Gil Pender, the tousle-haired, khaki-clad hero of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” is a writer struggling to finish a novel about a man who works in a “nostalgia shop.” That’s another way of saying that both Pender, played by Owen Wilson, and his protagonist have something in common with Allen, whose antiquarian tastes are well known. And something in common, for that matter, with Terrence Malick, who structured his newest film, the ponderous, gorgeous “The Tree of Life,” in large part to test similar ideas about the pull and power of the past.
You could argue that these movies are precisely the sort directors make when they reach a certain age. (Malick is 67, Allen 75.) Each picture, clearly, is a nostalgia shop in its own way. But it’s more interesting to try to understand how the films manage to make the past appear so much more appealing than the places we live.
In both movies architecture is crucial to that campaign. The parts of each film set in the past — 1920s Paris for Allen, the small-town Texas of the 1950s for Malick — aren’t just drowning in sepia. They have a certain recognizable and comforting architectural character, not just a look but a shape. They are walkable, low-rise and charmingly coherent. Their streets are cobblestoned or dotted with fallen leaves, their houses and apartments topped with broad, protective gables or perfect mansard roofs.
The past, in each movie, is a place protected from modern architecture and modern life, from freeways, strip malls and glass-skinned skyscrapers. Both directors are subtly but unmistakably restaging old arguments about how modernism ruined the city, how it abandoned any sense of human scale by clearing out tree-lined neighborhoods to make way for the car and the office tower.
Deep beneath the surface, these movies are channeling Jane Jacobs and her well-known complaints, in the book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” about the alienating scale of modern architecture and post-war urbanism. In an age of huge, out-of-control megacities, from Lagos to Shenzhen, each picture is a requiem for throwback, Restoration Hardware urbanism.
Back on the surface, of course, the films couldn’t be more different. Allen completes a movie pretty much every year, and “Midnight in Paris” seems even more dashed off than most of his work. Malick, who has made just five features over a four-decade career, has the opposite problem, a perfectionist’s taste for the earnestly self-indulgent and endlessly reworked. The movie’s Kubrickian touches — shots of wild nature and deep outer space set to Ligeti and Berlioz — are thrilling for a time, then perhaps over-studied. And then, when the CGI dinosaurs appear, just silly.
The vision of the past in “The Tree of Life,” to be fair, is hardly as uncomplicated or sunny as in Woody Allen’s film. The house where most of the action takes place — occupied by three brothers, one a stand-in for a young Malick, and their parents — is charged with anxious energy. (Malick and his production designer, Jack Fisk, used a house in Smithville, about 40 miles southeast of Austin, with a curving, colonnaded front porch and a deep, shaded front lawn.) The father, played by Brad Pitt, is domineering and unpredictable.
And despite the movie’s deep attachment to the past, there is something appealingly modern and abstract about Malick’s unorthodox narrative approach in “The Tree of Life.” With its fragmented structure and slippery meaning, it is as distrustful of traditional methods of movie storytelling as Allen’s movie is in love with them.
That doesn’t mean Malick is immune to the power of sentimental touches — or to the appeal of giving the past a certain honeyed glow. The characters in “The Tree of Life,” adults as well as kids, spend much of their time not just outside but wandering down the middle of the street, looking up at a stunning canopy of trees. There are no parked cars on those streets, to say nothing of speeding ones. Countless white curtains billow into countless sunlit rooms. Fisk has said the paintings of Edward Hopper were a major influence in setting the film’s visual tone.
And when Malick wants to signal the alienation of a character in the movie’s present-day scenes, he turns to modern architecture as the vehicle. The young Malick stand-in grows up to be an architect, played by Sean Penn, who can’t get over the death of one of his brothers years before. To suggest the scope of his existential crisis Malick puts him in a glass elevator in a glass skyscraper in Houston and sends him up and down, over and over: Sisyphus with a push-button burden. The sleek contemporary house where the architect lives — briefly glimpsed — also suggests that for Malick the modern world is the fallen world.
The trouble with any critique of Allen’s movie, meanwhile, is that he’s clever enough to have anticipated it. Anybody who complains about the mawkishness of the script is liable to sound just like the film’s insufferable straw man, an academic named Paul (Michael Sheen) who smugly declares — in the manner of that guy in the movie line in “Annie Hall” who goes on and on about Marshall McLuhan — that “nostalgia is denial of a painful present.”
But Woody and Paul are wrong. The problem with the nostalgia on display in “Midnight in Paris” is that it’s denial of a painful, or at least a complicated, past. Allen trots out a crew of lovably eccentric avant-gardists — Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel — who were at that precise moment in history doing their best to thoroughly upend the artistic culture of the same cobblestoned, close-knit Paris Gil Pender finds so charming.
So we have all these Modernist and Surrealist painters, poets, filmmakers and novelists carousing through smoky bars and nightclubs, to a soundtrack of upbeat chansons that would have Igor Stravinsky slitting his wrists and arguing over whose work is more innovative even as they are happy to read one another’s manuscripts and offer helpful notes about what to trim or change. If only Allen and Malick had such friends.
The only category missing is architecture; the only major figure excluded from this chummy, tweedy Modernist pantheon is Le Corbusier, who during this very period, in his 1925 Plan Voisin, was calling for huge swaths of old Paris to be destroyed to make way for high-rise housing blocks and a gloriously wide expressway.
I don’t think the power of that proposal has ever appealed to me more than the day I saw “Midnight in Paris,” which aroused in me not nostalgia for a pedestrian-friendly, pre-modern past but an unmistakable yearning for the unflinching, clean-slate radicalism of the most committed modern architects. Off with their mansard roofs!