May 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Spoiler alert: this breakdown contains crucial information about the plot of the film.

With Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen has returned to writing from strength. The film is founded on one of the great cinematic story techniques, the utopian world. Here the moment is 1920s' Paris, where some of the best writers and artists of the 20th century lived in close quarters. The film is also based on the concept of The Golden Age. Every society has some version of the belief that an earlier time was not only better than the present, but nearly perfect.

This idea of a golden age isn't just intellectually appealing. It has personal impact on the audience as well. An older audience especially understands the feeling that there was a time in their life that was best, but it's long over now. For many, the desire to get back to that age is intense. Some experience it every Christmas when they remember how magical that morning was for them when they were young. But no more.

Let's put ourselves in Woody Allen's position to see how he might have solved this story problem. He might ask: how do you structure this utopia so that it gains the added impact of a story?

Midnight in Paris looks like a fairy tale romantic comedy. But Allen isn't very good at the love story form. Yes, he wrote one of the great romantic comedies in Annie Hall. But when you look at that film in light of all the films he has made since, you realize that Annie Hall was a one-time home run based primarily on his creation of the amazing title character, Annie.

The love interest in Midnight in Paris has nowhere near the character definition or quirky uniqueness of Annie Hall. She is simply a gentle, beautiful Frenchwoman who wants to live in an earlier time, just like the hero. As a result, there is little chance for the romance of these characters to build in a way that is satisfying to the audience.

The love story structure is really just an excuse for Allen to provide a storyline on which to hang the real gold of the idea, the fantasy comedy elements. With the woman as a desire line, the hero can take a number of trips into the utopian moment. And there he can meet a succession of famous artists the audience knows.

In the Anatomy of Story  Masterclass, I talk about the crucial technique of digging out the gold in your premise - finding what is original to you - and then presenting that gold again and again to the audience over the course of the story. The gold here is Allen's comical take on each of the famous writers and artists of the time. Once he was clear about that, the question for Allen, the writer, then became: how do I create a storyline that can allow me to play as many of these comic bits as possible without the story becoming episodic and collapsing?

The solution Allen chose is the same one used in Crocodile Dundee. In that film the romantic line between Dundee and the reporter allowed for the maximum number of encounters between animal man Dundee and the denizens of New York. Here the hero's encounter with Hemingway is the equivalent of Dundee saying to the mugger, "That's not a knife. This is a knife."

This structure also allowed Allen to write to his strength, rather than what he has been doing for the last twenty years, which is writing from his weakness. Allen has never been very good at the craft of story. In spite of the complexity of some of his story structures over the years (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), Allen has usually been unable to create a complex plot where the opposing characters play out their differences through building conflict.

The normal Woody Allen movie consists of a story gag that should take about thirty minutes to play out. He stretches it to ninety minutes and finally has the lead character directly explain his self-revelation, which is exactly what Allen wants his audience to learn from the film.

What Woody Allen is great at is writing comic bits and gags. And he is probably the second greatest American writer of intellectual comedy, behind Mark Twain. Unfortunately, Allen is not satisfied with that gift as a writer, and indeed he has looked down on it since at least the early 70s.

In this film Allen has found a story structure that allows him to feel he is a writer's writer, but also gives him permission to enjoy his guilty pleasure of writing brilliant intellectual comedy. The first time the hero meets Hemingway we hear drop dead perfect Hemingway prose coming out of his mouth. The scene is hilarious, especially if you know your American literature.

And that's another pleasure of the film. Allen's relatively small audience is composed of the educated and the sophisticated. So when they get the literary and visual jokes, they also get to feel how smart they are.

The story is really just an intellectual candy store, with the love story bringing us back to the store again and again. Of course while we are enjoying the pleasures of a utopian moment in this film, we also learn, in a great visual gag, the opposite lesson that you can't live in the past.

I don't know if this film signals a possible return to good Woody Allen, as some have suggested. I do know it provides a clear lesson to the screenwriter in how to find the right structure and genre embedded in your story idea.