Woody Allen: Living with a void

woody 01In her spiritual profile of filmmaker and actor Woody Allen, Newsweek reporter Jennie Yabroff begins her story this way:

Woody Allen cuts his banana into seven slices each morning. Six slices, or eight, and something bad might happen. “I know it would be total coincidence if I didn’t slice it into seven pieces, and my family were killed in a fire,” he says. “I understand that there could be no correlation, but, you know, the guilt would be too much for me to bear, so it’s easier for me to cut the stupid banana.”

In the next paragraph, Yabroff contrasts Allen’s personal behavior with the existentialist, even nihilistic, themes of his movies:

Despite the odd superstition (he also avoids haircuts while shooting a movie), Allen has devoted his career to making films that consistently assert the randomness of life. That they do so in a variety of genres–comedy, drama, suspense, satire, even, once, a musical–only partially obscures the fact that, in Allen’s eyes, they’re all tragedies, since, as he says, “to live is to suffer.” If there were a persistence-of-vision award for life philosophy, Allen would be a shoo-in.

The rest of the story is a variation on this spiritual and philosophical conflict. Allen makes movies to find meaning in life. Yet Allen asserts that life has no meaning and his films continually make that point. Allen’s latest film finds pleasure in life, albeit of the kind no traditionally religious person would approve of. Yet he rejects the possibility of happy endings, let alone heaven and hell.

Yabroff juxtaposed those two themes well. In doing so, she turned her story into that rarest of specimens: a serious examination of a major filmmaker’s spiritual conflict. It is the sort of story that only a great movie reviewer, such as Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, would write or run on the website Metafilm.

Yabroff’s profile was not the deepest examination of Allen’s existentialism. Is he the type that affirms free will or determinism? Given that Badem won an Oscar award last year for playing an existentialist character, the story would have profited from broaching this issue.

But that is a quibble. Yabroff’s story got religion in a major way.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Mark, I agree that, for the most part, the story got religion or, rather, Allen’s struggle with being an atheist. This excerpt is an example:

    He cannot reconcile his strident atheism with his superstition about the banana, but he knows why he makes movies: not because he has any grand statement to offer, but simply to take his mind off the existential horror of being alive. Movies are a great diversion, he says, “because it’s much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the hero gets out of his predicament than it is over how I get out of mine.”

    Still, I have two complaints:
    1. Why do a profile of Allen? I mean, seriously, does anyone really care? Of all the Hollywood folks on which you could do a spiritual profile, Newsweek picks Allen?
    2. The author can’t avoid the common Newsweek/Post trap of thinking that we care what the author thinks, as in:

    Oddly, listening to him is not depressing. If anything, there’s something refreshing in his resistance to the platitudes about simple things making life worthwhile that so often pass for philosophy.

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