Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris” explores “golden age fallacy” (Part 39)

Owen Wilson as Gil

Owen Wilson as Gil
I have really enjoyed going through the historical characters mentioned in Woody Allen’s latest film “Midnight in Paris,” but today I am turning my attention to the “golden age fallacy” that is brought up in the film.
Gil is a victim of “golden age thinking” according to Paul. Basically when you get down to it, Gil is in denial according to Paul. The hard reality of the cold heartless universe and the realities of the present seem to be swept away if you can imagine yourself happier in another golden age.
Woody Allen has made it clear in the past that he does not believe that God exists. However, he continues to probe issues in his films dealing with finding a lasting meaning to life.
King Solomon sat down at the end of his life and wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. Woody Allen has also touched on the same issues that Solomon discussed so many years ago. Remember that Woody Allen is looking at the world through the eyes of an atheist.
The Christian Scholar Ravi Zacharias noted, “The key to understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes is the term UNDER THE SUN — What that literally means is you lock God out of a closed system and you are left with only this world of Time plus Chance plus matter.” This is the same way that Woody Allen is choosing to view the world today!!
Solomon’s father David had expanded Israel and as a result Solomon had lots of resources, and he found himself searching for the meaning of life and trying to come up with answers concerning death and a possible afterlife.  However, it seems every door he tries to open is locked. Solomon found riches (Ecclesiastes 2:8-11), pleasure (2:1), education (2:3), fame (2:9), and his work (2:4) all “meaningless” and “vanity” and “a chasing of the wind.” None of those were able to “fill the God-sized vacuum in his heart” (quote from famous mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal). Solomon finally concluded in Ecclesiastes that he should “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).
All of his accomplishments would not be remembered (1:11) and who is to say that they had not already been done before by others (1:10)? Also the prospect of Solomon’s upcoming death would wipe out all of accomplishments anyway. Solomon observed, “For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die” (2:16). This is where Woody Allen’s story must begin. A while back in an interview Allen said, “My 70 plus years will be spent better than those of a beggar on the streets of Calcutta. But we’ll wind up in the same place” (Washington Post, July 26, 2006).
Woody Allen has won Academy awards for his comedies. Chuck Colson has noted that Woody Allen’s films do not celebrate life, but apparently divert Allen from its emptiness and despair. “It’s just an awful thing,” Allen says, “and in that context you’ve got to find an answer to the question: Why go on?” At best, all Allen has ever found is a temporary answer: You go on long enough to get the current project finished, and then you go on to the next one. But at bottom, there’s no significance to any of it.
As Allen confesses, movies were only a “means” for him to live the kind of lifestyle he wanted, but now that he has it, he has to keep making movies to distract himself from it. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, who “withheld not [his] heart from any joy,” Woody Allen apparently has concluded that “all is vanity.”
This is the same result that Solomon got in his search for answers in  the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. Solomon also dealt the subject of death a lot. Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 asserts, “It is better to spend your time at funerals than at festivals. For you are going to die, and you should think about it while there is still time. Sorrow is better than laughter, it may sadden your face, but it sharpens your understanding.”
Solomon went to the extreme in his searching in the Book of Ecclesiastes for answers, but all his answers did not bring lasting satisfaction and in fact they all turned to dust over time because both people and animals alike “go to the same place — they came from dust and they return to dust” (3:20).In 1978 I heard the song “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas when it rose to #6 on the charts. That song told me that Kerry Livgren the writer of that song and a member of Kansas had come to the same conclusion that Solomon had. I remember mentioning to my friends at church that we may soon see some members of Kansas become Christians because their search for the meaning of life had obviously come up empty even though they had risen from being an unknown band to the top of the music business and had all the wealth and fame that came with that. Furthermore, like Solomon, they realized death comes to everyone and there must be something more.Livgren wrote:”All we do, crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see, Dust in the Wind, All we are is dust in the wind, Don’t hang on, Nothing lasts forever but the Earth and Sky, It slips away, And all your money won’t another minute buy.”

Both Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope of Kansas became Christians eventually. Kerry Livgren first tried Eastern Religions and Dave Hope had to come out of a heavy drug addiction. I was shocked and elated to see their personal testimony on The 700 Club in 1981 and that same interview can be seen on youtube today. Livgren lives in Topeka, Kansas today where he teaches “Diggers,” a Sunday school class at Topeka Bible Church. Hope is the head of Worship, Evangelism and Outreach at Immanuel Anglican Church in Destin, Florida.

(part 1 ten minutes)

(part 2 ten minutes)

On the other hand David Segal of the Washington Post concluded that Woody Allen’s world “…is bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.” This is in contrast to Solomon’s conclusion that he should “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).
Woody Allen’s whimsical valentine to the City of Light may be his most enjoyable film in years.
Steven D. Greydanus | posted 6/24/2011 04:55AM

Returning from a trip to Paris sometime in the mid-20th century, a federal judge named Frank A. Picard told a friend named Charley Manes, “It was a wonderful trip. Paris is a grand place. But I wish I had made the trip 20 years ago.”

“You mean, when Paris was Paris?” Manes asked.

“No,” Picard replied, perhaps wistfully. “I mean when Picard was Picard.”

When Paris was Paris. When Picard was Picard. Ah, the old days. It seems the present is always overshadowed by a remembrance of lost or faded glory, some golden age before which present realities are poor and unsatisfactory substitutes.

Woody Allen fans know it well. Sure, they’ll admit, Allen cranks out a lot of unmemorable and even poor work nowadays—ah, but they remember when Allen was Allen. Every once in a while, perhaps, he comes out with a film that shows them he remembers, too.

Midnight in Paris is such a film. It’s a nostalgic movie about nostalgia—nostalgia for when Paris was Paris, for one thing. Even if you’ve never been to the City of Light, even if phrases like “the Lost Generation” and “la Belle Époque” hold for you none of the magic they do for Allen, the film makes you feel their power for his onscreen alter ego, appealingly played by Owen Wilson. For that matter, even if you aren’t an Allen fan—even if you aren’t convinced Allen was ever Allen—Midnight in Paris could almost make you nostalgic for the Allen that fans remember, or seem to.

Which Allen, though? There are almost as many Woody Allens as there are Allen films, but Midnight in Paris is a frothy, whimsical confection that harks back to fantasies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig—but in a sunnier, more relaxed mode, as if even Allen’s bleak anxieties soften when night falls on the City of Light. The universe may be a cold, violent, meaningless place, Gil Pender (Wilson) muses—and yet there is Paris.

Credit the star, in part, whose distinctly non-East Coast persona caused Allen to rethink and rewrite his main character after Wilson was cast. As Gil, a Hollywood screenwriting hack (by his own admission) yearning to write a serious novel, Wilson is still recognizably “the Woody Allen character,” like many Allen protagonists before him, but with his laid-back charm and unaffected enthusiasm he’s a more likable than usual version, with fewer anxieties and more naiveté.

Gil, visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her chilly, well-to-do parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), is overwhelmed with the romance of the city (beautifully photographed by Darius Khondji) that he feels and they don’t. “To know that Paris exists and anyone would choose to live anywhere else is a mystery to me,” he muses, but even living in Paris wouldn’t be enough for him. “I was born at the wrong time, into the wrong era,” he complains. For him, “when Paris was Paris” means the days of expatriate writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; of Cole Porter and Josephine Baker; of Picasso, Dalí and Buñuel.

“All that’s missing is the tuberculosis,” sniggers Paul (Michael Sheen), an insufferable, preening academic whom Gil regards with the same testy unease that Allen did with Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Inez, though, fawns over Paul’s erudition, and isn’t embarrassed for Gil when Paul says things like “Gil’s lament is nothing more than golden age thinking,” as if he were diagnosing a case of psoriasis instead of cutting off a man’s soul at the knees, if souls have knees.

Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle

Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle

It’s a typically suffocating, Allenesque setup—but then, as unexpected as a delicious breeze on the muggiest urban summer night, a door opens for Gil. Where does it take him? It’s not in the trailer, and even the cryptic end credits coyly avoid spoilers, but most reviews have no qualms about mentioning it, and it’s probably not hard to guess.

At any rate, for Gil Paris comes alive at midnight. He gains admittance to a wonderful world of music and dancing, meets fascinating people and participates in exhilarating conversation. He is delighted when a no-nonsense writer named Gert (Kathy Bates) offers to look at his novel. Then he meets a lovely woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who intrigues him despite, or perhaps because of, her complicated romantic history.

Kurt Fuller as John, Mimi Kennedy as Helen

Kurt Fuller as John, Mimi Kennedy as Helen

Midnight in Paris is about the allure of the past, of times and places that loom large in our imagination, when it seems things were more than what they are. It’s also about the illusion of perspective: the past looks romantic to us from our vantage point, and if we went there we might contrive to bring that perspective with us, although to the people actually living then, the past was simply the present. Or one could look further back to other golden ages.

Are golden ages golden while you are living through them? Time and memory sift the past, retaining what is golden and sweet while leaving the chaff behind. In our own day, perhaps, we are more conscious of the chaff, while the good wheat remains half-hidden, not fully appreciated in its day. Time will reveal it more fully to our children.

Or perhaps the past shines as it does because for us, like Picard, the past is bathed in the rosy glow of our own remembered youth (or, if we are young ourselves, that of the glowing memories and anecdotes of our elders). But was our youth itself as rosy as we remember? Is it all just a trick of perspective, the way ordinary surroundings become the mysterious horizon when you get far enough away?

Where is it all going? What’s remarkable about Midnight in Paris is that in the end it’s about seeing through the illusion of nostalgia and yet not being disillusioned—about cherishing the past, while living in the present.

Director Woody Allen on the set with Wilson

Director Woody Allen on the set with Wilson

Tolkien wrote about how fantasy can reveal rather than obscure reality: “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and the Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.”

That’s a speech the nihilistic Allen would choke on. Yet in this film he allows a character to claim that “the job of the artist is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Even that cautious sentiment is probably more than Allen himself believes deep down (certainly his work as a whole hardly seems to reflect such a philosophy). Still, in Midnight in Paris he seems willing to allow the audience, and perhaps even himself, the luxury of hope.

Talk About It
Discussion starters

  1. Have you ever wished you could live in another time and place? When? Or where? (Or both?) Why are you attracted to that? How does that time and place compare to the world of today—for better and for worse?
  2. Do you think the world is changing for the worse or for the better? Or is it staying the same? What are some ways the world has changed in the last 50 or so years that are for the better? For the worse?
  3. The idea of the world in decline, or of a past golden age, are perennially popular notions. Why do you think this is?
  4. Compare the movie’s sentiment that “the job of the artist is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence” with this statement: “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists). How are they the same? How are they different?
  5. Does Midnight in Paris “give voice to the universal desire for redemption”? Have you seen other Woody Allen movies that express a desire for redemption? Have you seen ones that you would say fail to do this?
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