Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Morality and Meaning in the Films of Woody Allen

When Woody Allen released Match Point in 2005, it was mystifyingly declared a departure from his previous body of work. Despite the London setting and the lack of a stand-in "Woody Allen" character, the film continues Allen's thematic line of inquiry into the nature of morality and the meaning of existence that he has been exploring since at least as far back as 1975's Love and Death. Allen's fullest prior presentation of his world view had been in 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Match Point trumps even that work by presenting its nihilistic outlook untempered by any mitigating elements.

Although ostensibly a straight comedy, Allen's riff on Russian literature, Love and Death, is one of the director's earliest attempts to come to grips with the indifference of the universe. Allen takes a playful approach towards questions of God and the afterlife, but ultimately offers no reassuring belief in the existence of a useful divinity. Confined to jail after an unsuccessful attempt to kill Napoleon, Allen's character, Boris Grushenko, like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, is visited by an outside force and told his life will be spared. He glimpses an angel who appears as a shadow on the prison wall. Told that the Emperor will pardon him at the last moment, Boris exclaims "then there is a God. Incredible." Allen quickly makes a mockery of Boris' assertion by having him shot to death regardless of the angelic messenger. In Tolstoy's conception, where God is granted a central place, Pierre's message proves to be accurate and his life is spared at the last moment. In Allen's atheistic world view, divine providence is not granted. As Boris concludes, "if it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever." Despite the humor of the quotation, Allen's quote reveals a genuine belief in the inability of a divine power to provide salvation to humanity.

Allen's 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors continues his probing into the nature of morality. Ivan Karamazov's assertion that "if God does not exist, everything is permitted" becomes the central proposition of the picture and ultimately expresses the world view of the lead character. Allen, however, provides dissenting voices to mitigate this view and place human responsibility at the center of man's moral life.

In the film, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful ophthalmologist, finds the tranquility of his life jeopardized when an irate lover threatens to inform his wife of their affair. He arranges to have a hit man kill the lover and at first is distraught about his action and nervous at the possibility of legal recriminations. As time goes by, however, he is not caught and soon finds himself perfectly content with his situation and free from any guilt at the killing.

The film's final scene takes place at a wedding, in which Rosenthal finds himself talking to Cliff Stern, a filmmaker played by Woody Allen. Under the guise of pitching him a story, Rosenthal relates his experience having his wife killed. Stern objects to Rosenthal's story, saying that the killer cannot dismiss his conscience so easily. Although Rosenthal is able to subscribe strictly to the restrictions of judicial law (since he was not apprehended, he is free from any blame), Stern admits the presence of a higher (though strictly humanistic) morality, his voice providing an alternative to the nihilistic viewpoint espoused by Rosenthal. As Stern says, "in the absence of a God, [man] is forced to assume... responsibility himself." Rosenthal would seem to justify Karamazov's assertion. For him, God does not exist, and everything is indeed permitted. Stern, while not admitting of God's existence, posits human conscience, perhaps the closest thing to God in Allen's world view, as a mitigating factor to sheer amorality. In Stern's world, everything is not permitted.

Allen grants the final word in the film to Jewish philosopher Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann), whose theological and moral commentaries the director intersperses throughout the work. As images of the wedding and previous scenes from the film play, Levy's voice over echoes the message of Cliff Stern in his rebuke to Judah Rosenthal. "Human happiness," Levy says, "does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifference of the universe." The universe may be indifferent to humanity, but it is up to man to create his own meaning and to assume his own responsibility.

In Match Point, the moral order becomes merely a question of luck. Without a mitigating voice such as that provided by Cliff Stern or Louis Levy in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the director is free to give full expression to his increasingly nihilistic viewpoint. The 2005 picture uses a similar set up to the earlier work. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) finds his ambitions to marry into a wealthy family endangered by a hysterical ex-lover (Scarlett Johansson) who threatens to expose their affair. Like Judah Rosenthal, Wilton takes murderous action, this time killing the lover himself (as well as an interfering neighbor) with a shotgun. In contrast to Rosenthal, Wilton seems to experience little remorse from the start. His primary concern is with the possibility of getting caught. Even as he is visited by hallucinations of his victims, he seems little concerned with having caused their deaths, casually dismissing their rebukes.

Although suspected by the police of committing the crime, Wilton is spared from arrest through a chance turn of events. After the murder, Wilton disposes of incriminating evidence by throwing it in the Thames. The last item he throws, a gold ring, hits a rail by the river and bounces onto the pavement where it is later collected by a homeless man who is indicted for Wilton's crime. The ring's trajectory mirrors the flight of a tennis ball bouncing off the net in the film's opening. Like the ball at the moment it hits the top of the net, the ring reaches a moment where it can fall on either side of the rail. It is not divine providence, however, that determines on which side it falls. As Wilton intones over the image of the tennis ball in the opening, "people are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck." It is purely through this luck, and not any divine pattern, that the ring falls on the pavement where the blame shifts away from Wilton and he is free to achieve his ambitions.

With no mitigating factors, Allen's ending is pure nihilism. It is not so much immoral as amoral. Wilton commits murder and is punished by neither arrest nor a guilty conscience. In Allen's film, neither God nor morality has any power over human life. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, human responsibility was affirmed as a counterbalance to immorality, but by the time of Match Point, moral human behavior no longer seems to be a possibility in Woody Allen's world. Only chance, the complete randomness of the universe, determines the world's outcomes. In Dostoevsky's world God exists but in Allen's everything is permitted.


Allison E said...

well, in MP, what about the ghosts visiting him near the end of the film. the fact that they are there at all seems to indicate some semblance or flicker of a guilty conscience? or am i remembering it wrong?

btw, you should add that you give away the endings of these movies in case anyone reading hasn't seen them!

Unknown said...

Why should we care about giving anything away? Everything is permitted!

Unknown said...

Yeah, because the bible says that you shouldn't give away the endings of movies without a proper warning first, right?