When I was in college, about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled, there were two kinds of moviegoers at Baylor University, the world’s largest Southern Baptist institution of higher learning. There were the people who went to Woody Allen movies and the people who did not.
My strongest memories surround that silly, at times gleefully pretentious, comedy called Love and Death. It offered his early hit blend of nihilism with solid one-liners, and it was not afraid to go over the edge again and again and again. However, there were times when the theological absurdism seemed to have a hint of content. At times, it seemed like Allen was actually asking serious questions. Then it was time for another silly sight gag.
All of this built up to the sincere seeking in Manhattan and, finally, the intelligent darkness of Crimes and Misdemeanors, when Allen put God on trial and seemed to want a verdict. I was a reporter in Denver at the time and one Orthodox rabbi preached an entire sermon series on that movie. It deserved it.
However, the heart wants what it wants, says Woody, and there was a moral cliff dead ahead. But I still know traditional Christians — you’d be amazed at one or two of the names — who pray each day for Woody Allen’s conversion. There was a time when it seemed like he was a God-haunted man.
Is that still true? I am sorry to say that the recent Washington Post profile by David Segal does not give us many clues. The empty void is there, but it has no name or shape. The new comedy Scoop sounds just as empty. Here is the summary:
The 70-year-old writer and director has been musing about life, sex, work, death and his generally futile search for hope, and frankly, mere depression hardly seems like the right response. Flat-out terror is what is called for here.
Yes, the world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.
Now, there are scholars and even theologians who have studied this side of Allen for years. They are not hard to find. Type “Woody Allen” and “theodicy” into Google and you’ll find some interesting things.
But Segal leaves us at the surface, with a few hints of the demons that haunt this aging child of the sexual revolution.
Here is the sad ending (and this is about as deep as things get):
Thanks to Woody Allen, a couple of generations of nebbishy non-jocks were able to get dates. He created the archetype of the nerd who lands the babe. Can he look back on that achievement with some joy?
“No. Because I was always the guy struggling on the outside to get in. I remember being in Chicago and I was invited to the Playboy mansion. This was a long time ago. And this bevy of beautiful girls was there and I couldn’t get to first base with any of them. And this guy I was with said, ‘They only talk to me because I’m with you. I can go to bed with them because I’m with you.’ And I am me! And I’m not in bed with any of them.” …
“For me, being famous didn’t help me that much. It helped a little. Warren Beatty once said to me many years ago, being a star is like being in a whorehouse with a credit card, and I never found that. For me, it was like being in a whorehouse with a credit card that had expired.”
Yes, that is a funny line.
But it is also sad. Actually, it is more than that. That’s the point.
Would it be too much to ask Allen a few serious questions? In the past, he used to ask them on screen.