Friday, July 1, 2011

In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Anachronism

Recently, my husband and I saw Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest film. The opening scenes of Paris are well worth the price of admission, especially for people like us, people who have only experienced Paris on film. Allen seems to love the boulevards and bridges, the open-air cafés, even the bumper-to-bumper traffic knit together by head and tail lights and reflecting in the rich, gold adornments from glorious ages long past.

One of the charms of this film is its use of anachronism. Owen Wilson in the role of insecure writer and displaced person slips in and out of the 21st century, and in doing so he is an anachronism: a person, event or thing existing in a historical era in which it could not have occurred because the person, thing, or event belongs to another time.

Wilson’s character usually travels to the Paris that existed in the 1920s. This post-World War I and pre-World War II era was anything but peaceful. Ideas and art forms exploded in the hands of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, and Dali, and the film’s protagonist longs to be among such icons, to be nurtured and critiqued by them, to be inspired by them.

Owen Wilson's character learns, of course, that the past informs the present, but is neither better nor worse than the present. As Annie Dillard has written:

People look at the sky and at the other animals. They make beautiful objects, beautiful sounds, beautiful motions of their bodies beating drums in lines. They pray; they toss people in peat bogs; they help the sick and injured; they pierce their lips, their noses, ears; they make the same mistakes despite religion, written language, philosophy, and science; they build, they kill, they preserve, they count and figure, they boil the pot, they keep the embers alive; they tell their stories and gird themselves. (from “This is the Life” by Annie Dillard, Fall issue, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, published by the Center for Religious Humanism at Seattle Pacific University, reprinted with permission.)

What Dillard means, of course, is that cultural norms and standards may shift and change, but human nature remains. The artistic explosion of the 1920s and the Golden Age of invention and optimism in the first decades of the 20th century are kindred spirits because it is human nature that drives them, the same human nature alive in the 21st century. We cannot lose ourselves in a fondness for the past; we must live now to make beautiful objects now, create beautiful sounds now, and undulate our beautiful bodies now.

By slipping between the past and present, Allen makes this point. In fact, Wilson’s character lets go of a toxic relationship, opens himself to a promising one, and without looking back, decides to become a 21st century ex-pat alive and creative in Paris. Thus, anachronism serves Allen well as he introduces big ideas and weaves them into a love song to Paris.

Another film-maker who has made good use of anachronism is Mel Brooks. In Robin Hood, Men in Tights, he goes for the laugh by hanging a sign on the rear of a horse, advertising the horse for rent as one might rent a car today. Monty Python’s classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail features chain mail, shield shapes, and castles that were not in use in the 900s (see Colin G. Hoch’s commentary). One other anachronism is the use of coconuts to mimic the sound of horses’ hooves on firm ground. Coconuts are tropical, not readily available in Medieval England, but they are present nevertheless. Funny stuff to have the guys believe they are on horses while one of their company makes the sound of horses.

So anachronisms may be employed to make serious big themes come alive, or they may be present to amuse us. Regardless, anachronisms are another effective tool in the writer’s tool belt.

Reading Challenge:

Read Midnight in Paris; Robin Hood, Men in Tights; Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Take note of anachronism as you analyze and enjoy.

Writing Challenge:

Search your own fiction as I recently searched my own. I had placed a bean bag chair in a room from the year 1959. Bean bag chairs were a décor item dating from the late 60s. My anachronism was accidental—an error, and I repaired my mistake. Describe a place, but use anachronism purposefully for contrast or humor.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

You may have observed that I usually use an italicized font for the titles of books and movies instead of underlining them as was once required. According to the online writing guide at Purdue University:

Italics and underlining are generally used interchangeably. When you write, you can choose to either italicize or underline, but make sure you are consistent in which you use throughout the essay. When handwriting an essay like the GED Essay, obviously, you’ll have to use underlining.

Italicize the titles of magazines, books, newspapers, academic journals, films, television shows, long poems, plays, operas, musical albums, works of art, websites.

MLA (the Modern Language Association) no longer recommends underlining where italics could be used, but quotation marks are still required for the titles of short stories, essays, and poems not of epic length.

My Writing and Editing Coach Content Provided by Connye Griffin