Woody Allen’s search for God in his latest movie “Midnight in Paris”(Part 37)

In Woody Allen’s latest movie “Midnight in Paris,” the reference is made to the cold heartless universe. This points out that Woody Allen is trying to look for some hope in this universe somewhere. Did he find any lasting answers? The review of the movie below notes: “The call of the artist is to find an antidote to the emptiness of the present.” Actually that is the instruction that Gertrude Stein gives to Gil during the movie. I agree totally and I have suggestions to offer Mr. Allen.

I read an excellent article by David Mishkin concerning Woody Allen’s search for God and I wanted to share a portion of it with you.

God and Carpeting: The Theology of Woody Allen by David Mishkin

March 1, 1993

This is an archived article. It originally appeared on March 1, 1993. Some information may be outdated. 

A red-haired boy sits next to his mother in the psychiatrist’s office. She is describing her son’s problems and expressing her disappointment in him. Why is he always depressed? Why can’t he be like other boys his age? The doctor turns to the boy and asks why he is depressed. In a hopeless daze the boy replies, “The universe is expanding, and if the universe is everything…and if it’s expanding…someday it will break apart and that’s the end of everything…what’s the point?”

His mother leans over, slaps the kid and scolds: “What is that your business!”

This scene from Annie Hall typifies Woody Allen’s quest for understanding! Allen touches on various topics and themes in all his cinematic works, but three subjects continually resurface: the existence of God, the fear of death and the nature of morality. These are all Jewish questions or at least theological issues. Woody Allen is a seeker who wants answers to the Ultimate Questions. His movie characters differ, yet they are all, in some way, asking these questions he wants answered. They are all “Woody Allens” wrestling with the same issues. He explains:

Maybe it’s because I’m depressed so often that I’m drawn to writers like Kafka, Dostoevski and to a filmmaker like Bergman. I think I have all the symptoms and problems that their characters are occupied with: an obsession with death, an obsession with God or the lack of God, the question of why we are here. Almost all of my work is autobiographical—exaggerated but true.1

But Woody Allen does not allow himself to dwell too long on these universal problems. The mother’s response to her red-haired son’s angst is typical of the comedic lid the filmmaker presses over his depressing outlook to close the issue. True, Woody Allen has made his mark by asking big questions. But it is the absence of satisfactory answers to those questions that causes much of the angst—and humor—we see on the screen. Off screen we see little difference.

Allen’s (authorized) biography, published in 1991, sheds some light on his life and times. Woody Allen, whose given name was Allan Konigsberg, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Allen describes his Jewish family and neighborhood as being from “the heart of the old world, their values are God and carpeting.”2 While he did not embrace the religion of his youth, his Jewishness is ever present in his characters, plots and dialogue. Jewish thought is intrinsic to his life and work.

One can see this in the 1977 film Annie Hall, where Allen’s character, Alvy, is put in contrast to his Midwestern, gentile girlfriend. In one scene he is visiting Annie’s parents. Her grandmother stares at him, picturing him as a stereotypical Chasidic Jew with side locks, black hat and a long coat. The screen splits as Alvy imagines his family on the right and hers on the left. Her parents ask what his parents will be doing for “the holidays”:

“We fast, to atone for our sins,” his mother explains.

Annie’s mother is confused. “What sins? I don’t understand.”

Alvy’s father responds with a shrug: “To tell you the truth, neither do we.”

Nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind.3

Allen suggests that the greatest thinkers in history died knowing no more than he does now.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen tackles the issue of morality on a much more serious level. Wealthy ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal has been having an extramarital affair for two years. When he attempts to end his illicit relationship, his mistress threatens to tell his wife. When backed into an impossible corner and offered an easy way out, Judah finds himself thinking the unthinkable.

Judah’s moral confusion is presented against a backdrop of the religion of his youth. Though he has long since rejected the Jewish religion, he is continually confronted with memories that activate his conscience. He remembers the words of his childhood rabbi:

“The eyes of God are on us always.”

Judah later speaks with another rabbi, a contemporary of his. The rabbi remarks on their contrasting worldviews:

“You see it [the world] as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness and some kind of higher power and a reason to live. Otherwise there is no basis to know how to live.”

These words are ultimately pushed aside, as Judah succumbs to the simple solution of hiring a hit-man to murder his demanding lady in waiting. After the crime, Judah experiences gut-wrenching guilt. Judah Rosenthal finds the case for morality so strong that after the murder he blurts out:

“Without God, life is a cesspool!”

His conscience pushes him to great despair as, again, he examines the situation from a past vantage point. He envisions a Passover seder from his childhood. The conversation becomes a family debate over the importance of the celebration. Some of the relatives don’t believe in God and consider the ritual a foolish waste of time. The head of the extended family stoutly defends his faith, saying, “If necessary, I will always choose God over truth.”

Perhaps this is why Judah rejected his religion—he could not see faith as anything other than some sort of noble delusion for those who refuse to accept life’s ugly truths. As Judah continues to dwell on his crime, he has another vision in which his rabbi friend challenges him with the question: “You don’t think God sees?”

“God is a luxury I can’t afford,” Judah replies. There is a final ring to the statement as Judah decides to put the entire incident behind him.

Judah almost turns himself in; however, the price is too high and so he chooses denial, the most common escape. “In reality,” he says in the last scene, “we rationalize, we deny or else we couldn’t go on living.”

Another character, Professor Levy, speaks on morality in one of the film’s subplots. Levy is an aging philosopher much admired by the character played by Woody Allen, a filmmaker. The filmmaker is planning a documentary based on Levy’s life, and we first see the professor on videotape, discussing the paradox of the ancient Israelites:

“They created a God who cares but who also demands that you behave morally. This God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, who is beloved to him.…After 5,000 years we have not succeeded to create a really and entirely loving image of God.”

Levy eventually commits suicide. Despite his great learning, his final note discloses nothing more than the obvious: “I’ve gone out the window.”

Professor Levy’s suicide leaves Allen’s character stunned. Still, his humor ameliorates the situation as the filmmaker protests,

“When I grew up in Brooklyn, nobody committed suicide; everyone was too unhappy.”

The final comment on Levy’s suicide is a surprising departure from Allen’s security blanket of humor:

“No matter how elaborate a philosophical system you work out, in the end it’s gotta be incomplete.”

Remember, all of the dialogue is written by Woody Allen. Though his own character supplies comic relief to this dark film, his conclusions are just as bleak. Everyone is guilty of something whether it’s considered a crime or a misdemeanor.

Yet, Allen’s theological questions rarely address the nature of that guilt. The word “sin” is reserved for the grossest offenses—the ones that make the evening news—or would, if they were discovered. Judah Rosenthal’s crime is easily recognizable as sin, while various other infidelities and compromises are mere misdemeanors.

Sin against God is not something Allen appears to take seriously in any of his films. When evangelist Billy Graham was a guest on one of Allen’s 1960s television specials, the comedian was asked (not by Graham) to name his greatest sin. He responded:

“I once had impure thoughts about Art Linkletter.”24

However, when he distances himself from the personal nature of sin and looks to crimes or sins against humanity, Allen speaks with a passion.

In Hannah and Her Sisters the viewer is introduced to the character of Frederick, an angry, isolated artist who is disgusted with the conditions of the world. Of Auschwitz, Frederick remarks to his girlfriend:

“The real question is: ‘Given what people are, why doesn’t it happen more often?’ Of course, it does, in subtler forms.…”

In Allen’s theology, all have fallen short to a greater or lesser degree, but ironically, his view of human imperfection never appears in the same discussion as his thoughts about God.

He does admit to being disconnected with the universe:

“I am two with nature.”25

But he doesn’t mention a connection with a personal God because he doesn’t see a correlation between human failures and the question of connectedness to God.

While Allen is a unique thinker, he seems to be pedestrian when it comes to wrestling with problems of immorality and even inhumanity. While he calls the existence of God into question, he does not deal with our responsibility in acknowledging God if he does exist.

It is simple to analyze sin on a human level. The more people get hurt, the bigger the sin. But the biblical perspective is quite different: Any and all sin causes separation from God. One cannot view such a cosmic separation as large or small based on degrees of sin. Ironically, one of Allen’s short stories underscores the foolishness of comparison degrees of sin:

“Astronomers talk of an inhabited planet named Quelm, so distant from earth that a man traveling at the speed of light would take six million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip.”26

The biblical perspective of separation from God is similar. Having “better morals” than the drug pusher, the rapist or the ax murderer makes a big difference—in our society. We should all strive to be the best people we can be, if only to improve the overall quality of life. But in terms of a relationship with God, doing the best one can is like being two hours closer to Quelm. God is so removed from any unrighteousness that the difference between “a little unrighteous” and a lot is irrelevant.

The question his films and essays never ask is: Could being alienated from God be the root cause of our alienation from one another…and even our alienation from our own selves?

“It’s hard to get your heart and your head to agree in life. In my case they’re not even friendly.”27

Woody Allen has a unique way of expressing the uneasy terms on which many people find their heads and their hearts. Perhaps that is why he has received 14 Academy Award nominations. Allen will shoot a scene as many as twenty times, hoping to capture the actors and scenery perfectly. His biographer says “he doesn’t like to go to the next thing until what he’s working on is perfect—a process that guarantees self-defeat.”28

Is filmmaking Woody Allen’s escape from the world at large? His biographer notes, “He assigns himself mental tasks throughout the day with the intent that not a moment will pass without his mind being occupied and therefore insulated from the dilemma of eschatology.”29

It is a continual process—writing takes his mind off of the ultimate questions, yet the characters he creates are always obsessed with those very same questions. Allen determines their fate, occasionally handing out a happy ending. And he seems painfully aware that he will have little to say about the ending of his own script.

There is much to be appreciated and enjoyed in Woody Allen’s humor, but it also seems as if he uses jokes to avoid taking the possibility of God’s existence very seriously. Maybe Woody Allen is afraid to find that God doesn’t exist, or on the other hand maybe he’s afraid to find that he does. In either case, he seems to need to add a comic edge to questions about God to prove that he is not wholehearted in his hope for answers.

Will Woody Allen tackle the problem of his own halfhearted search for God in a serious way in some future film or essay? Maybe, but if the Bible can be believed, it’s an issue that God has already dealt with. The prophet Jeremiah quotes the Creator as saying: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13).

____________________________________

Earlier I wrote a post about the “golden age fallacy” that Woody Allen destroys in this film. The thinking that things would be better if we lived in a different time or a different place. However, Allen is still searching for meaning in life and deep down he knows in his heart that God made him for a special reason and not to just live a life without any lasting meaning. That is the reason he keeps bringing up these issues in his films.

Here I wanted to make two further suggestions to Mr. Allen myself: 


1. You may not have as much resources as  Solomon but you can still start on a spiritual search for the afterlife. .

 A.  Go to the Grand Canyon and see if you can deny the outward witness of God’s handiwork. That leads me to the scripture in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “…{God} has planted eternity in the human heart…”

B.   Rent a dvd of the movie CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS by Woody Allen and see if you can answer this simple question: Do evil man like Hitler get off or will they be punished in an afterlife?
 

2. Read John 3:1-21 and see what happened when Jesus spoke to a true seeking skeptic of his day named Nicodemus. .
John 3:1-21

 1 There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. 2 After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”  3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again,[a] you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”  4 “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”  5 Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.[b] 6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.[c] 7 So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You[d] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”  9 “How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.  10 Jesus replied, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things? 11 I assure you, we tell you what we know and have seen, and yet you won’t believe our testimony. 12 But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man[e] has come down from heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.[f]  16 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.  18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. 19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. 21 But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.[g]

Endnotes

  1. Eric Lax, Woody Allen, (New York: Knopf Publishing, 1991), p. 179.
  2. Ibid., p. 166.
  3. Manhattan, 1979.
  4. Lax, p. 141.
  5. Stardust Memories, 1980.
  6. Lax, p. 150.
  7. Sleeper, 1973.
  8. Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986.
  9. Woody Allen, “My Speech to the Graduates,” Side Effects, (New York: Random House Publ., 1980), p. 82.
  10. Sleeper.
  11. Lax, p. 183.
  12. Woody Allen, “Death (A Play),” Without Feathers, (New York: Random House Publ., 1975), p. 106.
  13. Woody Allen, “My Philosophy,” Getting Even, (New York: Warner Books, 1971), p. 25.
  14. Allen, “Early Essays,” Without Feathers, p. 108.
  15. Allen, “Selections From the Allen Notebook,” Without Feathers, p. 10.
  16. Allen, “My Apology,” Side Effects, p. 54.
  17. Stardust Memories.
  18. Allen, “My Speech to the Graduates,” Side Effects, p. 82.
  19. Sleeper.
  20. Allen, “Selections From the Allen Notebook,” Without Feathers, p. 8.
  21. Allen, “Examining Psychic Phenomena,” Without Feathers, p. 11.
  22. Lax, p. 41.
  23. Love and Death, 1975.
  24. Lax, p. 132.
  25. Ibid., p. 39.
  26. Allen, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Without Feathers, p. 194.
  27. Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989.
  28. Lax, p. 322.
  29. Ibid., p. 183.
  30. Josh Goller’s Take a Trip to the Darkside: Midnight in Paris

    Midnight in Paris

    with JOSH GOLLER

    The call of the artist is to find an antidote to the emptiness of the present. So goes the pulse of Woody Allen’s latest feature Midnight in Paris. Allen’s trademark themes of existential angst, restlessness, and fear of death permeate this film as well, but with a charm that’s a welcome departure from the more formulaic and forgettable pictures he’s added to his stable in recent years. A writer/director as prolific as Allen (who manages to churn out a new movie yearly) can’t avoid hits and misses, but his work has been trending toward the latter in the autumn of his career.

    Not so with Midnight in Paris. Once obsessively fixated in New York, he’s found a voice in Europe of late, and this latest endeavor glorifies Paris almost as fawningly. Standing in for the character Allen certainly would have played himself in his prime, Owen Wilson portrays Gil Pender, a restless Hollywood hack with literary aspirations on holiday with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) in the City of Light.

    Gil and Inez may mesh when it comes to the little things (they both enjoy the “pita bread” at Indian restaurants, for instance) they butt heads on the grander scale. He enjoys walking through the rain and regrets never having moved to Paris when he once had the chance, while she’d prefer to furnish their home in Malibu with $20,000 desks.

    Though not explicitly revealed in the film’s trailers, it’s no great secret that Gil winds up stumbling into the Paris of the past, much like Jeff Daniels walked off the silver screen in Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. Inexplicably, Gil finds himself rubbing elbows with his late artistic heroes, the likes of Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Dali (Adrien Brody). He’s soon smitten by Picasso’s muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard), while wrestling his own displeasure with the present day.

    Wilson carries the picture as Gil, innocent and likable as he subtly shifts through time without the need of a vortex or DeLorean or hot tub. And he’s much more suited and capable of the Allen stand-in role than predecessors such as Will Ferrell or Larry David. Cotillard is warm and alluring while McAdams is cold but no less stunning. The film itself is shot with soft light but vivid colors and the story enchants without carrying too much philosophical heft.

    With a feast of literary and art references, the humor is of an esoteric brand and much of the film will be lost on the uninitiated. Still, Allen creates a world within a world that will delight even those who might not grasp why others in the theater are laughing. As usual, we may have to endure several more years of lesser works before arriving at another gem, but with Midnight in Paris Allen proves that, though we may yearn for the golden age, he can still make us happy in the present.

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