In one of his philosophical and melancholy musings Woody Allen once drily observed:
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction.
Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Rod Dreher is director of publications at the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy that focuses on science, religion, economics and morality. A journalist with over 20 years of experience, Dreher has written for The Dallas Morning News, the New York Post, and other newspapers and journals. He is author of the book “Crunchy Cons.” Archives of his previous Beliefnet blog, “Crunchy Con,” can be found here. He and his family live in Philadelphia.
In an interview with Commonweal, Woody Allen shows the skull beneath the skin. Excerpt:
RL: When Ingmar Bergman died, you said even if you made a film as great as one of his, what would it matter? It doesn’t gain you salvation. So you had to ask yourself why do you continue to make films. Could you just say something about what you meant by “salvation”?WA: Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience–an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems. There is some relief. I have said this before in a facetious way, but it is not so facetious: I am a whiner. I do get a certain amount of solace from whining. RL: Are you saying the humor in your films is a relief for you? Or are you sort of saying to the audience, “Here is an oasis, a couple of laughs”?WA: I think what I’m saying is that I’m really impotent against the overwhelming bleakness of the universe and that the only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can, and that is about the best I can do, which is cold comfort.
Allen goes on to say that human creative endeavor is all about distracting us from the fundamental emptiness and meaninglessness of existence. I think there’s something admirable about the willingness of Allen to deal with the fullest implications of nihilism, which is to say, a world without God. Father Robert Lauder, who interviewed Allen here, says that even though he does not share Allen’s atheism, it is admirable that Allen, in his art, sees clearly that how one answers the question of whether or not God exists influences everything in one’s outlook on life.For myself, I cannot escape the same conclusion as Woody Allen: either God exists, or Woody Allen is right (and so is the monstrous Judah character in Allen’s great Dostoevskian film “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” who concludes in the final scene — excerpted below — that in a world without God, moral conduct becomes a matter of whatever you can get away with and rationalize. That is not an argument for God’s existence, of course, but I would say that people who think the non-existence of God is not such a big deal haven’t really thought through the question like Allen has. Unfortunately, Allen keeps making the same movie over and over again, from a philosophical point of view, because I think he’s realized that the only way he’ll ever find what he’s looking for is if he accepts God, and he either cannot or will not allow for that possibility
Does life have meaning? If life will end one day then why even go on? Woody Allen has no answers according to the video clip above.
With those thoughts in mind is it any wonder that the reviewer below notes, “That the film even attempts an affirmative, baseline existential conclusion, rather than embracing stasis and status quo ante, is to be commended.” Solomon had the answer to this nihilism and I have posted about that earlier.
“Golden Age Thinking”: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)“Golden Age Thinking”: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)
Midnight in Paris, the latest chapter in Woody Allen’s ongoing Euro-travelogue, commences with an old-fashioned overture—a lengthy montage of postcard-pretty Parisian street scenes set to a Sidney Bechet clarinet number—hearkening back to the opening scenes of Manhattan (1977), the Woodman’s swoony, romantic ode to NYC. Steeping himself in European locations for the last half decade hasn’t so much compelled Woody to forge new material, as it has encouraged him to approach longstanding preoccupations from a foreign perspective.
Cultural cross-pollination isn’t just Woody’s latest modus operandi; it’s also one ofMidnight’s overarching themes. Situating a familiar constellation of Woody Allen stock characters—the indecisive, lovelorn and –torn protagonist (Owen Wilson, whose troubled personal history adds an affecting layer of vulnerability to his performance) who suffers the slings and arrows of indignity at the hands of his shrewish fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and slave-to-status, presumptive in-laws (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy)—against unfamiliar surroundings generates the majority of the film’s fish-out-of-water gags, whether they’re social-political (Gil’s persistent potshots at his future in-laws’ Tea Party leanings) or cultural (Michael Sheen’s bearded blowhard correcting a tour guide on the fine points of Rodin’s love life). At this point in his six-decade career, Woody can write that sort of material in his sleep, and while it doesn’t negate the few hearty chuckles these jokes elicit, the thematic heart and soul of the film rests with what he designates “golden age thinking,” the unshakeable sensation haunting aspiring novelist (and erstwhile Hollywood screenwriting hack) Gil Pender that life would have been more satisfying if only he had lived in some ideal, bygone era.
In Midnight’s central conceit, Gil wanders the streets in a drunken stupor until, at the stroke of (you guessed it!) midnight, a vintage Rolls crowded with revelers pulls up at the cobblestone curb to whisk Gil back to the 1920s, the fabled era of the expatriate Lost Generation, where he soon finds himself keeping company with the likes of Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). These stand-ins not only permit Woody to drop some tidbits of cultural and historical knowledge, they also serve as sounding-boards for Gil, allowing him to bounce his meager stock of ideas off his literary idols. It’s a good thing, as it turns out, that their rather surprising goodwill and encouragement do not simply lead to a warm ego-bath for Gil (and, by extension, Allen theauteur). What could so easily have come across as portentous and heavy-handed just about breezes past under Woody’s (for once, of late) deft touch.
Parenthetically, my favorite bit of historical revisionism must be the scenes where Gil meets up with the Surrealist cohort of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and the inimitable Luis Buñuel. Gil at one point inadvertently suggests the scenario for Exterminating Angel(1962) to a bewildered Buñuel. Probably it’s no coincidence that one of Buñuel’s early films was the Surrealist masterwork L’Age d’Or (aka The Golden Age ).
The light-hearted, nigh-on whimsical, atmosphere is, however, a bit deceptive: Ultimately, in a neatly recursive step even further back into the past, in the service of his paramour Adriana’s (Marion Cotillard) own hyperinflation of the late 19th century Belle Époque, where they encounter Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, Gil realizes that existence invites dissatisfaction, whenever and whatever you happen to be. Midnight’s conclusion is therefore inversely proportional to Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s (2008), wherein its protagonists reject the possibilities that Spain opens up for them, only to return to the status quo of their former lives. Gil, on the other hand, ends by endorsing Rainer Maria Rilke’s apothegm: “You must change your life.”
Never mind that this sea-change occurs altogether too quickly and easily for Gil, in the winsome form of a simpatico vendor (Léa Seydoux) who shares Gil’s cornball quirks (playing the flâneur in the soaking rain, a Cole Porter fixation). That the film even attempts an affirmative, baseline existential conclusion, rather than embracing stasis and status quo ante, is to be commended. The Woodman still has a few excellent ones in him. And that alone is reason enough to rejoice…