“There’s a whole lot of magic when you’re in Paris. . . .I want to tell you ’bout all I see. Stars in my eyes that you would not believe” Midnight In Paris, Stephen Stills
It never occurred to me that Woody Allen and Stephen Stills shared the same aesthetic. Stills, of course, achieved fame and notoriety as a member of The Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Still, Nash and (sometimes) Young. He’s written and sung anthems for his generation–(“For What It’s Worth, Carry On, Woodstock)–and his battles, on and off stage, are the stuff of legend, including an episode in the early ’80s when Stephen’s then-bandmate Bonnie Bramlett reportedly punched Elvis Costello in a Ohio Holiday Inn bar.
Woody Allen, on the other hand, has always favored wits over fists. When Stills was telling the crowd at Woodstock that he was “scared shitless” before breaking into Suite:Judy Blue Eyes, Woody was probably playing Dixieland clarinet at his regular weekly gig at Michael’s Pub in Manhattan while pondering the absurdity of life. The auteur claims to have been thrown out of college for cheating on his metaphysics exam (“I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me”). In Annie Hall, when he dates the wispy Rolling Stone writer (Shelley Duvall), his absolute disdain for the entire Rock genre is palpable.
Yet when it comes to France’s City of Lights, Woody and Stephen see eye to eye, with Woody taking a title out of the Stephen Stills songbook. Stephen’s 1976 solo album contained “Midnight In Paris,” with lyrics celebrating the joy and wonder of that magical place. Woody’s 2010 film by the same name not only won praise from critics and audiences, but also exuded the same spirit of awe and wonder as Stills’ song about “stars in your eyes that you would not believe.”
Woody’s Paris, too, is populated by an unbelievable constellation of stars. When struggling writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is stranded by his shallow fiance on a gaslight Paris lane, he soon finds himself whisked upon a journey to past–to the literary salons and speakeasy of jazz age Paris, where he encounters a who’s who of the era’s cultural elite. Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and even Dali!, populate Gil’s nightly jaunts. When he returns to the present, aglow with heady banter and bon mots, he’s eager to share his new-found enlightenment. In one scene, Pender exclaims, “The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”
This line added to the picture’s panache, but hardly was a defining moment. With so many literary and artistic heroes crowding each frame, and with the Hemingway character itching for a fight in every scene, Woody’s nod to Faulkner hardly stood out.
But it didn’t escape the attention of Faulkner’s estate. And unlike Woody’s many fans, Faulkner’s folks did not see this as a laughing matter, even though the line merely paraphrased Faulkner and gave him attribution. They’ve sued. Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC, the owner of William Faulkner’s literary properties, filed a complaint in the US District Court in Mississippi against Woody’s studio, Sony Pictures Classics, Inc. for copyright infringement, violation of the Lanham, and commercial misappropriation. Faulkner’s estate asks for “damages, disgorgement of profits, costs and attorneys fees.” The complaint states, “The Copyright Act grants Faulkner the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the Book and the Original Quote.” The complaint also alleges that, “The use of the infringing quote and of William Faulkner’s name in the infringing film is likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, and/or to deceive the infringing film’s viewers as to a perceived affiliation, connection, or association between William Faulkner and his works, on the one hand, and Sony, on the other hand.”
Sony’s response so far has been terse and emphatic: “There is no question this brief reference (10 words) to a quote from a public speech Faulkner gave constitutes fair use and any claim to the contrary is without merit.”
The merits of this literary/cinematic stand-off will now be played out in a Mississippi courtroom. Whether it will be all sound and fury, signifying nothing remains to be seen. But even though Woody Allen may appear diffident, Faulkner should not take him lightly. As he showed when playing Fielding Melesh in Take The Money And Run, Woody can be a formidable interrogator. Perhaps Mr. Allen will invoke the literary conceit from Midnight In Paris and journey to the past himself to confront his accuser, where he’d surely use his signature line of cross-examination: Are you being coy, Mr. Faulkner?