A red-haired boy sits next to his mother in the psychiatrist’s office. She is describing her son’s problems and expressing her disappointment in him. Why is he always depressed? Why can’t he be like other boys his age? The doctor turns to the boy and asks why he is depressed. In a hopeless daze the boy replies, The universe is expanding, and if the universe is everything…and if it’s expanding…someday it will break apart and that’s the end of everything…what’s the point?”
His mother leans over, slaps the kid and scolds: “What is that your business!”
This scene from Annie Hall typifies Woody Allen’s quest for understanding! Allen touches on various topics and themes in all his cinematic works, but three subjects continually resurface: the existence of God, the fear of death and the nature of morality. These are all Jewish questions or at least theological issues. Woody Allen is a seeker who wants answers to the Ultimate Questions. His movie characters differ, yet they are all, in some way, asking these questions he wants answered. They are all “Woody Allens” wrestling with the same issues. He explains:
Maybe it’s because I’m depressed so often that I’m drawn to writers like Kafka, Dostoevski and to a filmmaker like Bergman. I think I have all the symptoms and problems that their characters are occupied with: an obsession with death, an obsession with God or the lack of God, the question of why we are here. Almost all of my work is autobiographical—exaggerated but true.1
But Woody Allen does not allow himself to dwell too long on these universal problems. The mother’s response to her red-haired son’s angst is typical of the comedic lid the filmmaker presses over his depressing outlook to close the issue. True, Woody Allen has made his mark by asking big questions. But it is the absence of satisfactory answers to those questions that causes much of the angst—and humor—we see on the screen. Off screen we see little difference.
Allen’s (authorized) biography, published in 1991, sheds some light on his life and times. Woody Allen, whose given name was Allan Konigsberg, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Allen describes his Jewish family and neighborhood as being from “the heart of the old world, their values are God and carpeting.”2 While he did not embrace the religion of his youth, his Jewishness is ever present in his characters, plots and dialogue. Jewish thought is intrinsic to his life and work.
One can see this in the 1977 film Annie Hall, where Allen’s character, Alvy, is put in contrast to his Midwestern, gentile girlfriend. In one scene he is visiting Annie’s parents. Her grandmother stares at him, picturing him as a stereotypical Chasidic Jew with side locks, black hat and a long coat. The screen splits as Alvy imagines his family on the right and hers on the left. Her parents ask what his parents will be doing for “the holidays”:
“We fast, to atone for our sins,” his mother explains.
Annie’s mother is confused. “What sins? I don’t understand.”
Alvy’s father responds with a shrug: “To tell you the truth, neither do we.”
Nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind.3
Allen suggests that the greatest thinkers in history died knowing no more than he does now. He often uses humor to poke fun at pretentious intellectuals who spout textbook answers. In another Annie Hall scene Alvy is standing in line at a movie theater. The man behind him is trying to impress his date. Alvy is annoyed, and when the man begins commenting on pop philosopher Marshall McLuhan, Alvy turns and informs him that he knows nothing about McLuhan. To prove his point, he escorts McLuhan himself into the scene. The philosopher deftly puts the object of Alvy/Allen’s scorn (a Columbia University professor of TV, media and film) in his place. Alvy steps out of character and, as Woody Allen, he looks into the camera and sighs: “Boy, if life were only like this.…”
Allen’s films do not merely expose and poke fun at pseudo-intellectuals; they point out that no school of human thought can provide ultimate solutions. Allen’s lack of faith in the world’s systems generates some great one-liners:
He tells how he was caught cheating on a college metaphysics exam: “I was looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”4
He also pokes fun at existentialism, commenting on a course he took in the subject: “I didn’t know any of the answers so I left it all blank. I got a hundred.”5
His first wife studied philosophy in college: “She used to prove that I didn’t exist.”6
Psychology also figures into Allen’s scripts—many of his characters are seeing a therapist.
In Sleeper, Allen’s character wakes up 200 years in the future, where he quickly discovers that the future holds the same old problems as ever. Lamenting the wasted years, he remarks:
“My analyst was a strict Freudian. If I had been going all this time I’d probably almost be cured by now.”7
In another film he describes the unproductive nature of his own therapy:
“My analyst got so frustrated he put in a salad bar.”8
So much for faith in therapy! And when it comes to science, Allen asks and answers the questions, “Can a human soul be glimpsed through a microscope? Maybe—but you’d definitely need one of those very good ones with two eyepieces.”9
The political process as a means of change is also shrugged off:
“Have you ever taken a serious political stand on anything?” he is asked.
“Sure,” he responds, “for twenty-four hours once I refused to eat grapes.”10
And, finally, it is the questions of the human soul—its mortality and morality—that seem really to preoccupy the filmmaker.
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.11
In his early writings fear of death provided a great platform for a punch line:
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”12
“It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune.”13
“Death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down.”14
“What is it about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours.”15
Allen’s concern for his own mortality is ever present in his writings as well as his filmmaking. In one short story he dreams he is Socrates in ancient Greece, about to be executed for crimes against the state. His friend tries to calm his fear.
Friend: “What about all that talk about death being the same as sleep?”
Woody: “Yes, but the difference is that when you’re dead and somebody yells, ‘Everybody up, it’s morning,’ it’s very hard to find your slippers.”16
The absurdity of Allen’s humor helps to cushion the seriousness of the subject. Could it be that his comments are so clever and funny that the laughter drowns out the genuine note of anxiety over those issues? In his later films Allen began dealing with death more realistically:
In Hannah and Her Sisters his character Mickey Sacks is tested for a serious medical problem. He agonizes over the possible results only to learn they are negative. Mickey is elated—he leaves the office literally jumping for joy. Yet the next scene shows him depressed again. He realizes that the encouraging test results are but a postponement of death which is still inevitable. In despair, he attempts suicide. Failing that, he goes to a movie theater. The Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup, an old favorite of his, is playing. The film provides a temporary escape; it even cheers him. His immediate answer to depression is that one should enjoy life while one can. However, that answer apparently did not satisfy Woody Allen, the writer, as Hannah and Her Sisters is one of the few films in which Allen provides a happy ending. Later films raise the same concerns—and usually conclude on a less optimistic note.
To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the loyal opposition.17
Allen’s fear of death is inextricably linked to his uncertainty about the existence of God. He ponders in an early essay:
“Did matter begin with an explosion or by the word of God? And if by the latter, could He not have begun it just two weeks earlier to take advantage of some of the warmer weather?”18
Again, glibness is his antidote to grappling with the hard questions. The eternal is brought down to the level of the earthly, and therefore minimized.
Yet, Allen never fully embraces the position of atheist. Once, when asked if he believed in God, he replied with a typical Allenesque formula:
“I’m what you’d call a teleological, existential atheist—I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey.”19
He ponders spiritual matters, but a punch line always yanks the focus to the sublime, then to the ridiculous. Other examples include:
“I keep wondering if there is an afterlife, and if there is, will they be able to break a twenty?”20
“There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from Midtown and how late is it open?”21
Woody Allen is, in the words of his biographer, “a reluctant [he hopes there is a God] but pessimistic [he doubts there is] agnostic who wishes he had been born with religious faith [not to be confused with sectarian belief] and who believes that even if God is absent, it is important to lead an honest and responsible life.”22
Never kill a man, especially if it means taking his life.23
The existence of God is an issue which would not only answer the questions of death and an afterlife, but also the problem of how we ought to live now. Two of Allen’s films which best deal with this issue were made 14 years apart: the 1975 cinematic spoof on the Napoleonic wars and Russian novels, Love and Death, and the 1989 critically acclaimed piece, Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Love and Death was the last of his all-out, zany comedies and the beginning of his on-screen grappling with issues of God and morality. In it Allen plays the part of Boris who denies the existence of God but would truly like to have real faith.
“If I could only see a miracle,” Boris argues, “a burning bush, the seas part.…Uncle Sasha pick up a check.” Or, “If only God would give me some sign. If He would just speak to me once, anything, one sentence, two words. If He would just cough.”
Boris is often debating with his wife Sonia on these important issues of life:
Boris: What if there is no God?…What if we’re just a bunch of absurd people who are running around with no rhyme or reason?
Sonia: But if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?
Boris: Well, let’s not get hysterical! I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the papers they found something!
Later in the film Boris attempts to assassinate Napoleon. Standing over the French emperor, he prepares to shoot. But his conscience (not to mention his cowardice) prevents him from pulling the trigger. His previous philosophical ramblings come to a halt when the rubber meets the road. Boris concludes that murder is morally wrong. There are universal standards and there is even a reason to act morally.
The film ends with Boris being executed for a crime he did not commit. Could it be that Woody Allen was punishing his own character for believing, even momentarily, that there are indeed moral standards and even accountability?
After all, the logical conclusion in following such a path would be to acknowledge the existence of God. Keeping his own role of skeptic intact, Allen gives the plot a twist. In the jail cell his character is visited by “an angel of God” who promises Boris that he will be released. Since the angel’s word proves to be false, Boris again has a reason to be cynical. But in his final scene he speaks optimistically (after all, this is a comedy),
“Death is not really an end; think of it as an effective way to cut down on your expenses.”
As always, Allen’s one-liners are successful in reducing or obscuring the seriousness of the subject matter.
In Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen tackles the issue of morality on a much more serious level. Wealthy ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal has been having an extramarital affair for two years. When he attempts to end his illicit relationship, his mistress threatens to tell his wife. When backed into an impossible corner and offered an easy way out, Judah finds himself thinking the unthinkable.
Judah’s moral confusion is presented against a backdrop of the religion of his youth. Though he has long since rejected the Jewish religion, he is continually confronted with memories that activate his conscience. He remembers the words of his childhood rabbi:
“The eyes of God are on us always.”
Judah later speaks with another rabbi, a contemporary of his. The rabbi remarks on their contrasting worldviews:
“You see it [the world] as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness and some kind of higher power and a reason to live. Otherwise there is no basis to know how to live.”
These words are ultimately pushed aside, as Judah succumbs to the simple solution of hiring a hit-man to murder his demanding lady in waiting. After the crime, Judah experiences gut-wrenching guilt. Judah Rosenthal finds the case for morality so strong that after the murder he blurts out:
“Without God, life is a cesspool!”
His conscience pushes him to great despair as, again, he examines the situation from a past vantage point. He envisions a Passover seder from his childhood. The conversation becomes a family debate over the importance of the celebration. Some of the relatives don’t believe in God and consider the ritual a foolish waste of time. The head of the extended family stoutly defends his faith, saying, “If necessary, I will always choose God over truth.”
Perhaps this is why Judah rejected his religion—he could not see faith as anything other than some sort of noble delusion for those who refuse to accept life’s ugly truths. As Judah continues to dwell on his crime, he has another vision in which his rabbi friend challenges him with the question: “You don’t think God sees?”
“God is a luxury I can’t afford,” Judah replies. There is a final ring to the statement as Judah decides to put the entire incident behind him.
Judah almost turns himself in; however, the price is too high and so he chooses denial, the most common escape. “In reality,” he says in the last scene, “we rationalize, we deny or else we couldn’t go on living.”
Another character, Professor Levy, speaks on morality in one of the film’s subplots. Levy is an aging philosopher much admired by the character played by Woody Allen, a filmmaker. The filmmaker is planning a documentary based on Levy’s life, and we first see the professor on videotape, discussing the paradox of the ancient Israelites:
“They created a God who cares but who also demands that you behave morally. This God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, who is beloved to him.…After 5,000 years we have not succeeded to create a really and entirely loving image of God.”
Levy eventually commits suicide. Despite his great learning, his final note discloses nothing more than the obvious: “I’ve gone out the window.”
Professor Levy’s suicide leaves Allen’s character stunned. Still, his humor ameliorates the situation as the filmmaker protests,
“When I grew up in Brooklyn, nobody committed suicide; everyone was too unhappy.”
The final comment on Levy’s suicide is a surprising departure from Allen’s security blanket of humor:
“No matter how elaborate a philosophical system you work out, in the end it’s gotta be incomplete.”
Remember, all of the dialogue is written by Woody Allen. Though his own character supplies comic relief to this dark film, his conclusions are just as bleak. Everyone is guilty of something whether it’s considered a crime or a misdemeanor.
Yet, Allen’s theological questions rarely address the nature of that guilt. The word “sin” is reserved for the grossest offenses—the ones that make the evening news—or would, if they were discovered. Judah Rosenthal’s crime is easily recognizable as sin, while various other infidelities and compromises are mere misdemeanors.
Sin against God is not something Allen appears to take seriously in any of his films. When evangelist Billy Graham was a guest on one of Allen’s 1960s television specials, the comedian was asked (not by Graham) to name his greatest sin. He responded:
“I once had impure thoughts about Art Linkletter.”24
However, when he distances himself from the personal nature of sin and looks to crimes or sins against humanity, Allen speaks with a passion.
In Hannah and Her Sisters the viewer is introduced to the character of Frederick, an angry, isolated artist who is disgusted with the conditions of the world. Of Auschwitz, Frederick remarks to his girlfriend:
“The real question is: ‘Given what people are, why doesn’t it happen more often?’ Of course, it does, in subtler forms.…”
In Allen’s theology, all have fallen short to a greater or lesser degree, but ironically, his view of human imperfection never appears in the same discussion as his thoughts about God.
He does admit to being disconnected with the universe:
“I am two with nature.”25
But he doesn’t mention a connection with a personal God because he doesn’t see a correlation between human failures and the question of connectedness to God.
While Allen is a unique thinker, he seems to be pedestrian when it comes to wrestling with problems of immorality and even inhumanity. While he calls the existence of God into question, he does not deal with our responsibility in acknowledging God if he does exist.
It is simple to analyze sin on a human level. The more people get hurt, the bigger the sin. But the biblical perspective is quite different: Any and all sin causes separation from God. One cannot view such a cosmic separation as large or small based on degrees of sin. Ironically, one of Allen’s short stories underscores the foolishness of comparison degrees of sin:
“Astronomers talk of an inhabited planet named Quelm, so distant from earth that a man traveling at the speed of light would take six million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip.”26
The biblical perspective of separation from God is similar. Having “better morals” than the drug pusher, the rapist or the ax murderer makes a big difference—in our society. We should all strive to be the best people we can be, if only to improve the overall quality of life. But in terms of a relationship with God, doing the best one can is like being two hours closer to Quelm. God is so removed from any unrighteousness that the difference between “a little unrighteous” and a lot is irrelevant.
The question his films and essays never ask is: Could being alienated from God be the root cause of our alienation from one another…and even our alienation from our own selves?
“It’s hard to get your heart and your head to agree in life. In my case they’re not even friendly.”27
Woody Allen has a unique way of expressing the uneasy terms on which many people find their heads and their hearts. Perhaps that is why he has received 14 Academy Award nominations. Allen will shoot a scene as many as twenty times, hoping to capture the actors and scenery perfectly. His biographer says “he doesn’t like to go to the next thing until what he’s working on is perfect—a process that guarantees self-defeat.”28
Is filmmaking Woody Allen’s escape from the world at large? His biographer notes, “He assigns himself mental tasks throughout the day with the intent that not a moment will pass without his mind being occupied and therefore insulated from the dilemma of eschatology.”29
It is a continual process—writing takes his mind off of the ultimate questions, yet the characters he creates are always obsessed with those very same questions. Allen determines their fate, occasionally handing out a happy ending. And he seems painfully aware that he will have little to say about the ending of his own script.
There is much to be appreciated and enjoyed in Woody Allen’s humor, but it also seems as if he uses jokes to avoid taking the possibility of God’s existence very seriously. Maybe Woody Allen is afraid to find that God doesn’t exist, or on the other hand maybe he’s afraid to find that he does. In either case, he seems to need to add a comic edge to questions about God to prove that he is not wholehearted in his hope for answers.
Will Woody Allen tackle the problem of his own halfhearted search for God in a serious way in some future film or essay? Maybe, but if the Bible can be believed, it’s an issue that God has already dealt with. The prophet Jeremiah quotes the Creator as saying: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13)
- Eric Lax, Woody Allen, (New York: Knopf Publishing, 1991), p. 179.
- Ibid., p. 166.
- Manhattan, 1979.
- Lax, p. 141.
- Stardust Memories, 1980.
- Lax, p. 150.
- Sleeper, 1973.
- Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986.
- Woody Allen, “My Speech to the Graduates,” Side Effects, (New York: Random House Publ., 1980), p. 82.
- Lax, p. 183.
- Woody Allen, “Death (A Play),” Without Feathers, (New York: Random House Publ., 1975), p. 106.
- Woody Allen, “My Philosophy,” Getting Even, (New York: Warner Books, 1971), p. 25.
- Allen, “Early Essays,” Without Feathers, p. 108.
- Allen, “Selections From the Allen Notebook,” Without Feathers, p. 10.
- Allen, “My Apology,” Side Effects, p. 54.
- Stardust Memories.
- Allen, “My Speech to the Graduates,” Side Effects, p. 82.
- Allen, “Selections From the Allen Notebook,” Without Feathers, p. 8.
- Allen, “Examining Psychic Phenomena,” Without Feathers, p. 11.
- Lax, p. 41.
- Love and Death, 1975.
- Lax, p. 132.
- Ibid., p. 39.
- Allen, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Without Feathers, p. 194.
- Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989.
- Lax, p. 322.
- Ibid., p. 183.