I recently sat down to watch the Woody Allen film ‘Midnight In Paris.’ For those who haven’t seen it, the film follows a discontented Hollywood honcho and wannabe writer (Owen Wilson) who longs to break free from his American dream and settle down in the City of Love. As the clock strikes midnight, Wilson’s character is whisked off into the glittering ‘twenties, a time when Paris was populated by a wealth of famous ‘artistes’ who seemingly lived to party hard and dream in riddles.
Aside from being beautifully directed, with stunningly vivid shots of Parisian thoroughfares, the film got me thinking about the whole notion of nostalgia. In one particularly poignant scene, Wilson’s character tries to explain to his would-be lover that we all have such a deep fascination with the past because “[the present] is a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”
It’s true that we always hanker after the past; we see a certain time period, whether it was within our lifetime or not, as a ‘Golden Age’ where life was simply much better than it is today. In reality, of course, this isn’t true. Yes, you may have been slimmer or less wrinkly when you were 18 years old, but would you really want to go back to that time? And as for transgressing through the ages; How many of us could honestly say we would be happy in a world without iPhones or, god forbid, the internet? Would you really want to live in the ‘fifties, with its widespread racism and slap-em-down approach to women? Thought not.
When things aren’t going our way, we like to reminisce about our past. The trouble is, we have a habit of donning rose-tinted time travel spectacles which conveniently blot out any negative aspects of what actually happened. Our brains are a bit like the BBFC, scrolling through the reels of movie footage that make up our memories and classifying them accordingly. “Think this is still a bit too raw for her, let’s not release this until 2025, when she’s a bit more mature.”
Of course, this safety mechanism is a great thing; if we all concentrated on the negative we wouldn’t be a very sunny bunch. Some people undeniably see things exactly as they are, with no shield to soften the blow of all that slightly depressing stuff we’d rather not remember. For that reason, I am ever thankful for my mind’s top-of-the-range memory muffler.