Last night I watched Woody Allen’s forty-first feature film, “Midnight in Paris.” The film stars Owen Wilson playing screenwriter named Gil in a performance that channels Woody Allen’s persona so effectively it’s almost spooky. Gil is visiting Paris with his fiancee Inez and her parents. But he is clearly dissatisfied in the relationship, and it increasingly becomes clear that Inez is as well. One night after a wine tasting Gil wanders the streets of Paris. Gil is a hopeless romantic and longs to abandon his empty life in Hollywood for a meaningful life as a respected novelist living in Paris. For this reason he finds himself especially drawn to Paris in the 1920s, a time when the city teemed with great writers including Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
This is where the magic of the city comes in. When the clock strikes twelve Cinderella’s adventure ends, but Gil’s begins. He suddenly finds himself back in Paris in the roaring twenties actually meeting all these great writers and artists he has long admired while, so he thinks, falling in love. The rest of the film unfolds with Gil travelling between the present and the past.
“Midnight in Paris” is fantastic. It is uproariously funny with actors like Corey Stoll (playing Hemingway) and Michael Sheen (playing a pompous academic) taking turns stealing the scenes.
But the real star of the film, and the real scene stealer, is not Corey Stoll or Michael Sheen or even Owen Wilson (in his own outstanding performance), but rather Paris itself. Woody Allen has long been known for his fascination with world cities, most famously New York of course, but more recently London, Barcelona, and Paris. And this is the most richly filmed city in a Woody film since 1979’s “Manhattan”. (Indeed the opening montage depicting life in Paris is a clear nod to the similar opening of Manhattan.) However, the mood of the film most reminded me of the 1995 film Richard Linklater film “Before Sunrise” which depicts a young smitten couple spending a night walking through Vienna. (That is another film not to be missed.)
New York. Vienna. Paris. That got me reflecting on a theme with which Woody is very familiar: the greatness of cities. Some of us are born romantics. When we first read the Romantic poets like Wordsworth in high school we felt that we were coming home. We were going to do great things in life. We were not going to punch a clock. We would drive an impractical red convertible as our primary transportation. And we would live in one of the world’s great cities: New York, Paris, Rio…
But something happened along the way. We forgot those lines of “Tintern Abbey” that so moved us. We now punch that wretched clock, drive to and from work in a Camry (or, shudder, a Chrysler minivan) and we live in the suburbs. Our pleasures now consist of saving money on our Safeway club card and watching films on TV. It is a comfortable compromise most of the time. But then along comes a film like “Midnight in Paris” to rekindle those romantic projections and reprimand you for the dreams you forgot. (A Dodge Caravan? Really? Whatever happened to riding a Vespa around Rome?)
There is something more. As I watched “Midnight in Paris” two great themes that have defined Woody’s corpus came into view like never before: the way that, in Woody’s view, the glory of living in a great city serves as a shelter from the fundamental anomie that defines our existence. This reminds me of sociologist Peter Berger’s classic theory of religion (See The Sacred Canopy, 1968). Berger argues that relgion functions to provide a “sacred canopy” or tent which shields us from the anomie of existence and allows us to live meaningful, productive lives. (Berger is himself a Christian, so his interpretation is only directed at the sociological function of religion, not the truth of any particular religion.)
But what happens when you don’t have any religious framework to provide that sacred canopy to imbue life with meaning and significance? Woody’s response, so I now see, is to retreat to the social and aesthetic dimensions of existence in the city. The great city becomes, on this view, sacramental as it transmits to us the grace to live our lives sheltered against the meaninglessness of existence.
Woody’s philosophy emerges clearly in the following stunningly poetic speech Gil delivers to his young consort from the 1920s as they walk the cobblestone streets of the great city as the illuminated Sacre Coeur stands in the background. And it is on this that I will end:
You know I sometimes think, how’s anyone ever going to come up with a book or a painting or a symphony or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t, cause like you look around and every, every street, every boulevard is its own special art form. And when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe, that Paris exists, these lights … Come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune. But from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafes, people drinking, and singing. I mean, for all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.