February 5, 2014


Woody Allen, nihilist (Damon Linker, 2/04/14, The Week)

Allen's most thorough cinematic treatment of nihilism and its moral implications can be found in what may be his greatest film, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). The movie tells the story of an ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (played by Martin Landau) who decides to kill off his lover Dolores (Angelica Houston) when she threatens to divulge their affair to Judah's wife. (Allen's Match Point (2005), an inferior film in almost every way, explores many similar themes.)

At first wracked with guilt over the murder, Judah eventually gets over his moral qualms. (As another character quips in the film, "comedy is tragedy plus time.") In a shocking subversion of Hollywood-style happy endings as well as Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment -- in which the character Raskolnikov is driven by unremitting guilt to confess a pair of murders to the authorities -- the film ends with Judah seemingly at complete peace with himself and thriving in every way: Happy, wealthy, successful, adored by a beautiful wife and daughter, with the latter soon to be married.

The viewer is left to conclude that Judah got away with his crime scot-free -- and that such an outcome is possible for anyone courageous enough to violate accepted moral customs and lucky or clever enough to avoid getting caught by the legal authorities.

The theme and its broader implications are reinforced throughout the film. In one of its most powerful scenes, Judah observes and interacts with a memory from his youth in which members of his family debate morality, God, and the Holocaust. Espousing the view endorsed by the film, Judah's atheist aunt May (whom Judah's religiously observant father dubs a "nihilist") remarks that if National Socialist Germany had won World War II, then Hitler's actions would have ended up being "right." After all, in such a nightmarish, counterfactual world, the Nazis would be empowered to set and enforce the reigning moral standard -- and there simply is no higher moral authority to appeal to against such a standard. In a nihilistic universe, the overarching moral truth is that might makes right.

Aunt May's foil in the film is Ben (Sam Waterston), a pious rabbi who says that he 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. Otherwise there's no basis to live.... Without the law, it's all darkness." Allen reveals his attitude toward the rabbi by subjecting him to a progressive loss of vision that ends in total blindness by the conclusion of the film -- a blunt metaphor for the darkness induced by his own moral and religious faith.

We know that this was Allen's intent because he's said so. Ben, according to Allen, "doesn't really understand the reality of life... and that's why I wanted to make him blind. I feel that his faith is blind. It will work, but it requires closing your eyes to reality." And what is reality? That "at best the universe is indifferent" to our lives and our various ways of construing right and wrong. This indifference is so awful that many of us feel driven to "create a fake world for ourselves, and we exist within that fake world."

On a lesser level you see it in sports. They create a world of football, for example. You get lost in that world and you care about meaningless things.... People by the thousands watch it, thinking it's very important who wins. But, in fact, if you step back for a second, it's utterly unimportant who wins. It means nothing. In the same way we create for ourselves a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It's meaningless.

As Allen explained in a more recent interview in Commonweal magazine, it was the desire to explore this sense of existential meaninglessness that inspired him to make Crimes and Misdemeanors: "Some people distort [the meaninglessness of the world] with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art... but nothing makes it meaningful.... [E]veryone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.... [O]ne can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, 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. There is no justice..."

Posted by at February 5, 2014 5:58 PM

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