Throwback Thursday: Midnight in Paris and The Tourist Gaze, Desire for Self-Mastery, and a New Kind of Ethnographer

Still from Midnight in Paris

Still from Midnight in Paris

          Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (Allen, 2011), creates desire within the viewer while also offering a unique take on the Tourist Gaze, desire and ethnography through the lead male character, Gil Pender. Gil, an unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter who longs to write his own novel that centers around a nostalgia shop, finds himself consumed by desire to master himself and his life by fulfilling his starved intellectual and creative needs. As Gil vacations in Paris and becomes transported to Paris circa 1920s each night at midnight, he finds himself at an advantage in his quest to satisfy his desire for self-mastery by engaging with the important cultural icons of Paris that matter to him. Through Gil’s desire for self-mastery, he interacts with the Tourist Gaze, and with the search for self-mastery that comes from this desire, Gil becomes a new type of ethnographer that seeks to immerse himself in a society to gain something from the natives; the idea of the new ethnographer furthering and engaging with the Tourist Gaze is expressed through tracking shots, more focus on people than monuments and a focus on interactions with characters.

            In Gil experiencing a strong desire for self-mastery, his Tourist Gaze is sustained; however, his Tourist Gaze is different from most in terms of which ideology is sustains and with which it interacts. That the Tourist Gaze is “socially organized and systemized,” (Law et. Al. 143) and involves the “collection of signs,” (Urry 172), is furthered by Gil’s desire for self-mastery and his search to fulfill this desire. Gil’s desire to be more fulfilled intellectually and creatively is shaped by his current social system; rather than wanting to fall within the lines of success and fulfillment drawn by his Beverly Hills society, he wishes to step outside of these lines. In dismissing and transcending his society’s standards of success and fulfillments, he is engaging with his society’s signifiers of these things and choosing to satisfy his desire through the obtaining of another society’s signifiers, the cultural icons of 1920s Paris. The society other than his own is Paris, and when choosing the signifiers that exist here, he is still pushing the boundaries that are typically maintained by a non-native. Gil pushes these boundaries by desiring more than what is expected of him as a tourist; although Urry says of the Tourist Gaze that “even the most mundane of activities appear special when conducted against a striking visual backcloth,” (Urry 172), Gil’s Tourist Gaze does not desire the striking visuals of other tourists around him; rather, Gil’s Tourist Gaze desires the signifiers of special and extraordinary that are of a different time than his own. Gil has a sort of nostalgic Tourist Gaze, he does engage with the Tourist Gaze, but not the current Tourist Gaze, his Gaze focuses on the past and the signifiers of extraordinary-ness from Paris in the 1920s.

Through the films tracking shots, Gil’s special interaction with and classification of the Tourist Gaze is expressed to viewers. As Gil, his fiancé, and their “friends” Carol and Paul walk around the grounds of Versailles, the viewer is taken with them through a tracking shot. The importance of this tracking shot is what it does not capture; it does not capture much of Versailles, the popular and historic tourist sight. This tracking shot and what it leaves out is one of the signifiers of the difference that exists within Gil’s Tourist Gaze. Because Gil’s Tourist Gaze focuses not as much on the current visually extraordinary objects of the Gaze, we are not given the chance to see one of these objects (in this case, Versailles), which conveys to us this important aspect of Gil’s Tourist Gaze.  We are being shown Gil’s interaction with and dismissal of this society’s signifiers of fulfillment and desire through the viewing of his boredom, displacement with a group of “fulfilled” individuals of his time, and the lack of images of the environment deemed significant by his society.

Gil immerses himself in the world that most fulfills his desire for self-mastery and corresponds best to his Tourist Gaze; this world is that of 1920s Paris and the cultural icons that exist here. When he enters this world, he fully integrates, making an attempt to communicate with the natives of this time, to live amongst them for as long as he can, existing with them in their world. In this way, Gil is like an ethnographer, like Clifford Geertz, author of “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.” Geertz says of his anthropological studies in Bali, “we intended, as anthropologists, to study,” (Geertz 1) Gil does, indeed want to study the natives of 1920s Paris, but it is a type of study that goes deeper than the typical definition of studying. Gil wants to study these individuals in order to learn from them, so he, himself can be like them. Geertz says later in his essay, “one can move between forms in search of broader unities or informing contrasts. One can even compare forms from different cultures to define their character in reciprocal relief,” (Geertz 29). This description of the anthropologist or ethnographer, the more traditional one, is extremely different from how Gil acts as an anthropologist/ethnographer figure. Rather than comparing his culture to their culture, highlighting and making notes of differences between himself and the Other, using the Other to define who he is as a non-native, Gil strives to do just the opposite; he finds similarities between himself and the not-so-Other almost effortlessly, defining himself as the Other, not noticing any differences. In this way, Gil is a new kind of ethnographer, one that wants to be his subjects, wants to engage with them and learn from them in order to completely fulfill himself through his belonging to this society.

Another important tracking shot is employed in the film that shows Gil’s status as the new kind of ethnographer. As Gil and Adriana walk together through Paris, we are again, like we were at Versailles, not shown the iconic images of Paris. Instead, we are shown Gil’s interaction with Adriana; this interaction and the fulfillment that both individuals are gaining from spending time together is communicated to us through the shot focusing on them and not on the surroundings. Paired with the premise of the film and the dialogue that blatantly reveals to us Gil’s desire to belong with these 1920s Parisian natives, the tracking shot of his walk with Adriana and the focus that the camera holds on them rather than their iconic surroundings, send into overdrive the message that Gil is an ethnographer that wishes to be like his subjects.

Charming, original and feel-good are all adjectives that could be used to describe Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. This film manages to make us in a similar position to lead male, Gil; we become nostalgic for the past and the cultural icons that once existed as we are invited on Gil’s nightly ethnographic journeys to 1920s Paris. Gils has a strong desire for self mastery, a self mastery that does not quite fit with that of his time and setting; in acknowledging this inability to achieve his desire in his current time and place and searching for it in 1920s Paris, Gil furthers the Tourist Gaze. The Tourist Gaze of Gil is different from his fellow travelers in that they do not have a desire for self-mastery, and that their search for fulfilling desire takes place in their current time and location, and frequently the location of their homes (Beverly Hills); this discrepancy between the Tourist Gazes allows us to define Gil’s Tourist Gaze as more of a Nostalgic Tourist Gaze than his “peers”. When Gil searches to fulfill his desire, he becomes a new kind of ethnographer of 1920s Paris that wishes not to highlight differences between himself and the Other and to study the Other, but rather wishes to fully integrate with the not-so-Other, learn from them and remove any differences between the two, of which there are already few. Through the overall storyline of the film and tracking shots that focus more on Gil’s interaction with his environment and the individuals that exist in the environments rather than famous Parisian landmarks, the difference between Gil’s Nostalgic Tourist Gaze and the Tourist Gaze of his “peers,” and his status as a new king of ethnographer are expressed to viewers who, themselves, become their own kind of ethnographer with their very own Nostalgic Tourist Gaze.



Works Cited

Midnight in Paris. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Owens Wilson, Rachel McAdams. Gravier Productions, 2011. Amazon Instant Video.

Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.” Daedalus 101.1 (1972): 1-37. JSTOR. Web. 2 Feb. 2012. < .>.

Law, Lisa, Tim Bunnell, and Chin-Ee Ong. “The Beach, the Gaze, and Film Tourism.” Tourist Studies 7.2 (2007): 141-60. Sage Publications. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <;.

Urry, John. “The Tourist Gaze ‘Revisited'” American Behavioral Scientist 36.2 (1992): 172-86. Print.


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