Woody’s Cold Comforts

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.


Read Fr. Lauder’s whole interview with Woody Allen: Whatever Works

About the Author

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).



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Woody Allen makes us laugh. When we laugh there is a kind of togetherness and the willingness to spend a life doing just that is a kind of compassion. Unfortunatly, it is compassion without the appearnace of salvation. A togetherness that gets us by, or if you like a pasttime passing time. He is the troubled boat that does not see Christ on the shore but is willing to engage those in the boat. Curiously, that is a kind of love in a loving God that made a world with an infinite number of lovables the most imortant of which is the other. To be connected in some such way, who can say that that is no salvation. His major premise that life sucks has an underlying  minor premise that life is connected and if connected to others, how not connected to its cause? A God, but a God uknown. His life is not over and who knows what he may see before he "crosses the bar.?" Humor is truth upside down and it may well be that if he should see right side up he can look up to the stars and not see burning mass but pinholes of the light shining through the heavens.

I read both Commonweal and The Humanist - just to keep things interesting. And, because I read both publications, I know that Rev Lauder's statement in this article that "if there were no God, surely Allen’s extreme pessimism—and the extreme language in which he expresses it—would be right on target" is way off target.

Not believing in God (or god or gods) does not make somebody a pessimist. In fact, maybe a good case could be made that deists are more likely to despair.

To be honest, either statement would be false: neither believers nor non-believers are more prone to pessimism.

We're all just people - some feel optomistic and some feel pessimistic. I vary from day to day. And I'll bet Woody Allen and Rev Lauder vary from day to day as well.

Let's take the time to understand each other better.

peace and blessings -

(Chaplain) Alison Alpert


  I was reminded of Flannery O'Connor's powerful short story, A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND, when I read Allen's comment that "In this world there are just some people who need killing and that is just the way it is.  It sounds terrible, but there is no other way to get around that, and most of us are not up to doing it, incapable for moral reasons or physically not up to it."

   And O'Connor was a believer, a devout Catholic... 

Mr. Allen's view of life as "brutal" would probably be shared by most saints throughout the Church's history -- although "with meaning." St. Teresa of Avila is reported to have said that "life is a bad night at a bad inn."

Recently, a priest at St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC told 3000 people that Christian life is "easy" -- taking our Lord's statement: "For my yoke is easy, and my burden light (Mt. 11:29-30)" -- completely out of context.

As times get more difficult in this country, many priests and lay people will need to relearn or learn for the first time the doctrine and way of the cross.

In some respects, Mr. Allen seems closer to reality than that priest at St. Patrick's.

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