An article of faith among urban culturalists is that God did not really create New York City. He outsourced to Woody Allen.
Even those who have elevated the belief to the status of shibboleth, however, may hiss "heresy" at the idea that Allen's ability to infuse his creative sensibility into our experience of one of the world's great cities may have just been replicated with his new movie about Paris.
Time will tell whether Midnight in Paris will truly recast the City of Light in the same way Annie Hall, Manhattan, and so many others crafted our expectations for Gotham's restaurants, art galleries and NYU pedants.
Minimally, it is a film with full power to reframe memories of Parisian monuments and cityscapes within the realm of sunny reverie, which is its openly ironic ambition. On its surface, Midnight in Paris is as light and yellowed as a love letter written but not sent until far too late. In the story, the love letter in question is the one would-be novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) writes to the city itself through the magic realist device of stepping back into the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Eliot, and their confreres in the literary Golden Age of the 1920s.
Its central conceit of time travel, though, goes beyond the cliché that we can never truly go back. It warns us that we are doomed by the lure of bringing the past forward to the present through the delusions and displacements of nostalgia. As the character Gil comes to realize, the illusion obstructs our understanding that the past is always just the present with the same anxieties but without antibiotics, anesthetics, or efficient ambulances.
In a long and engaging podcast on The Q&A With Jeff Goldsmith, Allen himself tells a trio of film critics that his own lifelong sense of disillusion springs from the realization that all Golden Ages are the artifice of those born too late. In life as in love letters, he says, all of us are always too late.
When an interviewer describes him as a "Talmudic atheist" who sees no point to life beyond having a good meal, he laughingly approves. He adds that he is essentially a nightclub comedian afflicted with an obsessive-compulsive pursuit of the Great Questions, for which there are no answers.
He echoes his character Alvy Singer's observation in Annie Hall that life is "full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."
If, at 75, Allen is as convinced that what has been is as meaningless as what is and what ever shall be, it might be because he embodies the stubbornness of the young Alvy Singer, who refuses to do his homework as long as the universe is expanding.
"What's the point?" Alvy says early on in Annie Hall. "If the universe is expanding, some day it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!"
His mother's admonition that "you're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding" falls on Alvy's (and presumably Woody's) obdurate ears.
For whatever Brooklyn is or isn't doing, there are places that Allen, the quintessential son of New York, could go in his own city to understand that the meaning of life is not limited to the ineffable mechanics of the cosmos—or even to the cosmic physical beauty of Paris.
One such place I happen to know about is Congregation Ramath Orah on West 110th Street near Columbia University. The synagogue's distinguishing feature is a stone that shows it was built in 1942.
I remember noticing it during a run through Morningside Heights last Easter. As a Catholic, standing across the street, I was awestruck at the idea of our elder brothers and sisters in faith building a house of worship on the Upper West Side at the height—or depth—of the Holocaust.
The incredibly courageous Rabbi Robert Serebrenik, who saved the Jews of Luxembourg from being sent to death camps on Yom Kippur in 1940, founded Ramath Orah after spiriting refugees to the United States under the nose of Adolph Eichmann.
Morningside Heights at mid-morning is no midnight in Paris. Yet it contains, in a single building, proof that at the darkest hour of human history, human beings found meaning in the past not as nostalgia but as hope. Stripped of illusions, they saw themselves, clear-eyed, as creatures born to hope. They built a building to worship the God who created them so. Their website welcomes all to join them in that living out of their faith.
Perhaps someone should tell Woody that it's never too late.