It’s one of the tenets of conservative thought (philosophy would be pitching it high) that there is no such thing as a “golden age” — never has been, never will be. Yet many of the Right’s humbler foot-soldiers are motivated by a less sophisticated but nevertheless keenly felt sense of loss, of things being so much better back then (as well as by a frustration with the Tory party’s reluctance, in Evelyn Waugh’s words, never even to attempt to put the clock back).
The same goes for things cultural. As a film critic one is always aware of this presence in the background, this sense of Hollywood having seen better days, and constantly battling against the kneejerk reaction of those who assume you agree that of course things ain’t what they used to be. None of us, after all, wants to believe that we are merely eking out an existence among the ruins.
But, surely, decline can be absolute, and not just in the eye of the wilfully nostalgic? Is it possible, for example, that popular culture really is getting worse and worse, and it’s not just us getting older and older? I for one would have loved to have strolled down Fifth Avenue in postwar New York: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday all singing live, Tennessee Williams on Broadway, Singin’ in the Rain at the movies, and a sense of unflinching confidence and possibility in the air. All that has gone: once you accept this and give up on your attempts to find it in some way — or to discover the Dolce Vita in Rome, or the glamour of Sunset Boulevard after dark, or the intellectuals and artists of the Rive Gauche — then life becomes a lot easier.
Gil Prender, the hero of Woody Allen’s charming Midnight in Paris, is far luckier, for the past to which he is in thrall comes looking for him. Gil (played by the much underrated Owen Wilson) is a hack Californian screenwriter infatuated with the City of Lights and in particular that early 20th-century period when all his creative heroes gathered in cafés and exchanged evidence of their respective self-assessed genius. Gil’s hard-headed fiancée is far more resistant to the city’s charms, past or otherwise, and leaves him to wander the dark streets alone. Dead on twelve o’clock every night, a car arrives at the same spot and transports him back (it’s never explained quite how) to the jazzy, sparkling Paris of the Twenties, to witty drinks parties with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, banter with Hemingway and Picasso, and singalongs with Cole Porter.
In this alternate universe, Gil falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a kind of all-purpose muse to the assembled artists, who is restless with her own time and is in turn obsessed with another, past golden age, La Belle Epoque. Cue further time travel. The point being gently made seems to be that ‘twas ever thus, that we have always harked back, and that we should look around and see the good in our own era and in our own lives. It’s a reassuring notion, and one wants to be convinced, but it’s obscured by Allen’s own rose-tinted view of Europe, one typical of East and West Coast liberal aspiring intellectuals who look towards the old world with a sycophancy their compatriots long ago abandoned. Besides, the fact is that very little of creative interest does indeed come out of Paris now. It is not the city of even a decade ago; only the hopelessly naive or ignorant would beat a path to the Latin Quarter in the hope of finding fame as an artist. Even the chic Chanel-clad women are extinct.
Despite this, Midnight in Paris is a beguiling film, occasionally funny, always light and happily bereft of the kvetching and rancour of some of Allen’s recent efforts. It is also amazing, frankly, that he gets finance for a project such as this, which assumes its audience not only knows who Gertrude Stein, Man Ray and Dalí are, but that somebody such as Gil would be fascinated by them, and that there was humour to be had in meeting them in a time warp. We should be thankful for that, I suppose; but if this is not in itself evidence of real cultural decline, then I don’t know what is.
The Seventies are nobody’s idea of a golden age, but watching the masterful new screen adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which takes place in the early years of that brown decade, a kind of nostalgia crept up on me for the London of my youth, before it became the world’s largest arrivals and departures lounge: pokey, dowdy, with a lingering Dickensian flavour. Certainly spycatcher George Smiley seems to have emerged organically from its damp walls. I have not read the novel, and the TV adaptation passed me by, so not only was it utterly absorbing, but there was genuine suspense to be had in guessing the mole at the top of MI5. The revelation, when it comes, is relatively muted — nobody falls out of a cupboard clasping a copy of Das Kapital. It’s the getting there that is the pleasure. The performances range from excellent (Colin Firth) to overripe (Tom Hardy), with Gary Oldman as Smiley hovering somewhere in the middle, gliding over much of the action like a regretful, mournful ghost.
Brilliantly structured and atmospheric, it took me into its grey, intense, thoughtful universe completely. When I left, the world outside seemed flash, crass and empty as hell.