Nostalgia: Not as Seductive as it Used to Be.

Nostalgia Midnight in Paris Movie

With my wife grounded by a nasty ankle injury, we took in three movies and I escaped to a rock band reunion. Oddly, they all confirmed the same lesson: nostalgia is a temptress — fun, but wholly unreliable. 

Owen Wilson is the hero of Woody Allen’s new movie, Midnight in Paris. He is a Hollywood screenwriter working on a piece about a nostalgia dealer even as he visits Paris and is transported in style back to the Lost Generation of the 1920s and 30s. The film is complete with a hysterical Hemmingway, a brilliant Stein, and appearances by Dali, Picasso, and both Fitzgeralds. It is a romp — the sort of film that Allen made in the good old days before he married his step-daughter.

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Allen understands that mature cities are built on memories —perhaps Paris most of all. Memory is impossible in emerging cities (in Beijing today, the drivers frequently get lost because entire neighborhoods are transformed so thoroughly that they seem foreign). Mature cities are often wealthy enough to be politically liberal but most are culturally conservative, even as they attract the great minds of every age. Inevitably, the Golden Age of any great city is thus built by people who idolize an earlier Golden Age. Into this vortex steps Wilson, a Texan version of the traditional Woody Allen romantic, neurotic schlurb. It all works well, with the obvious exception of Carla Bruni, who should stick to her day job as the first lady of France. (Unable to cut her from the film altogether, Allen simply created a new character, wonderfully played by Lea Seadoux, to take over 90% of the role offered to the hopelessly wooden Bruni). nostalgia surise

We also treated ourselves to a pair of movies I passed on when they first came out but have since been told by many constitute the best romance films ever made: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Both films consist almost entirely of conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Once again, there are ties to Paris and nostalgia, and some of the ties are subtle. For example, the second film opens at Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookstore founded by Sylvia Plath and frequented by Hemmingway, Dos Passos, and other characters out of Midnight in Paris. Plath famously published James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place on a single day, June 16, Dublin. Before Sunrise takes place during a single day in Vienna and ends with our two lovers agreeing to reunite in Paris the following summer on, you guessed it, June 16. The second film opens with viewers wondering whether either had shown up. The movies are wonderfully rendered, brilliantly acted, and an ode to the trap of powerful memory, especially powerful romantic memories. Very highly recommended and available for streaming on Netflix.

nostalgia bridge 2010 buffalo springfield 10 24 richie fist

On the advice of a friend, I caught the Buffalo Springfield reunion concert down the street at Oakland’s the newly restored Fox Theater. The theater is beautiful, but tells a powerful political tale. It was refurbished by Jerry Brown as mayor using redevelopment money, despite the Paramount, a landmark Art Deco theater one block away. The Paramount was empty the night of the Springfield reunion — and Jerry Brown is now proposing, quite rightly, to eliminate California’s wasteful, zero-sum, redevelopment spending.

The Springfield are nothing these days if not nostalgic. The concert opened with On The Way Home: “When the dream came, I held my breath with my eyes closed”, which pretty much described the graying, cannabis-mellow crowd.

Buffalo Springfield reminded me of the new atomic elements reported in today’s Times. Like all of the heavy particles, it is highly unstable and blows apart after a split second. The three founders still seem deeply incompatible. Stephen Stills is a classic rocker and always has been. He looked pretty good, he has lost some weight, but he can no longer sing. Furay is a pop singer, good at the girl songs, who should have joined the Eagles. He can sing, but his guitar playing is like a guy leading church camp. Which figures, since Furay has been a Christian minister for the past three decades, but apparently needs another 15 minutes of rock star fame.

Then there is Neil Young (who Stills once wrongly accused of being “a folk singer who wants to play in a rock band”). Young is just more talented, more committed, and all around more bad ass than Stills or Furay. Young played off to one side, but the stage always tipped his way. In the encore, he broke loose and lit up the place with Keep on Rocking in the Free World, which revealed Stills and Furay to be what they always were: Young’s backup band. The idea that these guys in their 20s and on drugs even practiced together, never mind made albums and toured, is hard to imagine. The reunion produced some memorable music, but ultimatelyno nostalgia can overcome the core incompatibility of the band’s founders, who stayed together less than two years.

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