Midnight in Paris and After-Images of the City

Here’s the opening 4 minute sequence of Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen:

The movie starts with a 4 minute montage and celebration of Paris’s landmarks. I’ve linked the opening sequence as it’s available on YouTube. While reading “After-Images of the City” I was struck by how the article’s concept and definition of the ‘after-image’ were echoed in Allen’s movie. I will go over some of the important points (without giving away the main plot, in case, you haven’t seen it). The movie starts with an American script writer Gil (Owen Wilson) going to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams); he’s looking for inspiration and he wants to become a novelist and to give up script writing. While successful he sees himself as a Hollywood ‘hack’, Rachel McAdams plays the typical self-centered American consumer who goes to Paris for shopping. Both her and parents frequently complain about life in Paris and how much better it is in America. 

Gil (Owen Wilson) wants to get Inez (Rachel McAdams) to enjoy Paris. He tries to get her to walk in the rain and to immerse herself in the typical 'Paris in spring' (scene). For Inez there’s no romance, she does not want to get wet. It’s obvious when Gil gets to Paris he’s not really seeing Paris; he’s looking at the ‘ real’ Paris but the scenes are really after-images (i.e. the images are encoded with meaning from the art, movies, and books he has seen and read about those same city spaces).  “The first and most obvious is that the city is primarily a visual object, that it is grasped above all through sight” (Resina & Ingenschay, p. 3). I think that in the film’s opening sequence Allen tries to distil/show the essence of what Paris is (to him) by capturing iconic images of the city. He needs to convince us that his portrayal of Paris is real. If we buy into this, then the story makes sense. The city becomes a character not only in the movie but lives in our minds as yet another after-image. His after-image of Paris becomes merged (?) mixed-in (?) blended (?) with the Paris of our imagination.

It became apparent to me, while reading the article that after-image as defined by Resina & Ingenschay is not the same definition given by Jameson (image as simulacra or pastiche). The image according to Ressina exists on its own with multiple meanings in memory, space, and time. It’s not just a poor fascimile of the original (in the postmodern sense) … “the image is fully retained, but is now a temporalized, unstable, complex image brimming with the history of its production (p. 2)

When Gil imagines Paris of the 20’s, both for him and for us (watching the movie) it becomes real, in the sense that we see what he sees. We also are aware of what the director is trying create with Paris in the movie. We get one of the major themes. Which is that the present is always not as real, exciting, and romantic as our recent past. Allen is playing with the sense that people feel that somehow things were better in the past than they are now. What we desire, once the desire is fulfilled is not longer desire. For Gil the ‘best’ time to be a writer and to lead a romantic life would be to live in Paris during the 20’s. The whole movie revolves between a series of juxtapositions between the Paris of the present and Paris in the 20’s. Adriana (Picasso’s mistress ~ who Gill forms a romantic  attachment to) believes that the best time to be alive was the Belle Epoch (1880’s & 1890’s). At the end of the film when she and Gil travel back to that time; she decides to stay there instead of coming back to her present (Paris in the 20’s). 

An image exists in reality (i.e. Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, etc.), but it also exists in a photograph, in postcards and movies. These remembered images (after-images) co-exist in our mind with our memories of the real images. Finally over time the different memories of the same image merge/blend in our mind and we create new meanings with these remembered after-images. 

Growing up I loved the 1933 version of King Kong. I viewed it so many times that most of the scenes and shots from the film were clearly embedded in my mind as image and after-image. When I visited New York in 2012 and I looked up at the Empire State Building from the street, I could not really see the size and scope of the building due to my close proximity. I remember being disappointed and thinking “ oh, it’s just another tall building". I think this is a good example of the congitive dissonace my brain experienced between the actual building (the image) and the after-image of what clearly in my mind through many viewing of the movie, as well as the images from other sources that I had seen over the years.

The notion of what’s real and not real merges into a kind of dream state between reality and the imagination. The opening scenes from the film Winnipeg illustrates this vividly —> “We sleep as we walk … we walk as we dream…"

Before I get too tied up in knots, I think what I’m trying to say is the following:

  • Both the movie and the article play with the meaning/idea of image and how meaning gets into the after-image (Barthes). When we meet Hemingway, he’s in a bar and he’s always ready to drink, fight and go of to war. We meet Gertrude Stein in her living room while she’s helping Picasso deal with problems with his mistress. She agreeds to read Gil’s manuscript and give him some advice on writing. The movie works because Hemingway and Stein exist in our imagination because of what we’ve read about them. Dali in the movie comes across as more than slightly ‘eccentric’ as that’s the imagine of him that has come down over the years in print, TV, and film. 
  • Are these after-images the same for all of us (in reality? in our minds)? Or do we have slightly different versions of these images? Does it matter?
  • Where does the meaning of the image end? 
  • What happens to the image and after-image in space, time, and memory? Is my after image of Fitzgerald and Zelda getting drunk at a party anymore relevant, meaningful, than your after-image of the same event. Are we ‘seeing’ the same thing?
  • I think Woody Allen handles all these questions beautifully and poetically in the film.

Obviously, my efforts in trying to explain my views on image and after-image logically have failed. I will need to rethink and rewrite this post in the near future, perhaps with more clarity.  (:

© Sam Bruzzese 2022