' ' Cinema Romantico: (untitled)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


Jesse: “I heard this story once, about when the Germans were occupying Paris and they had to retreat back, they wired Notre-Dame to blow. But they had to leave one guy in charge of hitting the switch. And the guy, the soldier, couldn’t do it. You know, he just sat there, knocked out by how beautiful the place was. And then, when the allied troops came in, they found all the explosives just lying there, and the switch unturned.”
Celine: “Is that true?”
Jesse: “I don’t know. I always liked that story, though.”

I thought of that exchange from “Before Sunset” in the wake of Notre-Dame Cathedral burning yesterday. And I thought of that exchange not just because I bring most everything down to movies, though I mostly do, but because it so succinctly summarizes Our Lady of Paris’s status as a survivor. Goddamit, that immaculate French Gothic structure survived the Nazi occupation; it survived the French Revolution too, and years of neglect. It seems to have survived yesterday’s terrible, tragic blaze too.

I did not think of that exchange a couple autumns ago when I visited Paris in the company of My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and saw Notre-Dame up close (and from afar) with my own eyes. Because I don’t think you can really think about much of anything while looking at Notre-Dame. Its beauty overwhelms you. The Statue of Liberty did that too when I finally stood in its imposing shadow, though that sensation was different, culled from how Lady Liberty signified everyone who had come through this place.

Notre-Dame contains history too, sure, centuries of it, and that is significant and worthy of appreciation, just as it serving its role as a but a fully functional Catholic place of worship is not something I intend to downplay. But whatever your thoughts on practitioners of organized religion, “those bastards,” to paraphrase Ron Swanson, “knew how to build an edifice”, and in that building is where Notre-Dame’s greatest meaning emerges, a monument to something bigger and truer than mere architectural functionality or a product to be bought and sold; it’s an objective work of art. Art is a universal language. Jejune, perhaps, but accurate, at least when I stood inside and marveled at so many cultures and creeds marveling at the Rose Window, its stained glass beyond the scope of even the most futuristic smartphone filter, some genuine for your eyes only shit in this Instagram age, like Captain Miller and his wife and the rose bushes.

If it’s bad now, it’s always been just as bad before, and Notre-Dame, in its own way, is living proof. Still, I kept thinking this loss occupied some profound space beyond mere heartbreak and obligatory words of mankind’s propensity to rebuild what’s lost in the face of where this whole increasingly ghastly earthly show seems to be headed. When I saw that spire topple through the collapsing roof, it was as if some terrible rift had suddenly been slashed through the universe, threatening to take everything beautiful with it, a cosmic signifier of what’s been lost and stands to be lost still. And though one thing does not necessarily have to do with another, and though the onlookers singing Ave Maria in unison made my heart found full, the elemental indifference of those flames seemed to spiritually stand in for the indifference of so many to history and art, to all the beauty in this world that should be preserved and not run roughshod over, and I found myself hoping our era isn’t the one that finally hits the switch.

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