Saturday, July 23, 2011

Allusions in Paris

Allusion: a reference in a literary work or film to a famous person, place, or thing in history, or another artistic work.

Yesterday, I lunched on popcorn and snow caps as Gary and I took in Woodie Allen's new movie, "Midnight in Paris" - which was simply fantastic.

I didn't really know anything about the film before going, except that it was about Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood movie script writer who goes to Paris to try to write something "serious", and in the process finds a portal in time back to 1920s Paris.

There were only 7 of us in the theater, so when the protagonist Gil first enters this "alternate 1920s Parisian universe" and meets "Zelda" - my gasp was clearly audible. My mind began racing - "no way, can't be" and then... Scott (as in Fitzgerald) introduced himself to a wide-eyed Gil.

Neither Gil nor I could believe our luck - not only was this a trip back to 1920s Paris - but a ticket into one of the most incredible literary and artistic group of friends history has ever known: Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, TS Eliot - somehow Gil had found my beloved "lost generation" literary heroes.

As the movie progressed, the allusions kept coming (Picasso, Matisse, Baker, Porter etc) to my delight, and I just melted into the romance of the era, good acting, breathtaking cinematography, and Allen's witty dialogue. I felt like Ceceila in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" - like somehow I had jumped into the film and was tagging along with Gil - throwing a knowing, nudging elbow here and there at inside jokes concerning these literary and artistic legends' lives.

After the film, I tried to find a list of allusions in the movie and came across several scathing reviews criticizing Allen's 1920s cameos. I was surprised by the negative reviews - claiming that the allusions were only added so pseudo intellectuals could loudly acknowledge obscure historical references with a grunt or vigorous head nod. Ridiculous. That's like claiming the creators of The Simpsons and Family Guy only put literary and artistic allusions into their shows so parents can look down their noses at their small children and dogs, and "humph" in triumph at their own intellectual superiority.

I am a high school English teacher - allusions and other literary devices are the bread and butter of my trade.

I tell my students that they need a baseline knowledge of historically and artistically important works, people and events because these "allusions" weave a fabric of common experience that present-day authors and creators draw upon to provide a richer experience for the reader or audience. In a way - allusions are a short cut to deeper understanding... If I say, "I really, really, really, really, really, love my boyfriend" - that only conveys a vague explanation of my emotions... but if I say, "I love my boyfriend as much as Juliet loved Romeo" suddenly, the depth of my relationship is more clearly conveyed.

Allusions are important, and intellectually satisfying - as demonstrated beautifully by Allen's film. Through Gil's charming relationships with literary and artistic giants of the past, he reveals a simple but important truth: sometimes the enchantment of nostalgia can prevent us from seeing the beauty of the present.

You better believe that I'm showing a clip from this film after I teach "The Great Gatsby" - and I can guarantee the smiles and "ohhhs" of understanding from my students will not be mere feigned intellectual prowess, but honest reflections of the wonderment they will feel when they realize that they are finally in on the inside jokes.


  1. I loved this movie husband and I actually saw it twice. Like you, I felt like I was accompanying Gil on these trips into 1920s Paris and thought about how excited I would be to meet some of those artists and writers. The scene with Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray was fun to watch!

  2. I loved to connect movies and novels to my students. They loved it! Sounds like a great movie. Glad u enjoyed!

  3. I thought it was pretty cute. :)