/skʌɪ/ noun. 1. the unfathomable region of the heavens, coloured and distorted through the splintered scope of earth. "let's tangle with lights / let's fly ckye high / to breathe the clear air / of Heaven's sigh." 2. freedom in rules.
Somewhere in Paris the clock strikes twelve, and though there is no fairy godmother familiar cars turn magically into shining vintage Peugeots and horse-drawn carriages. And as henpecked novelist Gil Pender finds himself in the era of his nostalgic dreams, he finds also his defeatist rags transformed, by the encouragement of famous artists and their mentors and the love of one exotic woman, into the riches of self-actualisation.
In Midnight in Paris every shot is a visual feast, tugging at the heartstrings of nostalgia. With the blue-and-yellow Van Gogh-inspired cinematography of Darius Khondjhi, Woody Allen’s film perfectly captures the nostalgic beauty of the city, now and in the 20s – the romance of walking down the cobbled streets at night to the sizzling jazz tunes of the roaring 20s; the elegance of wine and dance parties simmering with the undercurrent of excitement and pure potentiality that characterised the new millennium; the Eiffel standing tall and proud like golden man at the height of modernity. But what Gil learns in the end is how to stand tall in his own present time, how to grasp his own golden age. The past will always be seen tinged with gold, he realises, and if one is dissatisfied in the present it is useless to blame the times, useless to do nothing but look back with helpless longing. So he takes his happiness into his own hands, and makes the brave decision to leave his intensely annoying, emasculating, unsupportive, and unrepentantly adulterous fiancee. With his dry spell of self-defeat over, the final scene shows Paris in the rain; and as Gil walks down the streets of present-day Paris with fellow antiques-lover Gabrielle, against city lights reflecting off wet cobblestone and glowing in the background like starry, starry orbs of blue and green and misted gold, like Gil we learn the valuable lesson that every man must learn: that while escape for a time may be useful, one cannot stay in the past, in fantasy or in dream, forever, and that midnight bells toll for both endings and beginnings.
Film theorist Andre Bazin saw the age-old pursuit of the plastic arts to replicate as realistically as possible the human image as akin to the ancient Egyptian practice of embalming the dead:
“The religion of ancient Egypt,” he writes, “aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. … To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly … in the hold of life”.
I wonder what he would say of Alexa Meade – the contemporary artist who, painting on humans, turns living flesh to acrylic-encased sculptures?
It seems that, rather than being a defence against death, a guarantee of immortality, here painting and sculpture coalesce to signify death itself – the flat lifelessness of the human soul.
To this Bazin might say that photography, as a medium of mechanical reproduction that “satisf[ies], once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism”, has freed painting up to pursue goals other than physical realism – such as, in the case of the above artwork, emotional realism. But what would he say to the fact that it is precisely in a photograph that Meade’s three-dimensional human model is flattened into an image of a painting? Here the camera has apparently forsaken its bid for physical realism, and is instead used to make real objects look less realistic, to give the living human, who in a live installation can still be observed to blink and fidget, the precise appearance of still, flat deadness.
If at the heart of the realistic tradition lies the desire for immortality, then from a similar psychoanalytic standpoint, does Meade’s work with its deliberate reduction of photographic realism reflect the opposite – that is, a desire for death?
I don’t think so. For the model, after the performance, eventually cracks open her acrylic coffin and, like a butterfly from its cocoon, steps out again into the free air and blue skies, breath and movement liberated once more. She looks and feels like the same person, yet if I were her I’m sure I’d be changed, however subtly, by the experience. Almost as if she’d gone through an ancient ritual of death and rebirth, the model, having washed the last vestiges of paint from her body, can now proceed to claim her prize: a photograph of herself; memorialising, for eternity, that little moment in her life in which she tasted death, and came out immortal.