Friends have often asked me about my interest in the films of Woody Allen: Why is a Catholic priest such an ardent admirer of the work of an avowed atheist, an artist who time and again has insisted on the world’s absurdity? My answer is simple: Because of the themes he presents and the cinematic skill with which he presents them, Allen has no equal among contemporary filmmakers.
His very personal films deal with ultimate questions, and they often include a character who is a spokesperson for Allen’s own bleak outlook. That outlook has something in common with the existentialist thought of Albert Camus. I sometimes think of Allen as “Camus as Comedian.”
When an opportunity to interview Allen recently came my way, I leapt at it. As a long-time admirer of his work I was already familiar with his general outlook, but I was still surprised at the extreme language he used to describe the pointlessness of human existence. He told me, “Human experience is a brutal experience to me...an agonizing, meaningless experience, with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall it’s a brutal, terrible experience.”
In recent years Allen’s absurdist vision has become more obvious in his films. In Whatever Works (2009), Allen’s alter ego, Boris (Larry David), periodically addresses the viewer to explain that when you look at the big picture you see clearly that human reason is inadequate, that life is meaningless, and that all we can do is rely on “whatever works”—whatever helps us survive. In Match Point (2005), one of the most explicitly atheistic films ever made by an American, the protagonist murders his pregnant mistress and a bystander whose death he views as “collateral damage.” He explains to their ghosts that there is no justice in the universe because there is no Intelligence directing it. If there were no God, surely Allen’s extreme pessimism—and the extreme language in which he expresses it—would be right on target.
A few years ago my friend Antonio Monda put together a book of interviews (Do You Believe?) in which he asked eighteen celebrities two questions: Do you believe in God? Do you believe there is a life beyond the grave? Amazingly, some readers couldn’t understand why he was so interested in these two questions. But what two questions could be more important? One’s answer to them ought to influence one’s outlook on everything. Woody Allen sees that clearly.
Still, I was somewhat saddened by Allen’s lack of appreciation for his own creative output. I understand that in an absurd world, art, even great art, is little consolation. In talking about his work, Allen told me, “The only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can…. [L]ife is horrible, but it’s not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, you can watch the Marx Brothers and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while and that is about the best that you can do.”
When I hear Woody trivialize his films as “small oases,” I think of another genius, Sigmund Freud, who spent his life trying to free people from their distress, even though, as a determinist, he didn’t believe that people were ever really free. Sometimes genius succeeds beyond the terms of its own ambition. Woody Allen’s films are much more than mere distractions on life’s journey: they are brilliant, often beautiful explorations of our fragile human condition. They are shot through with moments of grace, in spite of themselves.
Rev. Robert E. Lauder, a priest of the diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York, and author of Magnetized by God: Religious Encounters through Film, Theater, Literature, and Paintings (Resurrection Press).