies with the black community itself, because we have our own great artists of the cinema: Spike Lee, the Hudlin Brothers, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Euzhan Palcy, John Singleton, et al. These filmmakers are more than capable of producing a body of works about black life to rival the stories of any group of cinematic artists anywhere. But they have little or no support from their primary audience.
Thanks to the documentarian St. Claire Bourne, we have a film short portraying Langston Hughes in Paris, where he was a ‘cook” and dish washer in Bullard’s Club Le Grand Duc. Although Woody makes no mention of him either, there is no more influential poet in the 20th century! Langston is the father of black poetry – poetry based on the rhythms of black music, a genre free of European aesthetic conventions, whether in English, French or Spanish on both sides of the Ocean – this is well documented in the two volume masterwork “The Life of Langston Hughes,” by one of our our great literary scholars Arnold Rampersad.
I suspect that his omission was motivated as much by ignorance of history as racial chauvinism. Nevertheless, Langston tutored the great Afro-Cuban poet Nicholas Guillien, who would go on to not only inspire an Afro-Cu ban movement in literature, but would also become the Poet Laureate of revolutionary Cuba! When Langston met Guillien he was writing in conventional European poetic forms; he asked him one day after listening to Guillien read some of his verse: “Why don’t you write poems based on the rhythms of the rumba?”
Since one of the things Guillien loved about Langston’s poetry was it’s blues forms and cadences, he took heed. The result was the birth of an entirely new poetic form in the Spanish language. Langston had the same effect on the great Haitian writer Jacques Romain author of the poetic and insightful novel about the Haitian Peasantry “Masters of the Dew.” This novel was quite an achievement for a Haitian man of of Jacques color and class. And Langston helped him see the beauty of the peasantry.
When he met Jacques he was writing French Sonnets, which reflected his French education and francophillc cultural orientation. Langston told him to listen to the drums in the Voodoo rituals and other “tom toms” for his rhythmic conception. Langston’s own poems was a critical element in sparking the Negritude Movement in the black Francophone world in Africa and the diaspora, as one of the leading lights of that movement “Leopold Sedar Senghor,” testifies at the beginnig of St. Claire Bourne’s film.
Langston Hughes was clearly as interesting as any personality in the “Lost Generation” of American expatriates in Jazz Age Paris, and was better looking and a sharper dresser too! But you wouldn’t know any of this from Woody Allen’s movie. Yet until Afro-Americans support their serious cinematic artists we shall remain invisible in the great film narratives that shape reality in the minds of thoughtful people around the world. And the failure to include the black presence on the part of serious white filmmakers will continue to result in a gross distortion of reality that, at its best, can only produce a flawed masterpiece like Midnight In Paris.
Langston Hughes: He worked out the Jazz esthetic
of his poetry while Washing dishes at Le Gran Duc!
See the Harlem Hell fighters Band playing in Paris
Double click on this link!
Harlem, New York
May 31, 2011