Living in the Past/Future

July 30, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last night, I saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” This morning I read Gabriel Rossman’s cold critique of an ABC poll that Robin Hanson recently discussed. It was about cryonics. Not so different, really.

Nostalgia is a longing for the past. From that feeling grows a set of ideas and beliefs – that the past was better than the present, more comfortable and comforting. Cryonics feels the same way, but about the future. We are frozen in the present and thawed in some warm, ideal future. (Is there’s a word for this future-nostalgia?)

“Midnight in Paris” is all about nostalgia. It is nostalgia. The main character Gil (Woody Allen in Owen Wilson’s body) is a writer on vacation in Paris with his fiancee. At the stroke of midnight, he is magically transported back to Paris in the 20s. He hangs out with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein reads a draft of Gil’s novel-in-progress, he wins the heart of a beauty who has been posing for (and sleeping with) Picasso.

The scenes of Paris of the present are filmed in the very harsh light of day. Paris of the past is Paris at night, dark with romantic lighting. That’s where we want to be.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Cryonics plays on the same idea, but it reverses the time line and replaces romanticism with science. The fantasy is the same – being transported to a much better world – but that world is in the future. There’s a group version of this fantasy – the dream of society setting up shop on some other planet or space station, starting a whole new civilization free from the frustrations of the world we actually live in.

In the end, “Midnight in Paris” suggests that the nostalgia it has been promoting is not only futile but false and impossible even on its own terms. The beautiful model, who lives in the 20s feels nostalgic about the Belle Epoque, and when she manages to travel back to that period – Toulouse, Gauguin, Degas – she find those artists to be nostalgic for the Renaissance.

Come to think of it, Woody Allen gave us a critique of the future-nostalgia fantasy as well – “Sleeper.”

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