Whatever Works

Woody Allen’s world

Woody Allen is a writer, a comedian, and the maker of over seventy films. He recently spoke with Fr. Robert E. Lauder about the function of humor, film, and “the overwhelming bleakness of the universe.”

Robert E. Lauder: From the earliest days of your career as a stand-up comedian and filmmaker, you have dealt with philosophical and religious questions—the existence of God, life after death, the meaning of life. Can you remember when these questions first became important for you?

Woody Allen: These were always obsessions of mine, even as a very young child. These were things that interested me as the years went on. My friends were more preoccupied with social issues—issues such as abortion, racial discrimination, and Communism—and those issues just never caught my interest. Of course they mattered to me as a citizen to some degree…but they never really caught my attention artistically. I always felt that the problems of the world would never ever be solved until people came to terms with the deeper issues—that there would be an aimless reshuffling of world leaders and governments and programs. There was a difference, of course, but it was a minor difference as to who the president was and what the issues were. They seemed major, but as you step back with perspective they were more alike than they were different. The deeper issues always interested me.

RL:  Frank Capra said that he used humor as a device to make his audience sort of receptive to his themes. I don’t think you use humor as a device. It seems to me to be more integral to your vision of life and art. Would you agree?

WA: Yes. I think Capra was a much craftier filmmaker, a wonderful filmmaker. He had enormous technique, and he knew how to manipulate the public quite brilliantly. I was just doing what I was doing because it interested me, and in fact obsessed me. I was not doing it with an eye to manipulate the public. In fact, I probably would have had a larger public if I had gone in a different direction.

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.

RL: In Everyone Says I Love You, the character you play gets divorced, and as he and his former wife review their relationship near the end of the film, she says, “You could always make me laugh,” and your character asks very sincerely, “Why is that important?” Do you think what you do is important?

WA: No, not so much. Whenever they ask women what they find appealing in men, a sense of humor is always one of the things they mention. Some women feel power is important, some women feel that looks are important, tenderness, intelligence…but sense of humor seems to permeate all of them. So I’m saying to that character played by Goldie Hawn, “Why is that so important?” But it is important apparently because women have said to us that that is very, very important to them. I also feel that humor, just like Fred Astaire dance numbers or these lightweight musicals, gives you a little oasis. You are in this horrible world and for an hour and a half you duck into a dark room and it’s air-conditioned and the sun is not blinding you and you leave the terror of the universe behind and you are completely transported into an escapist situation. The women are beautiful, the men are witty and heroic, nobody has terrible problems and this is a delightful escapist thing, and you leave the theatre refreshed. It’s like drinking a cool lemonade and then after a while you get worn down again and you need it again. It seems to me that making escapist films might be a better service to people than making intellectual ones and making films that deal with issues. It might be better to just make escapist comedies that don’t touch on any issues. The people just get a cool lemonade, and then they go out refreshed, they enjoy themselves, they forget how awful things are and it helps them—it strengthens them to get through the day. So I feel humor is important for those two reasons: that it is a little bit of refreshment like music, and that women have told me over the years that it is very, very important to them.

RL: At one point in Hannah and Her Sisters, your character, Mickey, is very disillusioned. He is thinking about becoming a Catholic and he sees Duck Soup. He seems to think, “Maybe in a world where there are the Marx Brothers and humor, maybe there is a God. Who knows.” And maybe Mickey can live with that. Am I interpreting this correctly?

WA: No. I think it should be interpreted to mean that there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or 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…. I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

RL: That brings us to the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Your character and an ophthalmologist named Judah are having a conversation, and Judah pretends he’s talking about a screenplay but he’s really talking about his own life. He says people do commit crimes, they get away with it, and they don’t even have guilt feelings. And your character says this is horrible, this is terrible, and then you cut to a blind rabbi dancing with his daughter at her wedding, and we hear a voiceover from a philosopher your character admires. He says something like, “There is no ultimate meaning but somehow people have found that they can cope.” The philosopher didn’t really cope; he committed suicide. When I first saw the film I thought you were offering the audience several views of life and leaving it to them to decide which is closest to the truth—Judah’s, Cliff’s, the philosopher’s, or the rabbi’s. (He’s the one who seems to be the happiest and most fulfilled character in the film, despite his blindness.) But in an interview you said that really the ophthalmologist is basically right: there is no benevolent God watching over us at all, and we embrace whatever gets us through the night. Is that right?

WA: I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others. I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.

RL: Seven or eight years ago the New York Times asked you to name a favorite film and you picked Shane. It seems to me that the character of Shane is a Christ figure. At one point, Chris Callaway, the guy Shane has beaten in a fistfight in the saloon, changes sides. He leaves the villains and joins Shane and the good guys. When Shane asks him why, he says something has come over him. Shane has had some mysterious impact on him. Shane does not ride off into the sunset as heroes usually do in old Westerns. He rides off into the sunrise, and as he does so the director does this strange thing: he holds a dissolve of a cross from the cemetery, and he keeps it on the screen for about five seconds. Do you remember that at all?

WA:  I do remember it. Yes, now that you bring it up, I do.

RL:  So the film seems to end with resurrection imagery.  

WA:  I didn’t see him as a martyred figure, a persecuted figure. I saw him as quite a heroic figure who does a job that needs to be done, a practical matter. I saw him as a practical secular character. 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 Shane is a person who saw what had to be done and went out and did it. He had the skill to do it, and that’s the way I feel about the world: there are certain problems that can only be dealt with that way. As ugly a truth as that is, I do think it’s the truth about the world.

 


Read Fr. Lauder's reflection on this interview: Woody's Cold Comforts

Related: Rand Richards Cooper reviews Allen's film Match Point
Richard Alleva reviews Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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I had the feeling that Fr. Lauder was trying to lead Woody to see that he's really a Catholic or something, but Woody wasn't going there.  I would like to help Woody, without discrediting his life experience or the conclusions he's drawn from it, see that his bleak outlook is itself belief--that he might more openly consider alternatives.

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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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