Love in an old climate: Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in "Midnight in Paris"
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.