Woody Allen’s Existential Void

While at the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival recently promoting his newest film, Woody Allen took the opportunity in an interview to expound upon his personal philosophy. For those who still consider Allen a comedian and filmmaker of mostly comedies, his worldview will no doubt seem surprisingly grim.

Allen acknowledged that he “had to be a comic filmmaker because that’s where my gifts were,” but he “had always wanted to be a serious filmmaker” like Ingmar Bergman. And by serious he means depressing:

No matter how much the philosophers talk to you or the priests or the psychiatrists, the bottom line… is life has its own agenda and it runs right over you while you’re prattling. We’re all going to wind up in a very bad position someday. The same position, but a bad one.

No argument there. Life does have a habit of steamrolling over the best-laid plans of mice and pontificating men, and we are all going to end up dead. But for Allen, the bad news doesn’t stop there:

In the end it has no meaning. We live in a random universe and you’re living a meaningless life, and everything you create in your life or do is going to vanish, and the Earth will vanish and the sun will burn out and the universe will be gone.

All the great Western philosophers, he said, felt that “too much reality is too much to bear.” And so the way we bear it is, “you turn on a baseball game or you watch a Fred Astaire movie or you do something that distracts you” from this grim truth. “That’s what I do,” says Allen. “I distract myself. Making movies is a wonderful distraction.” Filmmaking, or even watching films, “is a nice thing to keep you busy. I’m not thinking about my death, the decaying of my body, that I will be old—one day—in the very distant future,” said the 79-year-old.

Similarly, for his actors, acting is their distraction:

They’re worried about their part. If they weren’t doing that they’d be home or sitting on a beach… and they’d be thinking, “My God, what is life about? I’m going to be alone, I’m going to die, my loved ones are going to die. Will I get Ebola?”

The problem with this perspective is that, in a universe devoid of meaning or consequences, it is all too easy to see oneself as the ultimate arbiter of morality, or to reject morality altogether.

One could speculate that this nihilistic worldview is the driving force behind some of Allen’s movies like Match Point and his latest, Irrational Man, in which his protagonists believe themselves to be above morality—beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche might say.

The “existential comedy-drama” Irrational Man, for example, is centered on a college philosophy professor (played by the brilliant but weird Joaquin Phoenix) who finds meaning in his bleak existence after eavesdropping on a conversation in a diner leads him to concoct the perfect crime. “This is the meaningful act I was searching for!” he passionately explains to his co-star Emma Stone.

I was reminded of the shocking film The Vanishing (the original Dutch-French film, not the Hollywood remake starring Jeff Bridges—neither directed by Allen), in which the lead character carries out a kidnapping and murder simply in order to feel the godlike power of life and death over his victim.

While this Nietzschean theme may make for a darkly chilling movie experience, it’s also a very empty, disturbing one. It’s certainly Woody Allen’s right as an artist to explore such a theme, but ultimately the result is not merely a failure as distraction, but a moral failure as well.

It’s also easy to speculate that his philosophy may be behind the disturbing sexual controversies in Allen’s own real life. After all, if there is no ultimate source of morality and no meaning to your existence or actions, if there is no point to our lives except to fill them with distractions to pass the time, if any consequences are eventually going to be obliterated by the sun swallowing the earth, then what’s the point of abiding by moral boundaries? It is then a very short step to the guilt-free pursuit of distractions that satisfy your worst impulses.

Perhaps it’s unfair to read that into Allen’s personal life. Perhaps not. But how different Allen’s life and work might have been if he had long ago rejected the nihilism that says we and the universe we inhabit are nothing but a void.

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  • Mitch Strand

    The last thing I want to do is stereotype, but Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was pretty popular during the whole of Woody Allen’s life, probably even when he was still Allen Konigsberg. You’d think someone with such existential angst would appreciate and even embrace a worldview, arrived at through monstrous travail, that said we create the meaning of our lives every day, by living, that life is the purpose in and of itself.

    But I suspect Allen is either trolling us with his bleak talk or that’s not what he wants to hear. You may be correct that he would prefer the excuse of meaninglessness to act “outside” of morality.

    • Personally, I think Woody Allen’s ready embrace of nihilism is a crutch to help him avoid confronting his – ahem – more immediate personal problems.

      I’ve seen the same thing among acquaintances with serious substance abuse issues, they espouse and obviously affected pose of nihilism and relativism. Easier than confronting their compulsions, I suppose.

  • greenpixies

    I’ve always wondered why those that believe in Nihilism don’t commit suicide? As Albert Camus says, “There is one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide [if life is meaningless]”. Perhaps Woody Allen, like Rust of True Detectives, “lacks the constitution for suicide.” But then wouldn’t that be a meaningful question? Why are we created with a constitution that wishes to live if life is meaningless?

    • Justin

      It would seem that you’ve only partly studied Camus.

      • greenpixies

        I haven’t studied Camus. I’ve looked into Nihilism as a personal curiosity and his quote is always cited. Is there more that I should know?

        • Justin

          “Le Mythe de Sisyphe” is the origin of that mysteriously dark quote. The question really was this: Does becoming aware of the pointlessness of it all, the sheer absurdity of our condition require you to kill yourself? His answer was “No, It requires revolt!”
          He felt live was to be enjoyed, he was a solid athlete, very successful with women. he reached notoriety and success during his lifetime. He was the existentialist that everyone wanted to hang out with.
          His solution was to make the best of the time here! He hated the idea of people waiting for another life (heaven) and forgoing the life on earth. Carpe Diem.

          • greenpixies

            Yes, I did already know the Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ question regarding absurdity and his rejection of suicide. In fact I wrote a blog piece on this topic. The reason I didn’t include it in my comment is because I disagree with his complete train of thought on this but I appreciate his question. I think his premise and his thesis are mismatched.

            I think that it’s absurd to think that life is absurd. It may not make complete sense to us as we live in the program but scientifically life is so complexly designed that one has to conclude that it’s algorithms are not random. If they are random then vain pleasures that are randomly coherent (especially the ones we as self consciously reflecting beings have dedicated as meaningful) are absurd at best and manically taunting at worst eventually leading to Hedonism or suicide (because transcendent morality is absurd, right). Suicide would be the most powerful, the most satisfying thing one could do (should do?) if one were seizing the day. One final God-like climax, into the deep.

          • Justin

            In my experience, there is nothing more absurd than life. It couldn’t be any more clear. I used to think it was relative to how much attention one pays to it all, but I’m no longer certain that’s the only qualifier.

          • greenpixies

            Fair enough.