Though not as good as it might have been (see Thomas Hibbs’ percipient review), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a refreshing step down from the nihilistic soapbox. The lesson—in case we’d miss it—is pedantically spelled out: Beware “Golden Age syndrome,” the assumption that the past is always superior to the present. Accordingly, Allen’s protagonist chooses to bravely live in the present (fortunately populated by sultry Parisians), just as—the movie clobbers us over the head to emphasize—should we.
Allen, however, is as nostalgic as the character he criticizes. Just look at the traditional architecture he chooses to spotlight. If the modern age is really so wonderful, why not an extended scene just outside the exo-skeletal Centre Georges Pompidiou? Perhaps I missed it, but why didn’t the camera lovingly linger on La Grande Arche de La Défense in the opening architectural montage? Indeed, if the point is the present, why not go so far as to film a major portion of the movie in the troubled Parisian suburbs? Why? Because what we love about Paris, just like what we love about Manhattan, was mostly built before 1930. That’s not nostalgia—it’s just human.
What’s more, “nostalgic” renewal movements focused on the Christian past are exactly what gave us much of the Parisian architecture that Woody Allen holds dear. Take Sacré Couer, which appears in the film repeatedly. It was built in the Byzantine style in order to—in the words of one Parisian bishop—”call Frenchmen back to the Church after a century of bloodshed, insubordination to the rule of God, rationalism, materialism and apostasy” (92). Or consider the more recognizable Notre Dame, a building which Allen’s camera all but caresses. It’s a longstanding argument that the Gothic style was partly inspired by Abbot Suger’s rediscovery of ancient Christianity’s neo-Platonic light mysticism as expressed by Pseudo-Dionysios. To put it crassly, without this kind of architectural ressourcement, the City of Lights would suck.
Because the communio sanctorum transcends time, imbibing the Christian past (see Hans Boersma on that) remains one of the best ways to fully inhabit the present. If that’s “Golden age syndrome,” then let’s have more of it. “It is evident,” wrote John Ruskin, “that the title ‘Dark Ages,’ given to the mediaeval centuries, is, respecting art, wholly inapplicable. They were, on the contrary, the bright ages; ours are the dark ones. I do not mean metaphysically, but literally. They were the ages of gold; ours are the ages of umber.”