Woody Allen's filmic roots
In this column, we highlight films that have directly or indirectly inspired the most cherished and popular movies of contemporary cinema. We will discuss the antecedents of a popular movie in a reversed chronological order—working backward through film history. To kick things off, we will do Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris (2011).
Woody Allen would call himself the most derivative, referential director working today. So, it should be no problem discerning what may have led him to make Midnight in Paris. Unfortunately to catch up with Woody Allen’s film knowledge is a near-impossible task. Like Steven Spielberg, or Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen is mythologized as a college dropout filmaholic, so he has probably spent more time in the films’ world than we have in the waking world. And though Mr. Konigsberg (his real name) probably has some very specific ideas about what made this movie happen, here are some films that you’ll definitely enjoy if you liked Midnight in Paris. These movies have at least one of three things: wit, fantasy or Paris.
Before Sunrise (1995) / Before Sunset (2004)
Deep, funny, beautifully shot, honest and totally romantic, these two movies are important precursors to Midnight in Paris. The first film, Before Sunrise, is a story about a man and a woman who meet on a train to Vienna and spend the following 24 hours walking around the city, getting to know each other and falling in love. The sequel, set and filmed nine years later, tracks the two lovers as they meet up in France to try to re-create the magic of their earlier meeting. In particular, the latter film shares a lot of DNA with Allen’s latest: both films are concerned with the re-creation of the past and the problematic nature of the present. As the characters in Before Sunrise/Sunset walk and talk and fall in love against the backdrop of Vienna and Paris, you will instantly be reminded of Midnight in Paris.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Field of Dreams is a movie I’m sure many of you have seen already. Yet, in light of Midnight in Paris, we think it’s worth revisiting. Both movies feature characters who create fantasy worlds borne of nostalgia to cope with issues of their present lives. These films get to the heart of why we crave and create fantasy.
Manhattan is Woody Allen’s marvelous ode to—you guessed it—Manhattan. Like Midnight in Paris, the film is highly reliant on its location. It uses 1970s Manhattan as an evocative, poetic backdrop. Aliens descending on our earth after the apocalypse will find this movie, and they will know Manhattan as it once was.
Jean-Luc Godard’s film about a criminal Parisian who thinks of himself as Humphrey Bogart is seminal in and of itself. That much is clear to film historians. Godard invented film language that will never be forgotten, especially not by Woody Allen. Allen and Godard share a sensibility toward the human face, a sympathy and an intense interest that shows in their devotion to long two-shots (shots including two people in conversation). Breathless is also a beautiful documentation of mid-century Paris. And, like how Woody Allen’s characters are obsessed with the romance of Paris, Godard’s characters are obsessed with the romance of America. These two movies make for a fantastic conceptual two-shot.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Frank Capra’s 1934 hit, starring Clark Gable, is the gold standard for early comedy. It belongs to a certain subgenre called screwball comedy, which gave rise to the romantic comedy as we know it. The film heavily features hilarious repartee between the film’s two lovers-to-be. It’s about a wealthy heiress who runs away with a crass reporter, so the film confronts class issues and reveals some of the pretensions of the upper class, much like Midnight in Paris does.