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That Woody Allen nostalgia

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Woody Allen’s 45th feature, “Midnight in Paris,” centers on Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, the latest in a long line of Woody stand-in figures and, inarguably, one of the best. While in Paris with his fiancée and her parents, Gil, a would-be novelist, gushes about the City of Light — not its present-day incarnation, mind you. Gil dreams of living in the Paris of the 1920s, joining the movable feast that included Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Picasso.

Those in Gil’s circle roundly dismiss his pining for the past. “Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present,” lectures Paul, a full-time blowhard and former flame of Gil’s fiancée. “The name for this denial is golden age thinking, the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Might that kind of golden age thinking also be a flaw for many in Allen’s own audience?

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“Midnight in Paris” wound up becoming the top-grossing movie in Allen’s career, pulling in a great many people who had no prior exposure to the filmmaker’s charms. Letty Aronson, Allen’s sister and producer for his last 13 films, notes some moviegoers returned with their kids in tow, “certainly not an audience we usually get.”

But many who bought tickets undoubtedly also saw “Midnight” as a return to the kind of fizzy, beguiling movies that Allen used to make (and, in their minds, stopped making some time ago), movies that are more about tickling funny bones than questioning the meaning of life. Allen has long rolled with his audience’s expectations. “We enjoy your films … particularly the early, funny ones!” alien creatures tell him in “Stardust Memories,” a film he made more than three decades ago.

“To this day, we do always hear, ‘Oh, why doesn’t he do the old, funny Woody Allen?’” Aronson says. “Maybe people do it more with his work. But, in general, everyone’s always going on about the golden age of this and that. And when you’re there at the time, it wasn’t so golden.”

No one’s questioning the merits of the movies Allen made during what’s widely regarded as his golden period, though, as Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker points out, when that era began and whether it has ever actually ended can be argued — endlessly.

“I’d probably disagree with you on which ones you love and which ones you don’t,” says Barker, whose company distributed “Midnight in Paris” and three earlier Allen films. “What’s amazing to me is his consistency. He’s exploring a new theme with every movie. Woody Allen still has a lot to say.”

And, with “Midnight,” Allen’s message is clear: You’ll never be satisfied with the here and now until you stop living in the past. Or, to put it another way: Instead of watching “Annie Hall” for the umpteenth time, perhaps it’s time to investigate “Sweet and Lowdown” or “Deconstructing Harry.” (Just stay away from “Anything Else.” People generally agree on that one.)

“What he’s doing now is beyond classification, really,” says comedy director Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses,” “The Office”). “It’s easy to group the old stuff together, but some of the movies in the past few years are completely apart from all of that. ‘Match Point.’ ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.’ He has just been killing it. It’s humbling to think of that level of accomplishment over time.”

Though, as Aronson admits, not everyone sees it that way, with many loyalists beginning to take Allen’s films on a case-by-case basis not long after 1994’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” a movie she ranks as “head and shoulders above all the others.”

“Some of the older movies contained these romantic notions, which ‘Midnight in Paris’ does too,” Aronson says. “People associate warm, nostalgic memories with them. But I’d stack the best of his last few — certainly ‘Midnight in Paris’ and ‘Match Point’ — up against ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan,’ what people would consider his classics.”

“Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig, who calls Allen his “hero,” says the rose-tinted feelings surrounding Allen’s body of work are part of a common phenomenon, one that “Midnight in Paris” explored so beautifully.

“When I did this movie called ‘Unaccompanied Minors,’ I remember everybody was saying, ‘If only it was like “The Goonies,” '“ Feig says. “Now, I’m old enough to remember when ‘The Goonies’ came out. It got completely slammed. People hated it.

“And it’s hardly an isolated example,” Feig adds. “When I was an actor, I was in this horrendous movie called ‘Ski Patrol.’ And I have so many young people come up to me and say it’s their favorite movie. I guess it just depends when you watched it and what your relationship was to it at the age you saw it. Time seems to be the great equalizer.”

calendar@latimes.com


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