How I learned the Limits of Existentialism from Woody Allen

I have a friend who once declared that she not only disliked “Citizen Kane”, Orson Welle’s ground breaking masterpiece, but claimed to have walked out on the film before it was over. I was still reeling from this rather bold statement when she later implicitly dismissed the entire film making career of Woody Allen, spanning over 40 years, because she found the sound of his voice annoying. At first I wondered how anyone possibly could be so smug about such an accomplished filmmaker, but on second thought I began questioning myself as to what exactly it was that made Woody Allen so great.

One could argue that he is, after all, just a comedian who at some point began making movies. He’s made many comedies. Many know in that in academic terms, “Annie Hall” is probably his most important film. He’s also been accused of imitating other filmmakers, most notably Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. After hearing this, I saw parallels between “Stardust Memories” and Fellini’s “81/2”, but Allen could have just as well been parodying Fellini as referencing him. I had never heard anyone say anything good about “Interiors”, but after my first viewing of the film, I was genuinely impressed that a filmmaker like Allen could make such a stark film; one so drastically different from all of his previous work. It didn’t seem to have anything in common with Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” or “The Seventh Seal,” but after renting a videocassette copy of “Autumn Sonata”, I began to understand why “Interiors” was compared to the Swedish film legend’s films. Still, what was wrong with Allen intentionally referencing Bergman’s style as a tribute or an homage? For some time I maintained this defense until I began watching “Interiors” for a second time years later and couldn’t help but feel that the character “Eve” was implausibly obnoxious and shallow (despite her suicidal tendencies), and therefore much better suited for Allen’s early funny work.

Finally I recalled “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which was not only a great film, but an ostensibly exemplary illustration of existentialism. Part of the film concerns the dilemma the character Judah Rosenthal is confronted with when Dolores, a woman he has been having an extramarital affair with, insists that he divorce his wife and remarry her. Dolores further threatens not only to tell his wife about their affair, but also implies that if he doesn’t comply with her demands that she will expose illegal financial measures Judah had been forced to resort to in years past for the sake of sustaining his then jeopardized ophthalmology practice. Judah, tormented over his bleak options, reluctantly resorts to having Dolores assassinated in a manner that makes it appear she was killed during a burglary. Certainly this film would not only rank among Allen’s best, but would serve as a testament to his substance and versatility as a filmmaker. However, as I continued to contemplate the film, I realized it was troubling in a manner Allen himself had most likely not intended.

I did not see “Crimes and Misdemeanors” until almost ten years after its 1989 release, which was around the time of Allen’s controversial marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, whom Mia Farrow, Allen’s ex-girlfriend, had adopted before her relationship with Allen began. This existential truth was stranger to many than Allen’s existential fictions. It also seemed an exaggerated echo of recurring themes in his films. On top of all this, Allen’s separation from Mia Farrow occurred in 1992, which was the same year in which “Husbands and Wives” was released, a film in which one of several relationships in the foreground of the plot concerns Gabriel Roth (played by Allen himself) separating from his wife, Judy Roth (played by Mia Farrow). Is this parallel to the events then occurring in Allen’s actual relationship with Farrow a coincidence, or does his life imitate his art?

As I considered this and then reconsidered “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, I was reminded of how desensitized modern society is to the notion of murder. It is such a common topic and so often intrinsic to everyday news that there almost doesn’t seem to be any point in criticizing its gratuitous or insensitive fictional rendition. If it were possible to somehow eliminate all of the fictional portrayals of murder, the effect of journalistic coverage alone would still likely accumulate into a distorted impression most would be both numb to and distanced from, and hence paradoxically comfortable with to a degree.

I never fully appreciated this phenomenon until one occasion during my last year of college in which I noticed a classmate sitting with someone else I didn’t recognize in a diner where I was eating. I may have waved or somehow acknowledged their presence, but I didn’t speak to my friend or his acquaintance while in the restaurant. When I later encountered my friend and mentioned seeing him with his company, he remarked in passing that the person I’d seen him with had killed someone. Although I couldn’t be certain as to the truthfulness of my friend’s frank remark, the chilling proximity of the person and the mere possibility of the story’s veracity sent a greater chill through me than any horror movie or serial killer news flash ever had before. No further elaboration of the purported crime ensued, perhaps because I refrained from prying or because my friend could sense my shock. Therefore I never learned as to whether this person had actually committed murder or manslaughter. He didn’t specify when the crime had occurred, whether or not the police were aware of the incident, or if it was a crime for which his acquaintance had already been convicted and served a sentence. I later wondered why he would consider it appropriate to share such morbid information in such a frank manner, or whether it had been a fabricated detail in some elaborate gag for which I was a convenient victim or an instrumental pawn. Still, somehow the numerous uncertainties surrounding this strange statement didn’t downplay the new horror I found myself confronted with in relation to the classic variable of murder.

A proportional chill came over me after further considering “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and momentarily entertaining the possibility, however remote or absurd, that some acquaintance of Allen’s or perhaps even Allen himself theoretically could actually possess the means for having someone assassinated. Although this is of course highly unlikely, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” now nevertheless seemed more like a perverse academic distortion of existentialism than a faithful contemporary rendition of it, and Allen’s use of the concept was beginning to seem more like a self-consciously employed rationalization for extravagance. Perhaps existentialism is more plausible when observed in others as a sociological phenomenon than when self consciously employed as an excuse for oneself, or oneself projected onto one’s own fictional fabrications. I now perceived a parallel between existentialism and Marxism, in which an existentialist’s alienation from traditional Judeo-Christian ethics is similar to a laborer’s alienation from traditional work and craftsmanship in modern capitalist society, and in this light, Woody Allen’s use of the concept now seemed more on the order of an aristocrat attempting to justify using food stamps to pay for his caviar.

Of course it is hard to say what Allen’s real thoughts are on existentialism judging solely from his films, and in fairness, several of his films are sophisticated mixes of drama and comedy. So is Allen partially poking fun at his own habitual citation of existentialism and alienation, or is he pretentiously justifying his decadent behavior and lifestyle, which may seem extreme in comparison to the average middle class lifestyle, but is less remarkable in the context of celebrities and hyper-wealthy aristocrats who are content to indulge in decadent existences without attempting to qualify it using hallowed philosophical or psychological references? It is difficult to say.

Now the significance of his films seems more confusing than ever. The impetus to write this did not fully manifest itself until after viewing “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, Allen’s trite and grossly overrated film from 2008. As I counted Allen’s well worn and redundant dogmas on love, art and artists’ behavior in this shallow movie, I found myself feeling more sympathetic toward my friend’s remark on Woody Allen’s voice, despite that he never once made an appearance on screen. In the years since “Husbands and Wives”, some of his films have been better than others. At times the overall quality seems to be in decline, but after recently watching “Stardust Memories” again, I was reminded that Woody Allen is at his best when he is able to recycle trite themes in a way that is paradoxically original.