Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Midnight in America

In Culture on July 31, 2011 at 5:38 pm

There’s a point during the recently opened Woody Allen extravaganza Midnight In Paris when Owen Wilson, embodying the idealistic protagonist, expels a brief, but passionate rant against the low brow of American culture. In a highly effective 15 seconds, he manages to harangue the cliched, mass-produced Hollywood movie climate, avaricious Wall Street corporations, George W. Bush, and the spread of the Tea Party all in an involuntarily-emitted discharge that laments the downfall of romance and nostalgia in our society in a clear us versus them dichotomy. The rant is not so much aggressive as entirely natural; it’s clear the lines come straight from the mouth (or pen) of Woody Allen and it’s as if he cannot even imagine a world in which he could hold back that opinion. With emotions spurred by the interwoven scenes of an idealized contemporary Paris, it’s likely that 90% of Allen’s audience(i) would be ready to join in those sentiments with a kind of culturalistic fervor.

Upon exiting the theater, I really had one and only thought to share with my companions: “Woody Allen really is turning into the new Michael Bay.”

It’s a concept that if sanctioned would probably induce vast numbers of Allen devotees to purge themselves of any preference for the prolific director.(ii) But it’s true. Recent movies such as Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which I both enjoyed, have proven to be little more than bourgeois-intellectual versions of Transformers, with remarkably little in additional depth. Where Bay infuses his films with explosions, seductive girls, fighting robots, and more explosions, Allen substitutes quixotic scenes representative of the height of portrayed European cultural sophistication and artistry. Spanish guitar music and a bohemian-artistic lifestyle tempt the viewer in lush Oviedo, while freewheeling Cole Porter tunes layer over intricate Parisian streetscapes. The acting in the typical Allen movie might be far superior to a Bay production, but recent plots have not been, and the result is much the same. Where Bay employs computer effects and more corporeal stimulation, Allen’s audience is treated to visual pornography decided to excite a markedly different audience.

This is significant because of the current state of American society; one that has come to relish conflict so much that the culture wars of the ’90s have solidified to involve nearly every aspect of American life. Allen, a member of the intellectual set, makes little secret that he despises commonality, harshly and repeatedly deriding American popular sensibilities and interests. There’s an innate sense of superiority in the highbrow pretensions he promotes, and much of the large swath of society he embodies would likely take solace in that fact. The other side—certainly not led by Bay, but perhaps whose stigmatized tendencies are exemplified by him—seeks to obtain a similar sense of superiority from this distinction. Figures such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann have captured mass popularity through attacking anything branded as elitist or intellectual. Both sides actively disdain the other.

Unwittingly, this is embodied by the plot of Midnight In Paris, which loosely centers around Wilson’s character, a bohemian intellectual who is dating the conservative daughter of a stodgy, Republican business tycoon. Its message is clear: these two worlds cannot mix, they shouldn’t, and ultimately when they do, things fail. Wilson and his girlfriend, played by Rachel McAdams, undergo a stormy breakup scene in which neither actually seems particularly broken up. Indeed, the least believable element of the movie, perhaps even more alarming than the whole time-traveling thing, is the concept that these two, derived from harshly opposing cultures, even ended up together in the first place.

Both Woody Allen and Michael Bay approach moviemaking from this starting point. They play exclusively to people who like their movies, because that automatically necessitates that you view the other with disgust.

But this is simply not accurate, and predicates a focus on the differences that create a false dichotomy in which the current state of media, politics, and culture conspire to divide American society along fault lines which do not exist nearly as firmly as alleged. It is always easier to play to your audience’s preconceived notions, rather than present information that brings them out of their comfort zone. Conflict sells, and individuals would rather have their beliefs and attitudes affirmed than examined critically. In this, they overlook the commonalities that vastly outweigh the differences. The overt similarities between the movies of Allen and Bay hint at the fallibility of this construct. While the themes and concepts might be different, Americans of all stripes just want to be entertained.

So perhaps the United States as a whole could take a lesson from these two, from the similarities that tower over the differences but are ignored. Where once compromise and a focus on commonalities brought the country and its people through hardship and prosperity alike, perhaps a focus on the fact that, no matter what, both bourgeois and populist alike are striving for the same essential goals could go a long way in healing unneccessary rifts.

i Not necessarily excluding this writer.

ii Or writer, actor, playwright, producer. My pop culture knowledge is too limited to deduce the ideal term.

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