MEDIA THERAPY

An ongoing series of informational entries

All I Ever Wanted: Yearning and Acceptance in "Midnight in Paris," by Woody Allen

December 25, 2012

In the Brothers Grimm fairytale, "The Fisherman and His Wife," a fisherman catches a magic fish that promises to grant him his heart's desire provided he is released back into the sea. The fisherman releases the fish without asking for anything, as he is a simple man, with no needs he can articulate, despite his hand-to-mouth existence. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the fisherman gets a tongue-lashing from his wife when he recounts the story, and she sends him back quickly to capitalize on the magic fish's offer. An unwilling go-between, the fisherman begins a series of forays between the fish and his wife, the former increasingly solemn, as it grants the wife's wishes, the latter increasingly acquisitive, as she strives to keep up with the Joneses. Ultimately, the fisherman's wife makes one request too many, and − since this is a Grimm's fairy tale, and heavy on the portent and morals − finds herself and her husband back in their decrepit hovel once more.


Woody Allen, in his wonderful, tongue-in-cheek paean to yearning and acceptance, "Midnight in Paris," sells movies, not morals, so none of the characters really get Grimm-style comeuppance for their idealistic longings. Instead, Allen offers a thoroughly modern parable on the folly of yearning as an end in itself, and the wisdom of channeling longing into action/change, and contentment/acceptance. Let's see how that happens.


The movie introduces us to Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and his fiancée, Inez, who are vacationing in Paris with Inez's parents. Despite his lucrative career, Gil is an idealist who feels he missed his calling as a writer. Working on his first novel, Gil is thrilled to be back in the city he visited as a young man, the city that inspired literary greats such as Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Inez, the ultimate material girl, is impatient with Gil's aspirations, but humors him up to a point; her parents, though, are openly disapproving. One night, when Inez, her friend, Paul, and Paul's wife want to go dancing after a wine-tasting event, Gil tipsily makes his excuses and wanders off by himself. As Gil realizes he is lost, a street clock begin to chime, and at the stroke of midnight, an antique car drives up. Gil moves forward to ask for directions and sees that the car's occupants, in various stages of inebriation, are dressed in 1920s clothing. Bewildered but intrigued, Gil complies when the group merrily invites him to a party, and eventually realizes he has been transported back into the Jazz age − 1920s Paris, an era Gil has always venerated for its creative giants. At the party, Gil mingles with literary and musical greats, including Cole Porter and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gil is enthralled, especially when he is offered the opportunity to show the draft of his novel to Gertrude Stein, the famous art collector and writer. Running out of the café to get his novel, Gil finds himself back in 2010.


Over the next few days, Gil flits between 1920 and 2010, pacifying Inez with creative falsehoods to account for his nightly absences, too distracted to pick up on her interest in Paul, and finding himself attracted to Adriana, Picasso's beautiful mistress, whom he meets at Gertrude Stein's home. For her part, Adriana, an artist groupie of sorts, always involved with one creative genius or another, is intrigued by the new arrival. In short order, inspired by Ms. Stein's encouragement of his writing, and feeling increasingly estranged from Inez, Gil declares his love for Adriana. As they kiss, a horse and carriage draws up, and when Gil and Adriana enter, they are transported back to Paris in the 1800s, otherwise known as La Belle Époque, a period Adriana romanticizes in pretty much the same way Gil does her own era. The carriage drives the couple to well-known places, including the Moulin Rouge, a cabaret famed for its dancing girls. It is here that Gil and Adriana meet the renowned painters of the day; the latter are much taken with the newcomers, particularly the beautiful Adriana, assert that the greatest era was, in fact, the Renaissance, and offer Adriana a job designing ballet costumes. Entranced, Adriana suggests she and Gil remain in La Belle Epoque. But something − "a minor insight" − has clicked for Gil; he realizes that true happiness lies in discarding illusions, accepting life for what it is, rather than what it has been, or what he wants it to be, and that he and Adriana have come to a parting of ways. In his own words: "…to these guys [of La Belle Époque] the golden age was the Renaissance… And those guys probably imagine life was better when Kubla Khan was around. I’m having an insight… if I’m ever going to write anything worthwhile I’ve got to get rid of my illusions, and that I’d be happier in the past is one of them." Returning to 2010, Gil confronts Inez gently about Paul, ends their relationship, and announces he's remaining in Paris to do what he's always wanted − write novels.


So what is this movie's ultimate take-home message about yearning and acceptance? Unlike goals and ambitions, which imply concrete endpoints, yearning and desire are more idealistic emotions suggestive of the unattainable. In truth, whether you articulate your wants in concrete or idealistic fashion, both can be adaptive if they result in change, growth, and acceptance, but maladaptive if they are either too difficult to attain (like wanting to live in another era, or score an 'A' on every test), or become ends in themselves (like the fisherman's wife whose greed is never satisfied, or the executive in continuous pursuit of more acquisitions, more power, more wealth). In the movie, Gil starts out awash with yearning. Meeting and spending time with Adriana, Gil's female alter ego, is ultimately like watching a mirror image of what his own fate could be, if he continues to follow his illusions. So rather than wallow in yearning, Gil translates that emotion into action, thereby changing the direction of his life in ways conducive to actually obtaining what he wants. In order to do this, Gil cultivates what Marsha Linehann, founder of Dialetical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), calls radical acceptance − acknowledgement of what is, so as to avoid emotional distress. To that end, Gil accepts what cannot be changed: he cannot relive the past, cannot find a better time and place, other than the present, to be the kind of writer he wants to be, and through this acceptance of what is, Gil grows, and finds contentment. As though to underscore his new-found wisdom, the movie ends with Gil walking home in the rain with Gabrielle, a girl of his own era who seems, as is Gil, mindful and appreciative of the very here-and-now attributes Inez hated (getting caught in the rain), and Adriana overlooked (reality).


It's almost daylight, and it's still Paris.


References

Allen, W. (Director). (2010). Midnight in Paris [Motion Picture]. USA: Sony Pictures Classics


Grimm, Jacob., & Grimm Wilhelm (2001). The Fisherman and His Wife: Fairy Tales. Minnesota: Creative Editions.


Linehann, Marsha, M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. NY: Guilford Press


Joseph

12/25/2012 08:35:11 am

I really like the connection you make with mindfulness; a very subtle and effective way to help one appreciate a concept. It might even help when working with individuals with more chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia or MDD as they often can be resistant in being anything less than subjective or consumed in their own delusional thought.


Rivkah Kaufman

12/25/2012 01:02:56 pm

Thank you Joseph! I'm glad you find my article helps you appreciate the concept of mindfulness, as this is the ultimate aim of Media Therapy: to give readers insight into underlying psychological concepts and mechanisms that may be drawing them to popular culture.


Yisroel K

12/25/2012 11:40:40 am

Nice article. Fritz Perls talked about staying in the 'here and now'. He made an interesting analogy in which he cited the process of an LP record playing. In order to hear the music the turntable with LP needed to rotate as the needle followed the groove. He defined the 'here and now' as where the needle touched the record. However the music only had meaning as long as the LP kept rotating. The melody could only be recognized in the context of 'past' notes and 'future' notes. But if we stop the movement of the LP so that the needle rests in the 'absolute here and now' then there is only a silent void. Your analysis of the movie makes me want to go see it.


Rivkah Kaufman

12/25/2012 01:42:15 pm

Hi Yisroel - thank you for your feedback and for relating mindfulness to Fritz Perls's philosophy. What I'd like to clarify, as I'm not that familiar with Gestalt psychology, is the "silent void" part of the analogy you describe. In Linehann's conception, the here and now is THE place to be - present, grounded, accepting, etc. In Perls's conception, however, and based on some quick research I did, while the present moment is the most helpful psychotherapeutic focus, since we are all connected in relationship networks, we can only know ourselves against the background of our relationship to the other (Joel Latner, 2000). So the present moment (where the needle touches the record) only has meaning if the LP keeps moving. In other words, if I'm understanding this correctly, what's important is the here and now as it is embedded in the individual's social and environmental context. This concept resonates with me, strongly as a professional, because I think it takes the whole person into account, in much the same way Axis IV of the DSM incorporates the environment into a comprehensive diagnosis. Perls's perspective is not emphasized in DBT, however, where the chief focus is on behavioral change in individuals dealing with conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder, which is characterized by emotional dysregulation, interpersonal distress, and poor reality testing. Yes, I would definitely recommend seeing the movie, which is as entertaining and endearingly wistful as it is wise and instructive.


Allison

12/25/2012 07:48:23 pm

Your analysis of Allen's movie is both intriguing and informative. Not a Woody Allen fan myself, I am now curious to see the movie with this new focus. Enjoyed the article, gives me much to ponder.


Rivkah Kaufman

12/25/2012 08:54:45 pm

Thank you Allison - I'm glad the article gave you a new perspective on the movie. Enjoy it!


Mike

12/25/2012 11:39:03 pm

Rivkah first let me say you are a talented and articulate writer . Your style is straight forward and very adeptly keeps us in tack. It illuminates ur points in a comfortable and easy to understand manner. That said I disagree on your premise that all u need is radical acceptance to be happy a kin to many fairy tales like Alice through the looking glass. My belief is that longing is not futile unless it leads to action and acceptance, that is a very linier approach. Many writers Saul Bellows , Singer, long for things without resolution .It is the process of longing and wishes unfulfilled that makes them human and relatable to us as real people. Here especially we are sold on the "happy ending" if we work hard if we behave like Billy Joel's Allentown. Yet the truth remains it is the process of yearning in itself without ever actual actualizing that keeps our souls alive. Each year we say next year in Jerusalem and keep saying it every year. Victor Frankel the great psychoanalyst taught us that those who hold on to longing even if seemingly impossible find a way to overcome and survive opposed to those who don't. So please Rivka let Tevya dream if he were a rich man and don't make him swallow the " radical acceptance pill" to where he is nothing more then his diffacult life. There is room for longing and romance still here in soon to b 2013. My praise to your prose but don't forget to add Carrots and salt to the soup of life.

BaShalo Chavaree


Rivkah Kaufman

12/27/2012 02:13:41 pm

Mike - thank you for your eloquent plea on behalf of yearning! Here's my response: You say, "it is the process of yearning in itself without ever actual actualizing that keeps our souls alive," that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "to yearn, perchance to actualize" is what really does it for humanity. Well, yearning does plays a major role in creativity and innovation, I'll grant you that. Still, you have to have a pretty strong ego to withstand all that yearning without getting exhausted by the impossibly high expectations usually accompanying this emotion. Think of Phillip Roth who, in a recent NYT article said “The struggle with writing is over…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away.” (http://tinyurl.com/prothpendown). Now this is one of the most celebrated American writers we're talking about. But most of the yearning-related clinical problems mental health professionals come across happen to ordinary people who either can't even articulate what it is they yearn for, or set the bar so high, that depression is almost inevitable. You brought up Victor Frankl; the latter discussed man's search for meaning under even the most unspeakable conditions, but he certainly didn't endorse suffering for no reason. Per Frankl, "The last of human freedoms [is]… the ability to choose one's attitude under a given set of circumstances." Based on this argument, an individual (particularly one with self-esteem issues, depression, or BPD), can CHOOSE yearning that leads nowhere, but mostly to negative feelings, or instead, can do a number of other, constructive things that feel meaningful: reframe the sadness caused by yearning, practice radical acceptance, improve mood by engaging in activities that boost confidence and a sense of mastery, engage in expensive long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy - you get the picture. So yes, by all means dream, yearn, aspire, do all that, but unless we're talking yearning that gets somewhere, my view is that futile longings leading to melancholic states should be transmuted/sublimated/reframed into meaningful activity. For everyman/woman It's not a mitzvah to be unhappy for the sake of it.


Helen Nemes

1/3/2013 11:55:59 pm

I like your Midnight article and your kosher blog. I am on linked in. What is your email?


Rivkah Kaufman

1/4/2013 03:54:12 am

Hi Helen - thanks for your response and I'm glad you like the article! Which kosher blog do you mean? The Brooklyn Jewish Examiner? I just sent you an invitation to connect on linkedin. My email is [email protected]


Zarina

1/6/2013 05:18:14 pm

lovely article. nice read I loved the movie.... i agree with the point made above that sometimes, and for for some clients, being in the here and now is not always the way forward, especially when their psychological distress is entrenched by external factors. a simple saying that resonated with me (which is probably an entire different topic for discussion) was: 'nostalgia is form of denial of the painful present.' This is often prevalent in therapy when clients revert to memories of the past (associated with good feelings) especially when present times are difficult. it may also be a form of denial, but also a coping mechanism. this ties into the discussion above about realism (being in the realistic present) versus fantasy. sometimes, and in some situations, creating illusions, fantasy and nostalgia may be the only 'good' that clients can hold on to when social/external factors are overwhelming placing clients in distress. to a certain extent, and in some situations it is okay to work with this, as therein lies hope for a client.


Rivkah Kaufman

1/6/2013 08:47:52 pm

Zarina, thank you for your feedback, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article! There are many ways to explore/reflect on/interpret any piece of work; while Gil finally got it together by Cultivating radical acceptance of the here and now, it is arguable that he would have been unable to do so without the incentive of yearning and illusion. So I agree that for some patients, in some circumstances, it may be functional to yearn, irrespective of its implicit idealism and the danger of overwhelming disappointment. I would say that to follow patients down that path one would need to insure they had sufficient ego strength to bear the possibility if disappointment, and sufficient reality testing to tell the difference between what what is wanted vs. what actually is. Also, I remember reading some research about depression (I can't remember the source) to the effect that the disorder derives from seeing the world all too clearly; perhaps then, if not rose colored glasses, it helps to have some mechanism to leaven the harsh realities of some people's existence.

Tks again!


Judith Harte

1/6/2013 11:14:30 pm

Beautifully written analysis and a recurrent themes in Allen's movies, and I suspect his own life. The late James Hillman, Jungian analyst and archetypal psychologist wrote a brilliant piece on longing entitled Pothos. Pothos was the god of longing, and in this piece Hillman articulates that it is the longing itself rather than the attainment that drives. Thank you . Beautifully stated.


Rivkah Kaufman

1/7/2013 04:18:48 am

Judith, I'm so glad the article resonated with you. Thank you so much for the information about James Hillman and Pothos - I've never heard of either, and I'm going to look them up right now!


Deepesh Faucheux

1/8/2013 11:23:44 am

Rivkah,

Thank you for the interesting topic and the lovely discussion. I don't want to repeat any of the eloquent remarks that have been made, and I appreciate the generous replies you made to them. I want, however, to reinforce the importance of longing. "Midnight in Paris" is all about longing, despite whatever decisions the lead character makes about being "realistic" in the end. The movie is all about the longing of the artist for the romantic side of life. It is what fired up and drove the characters Woody Allen portrays: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, even Gertrude Stein--and certainly Allen himself, throughout his career. As a great mystic, Kabir, once said, "When we long for God, God is there--in the longing." After 30 +years as a therapist, I say, don't knock longing. The clients who are in real trouble are the ones who have stopped longing! And one final word of advice: don't pay an inordinate amount of attention to the pathological, to the people who are in such deep trouble, to the people who are shipwrecked, as any kind of touchstone. Let's take the advice and pay attention to the modeling of the Humanistic and Transpersonal and Positive Psychologists. Let's look at the healthy, happy, fulfilled, even enlightened people who have shown us the way. They are the norm, not the pathological, the sick and wounded ones. The pathological ones need the modeling of what wellness and excellence looks like. And so do we!


Rivkah Kaufman

1/10/2013 09:25:49 am

Hi Deepesh, and thank you for your response; it made me smile because it reminded me of another remark by a friend of mine (Mike, further up in the comments section) who also urged me not to "knock longing," as you said.

Believe me, this is the last thing I want to do, and I'm sorry if the article gave you that idea. I am a very idealistic, poetic kind of person myself, and particularly when I was younger, had a "tortured artist" reputation. But I was also frequently morose and miserable. As an adult, I've learned that ruminating, perseverating, being depressed paralyzes me, something I can't afford as a mother, a grandmother, as someone who wants to actually get things done and to inspire others to do the same. So for me the answer is sublimation, action, being of use, particularly when I feel helpless.

Every now and then, though, I'll read a book ("The Time Traveler's Wife"; "Never Let Me Go"; "The Lovely Bones"), hear a song ("Back to Black," Amy Winehouse; "Goodbye My Lover," James Blunt") or watch a movie ("Pan's Labyrinth"; "Iris"; "A Beautiful Mind"; "Million Dollar Baby") that tugs at the well of yearning within me, and I become engulfed, crying for the unrequited yearning I'm reading/hearing/watching, which in turn trigger tears for all my OWN unrequited yearnings, those I will never attain, those I work so hard to attain, telling myself it's a process, it's a journey. And then, like all good psychotherapy patients with solid ego strength, I dry my eyes, and find something to do that will help me feel good, feel better about myself and humanity in general. But here's the thing: not everyone has the ego strength to do that, and/or to create an approximation of the ideal they have in their mind, and be content with that. People - patients - need a way to function, because not all of them can sublimate their existential crises into work that fulfills them. So that's the rationale for radical acceptance. Also, per Linehann, accepting something doesn't mean you judge it to be good or perfect, it's just that acceptance is the most effective way to handle the situation and move forward. Another more technical point is that radical acceptance is the psychological concept I chose to illustrate via this article, but I could have chosen existentialism and made it more about the yearning per se, and the way we create meaning out of acceptance - acceptance that we can't know what will happen, and that, while we would love to, we can't function in daily life if we are always imagining an alternate universe. Ultimately, I believe, both concepts (existentialism and radical acceptance) might lead to the same outcome, only the latter does so less painfully, and for many people out there, less painful isn't a bad choice.