Woody’s WorldBy Robert E. Lauder
Woody Allen’s latest film, “Match Point,” is probably one of the most explicitly atheistic films in the history of American cinema. It is also a vivid illustration of the nihilistic worldview that Allen has been presenting in most of his films for nearly 40 years. While God is absent from most American films, what distinguishes Allen’s work is that in his films the absence of God matters. It makes a difference in the lives of people. In fact, it makes the difference.
Much of Allen’s film work could be described as a combination of the humor of Bob Hope with the vision of Ingmar Bergman. Like Hope, Allen pokes fun at human failures and foibles, focusing on the seeming impossibility of a successful heterosexual relationship. The humor is almost always at the expense of his on-screen persona, as played either by himself or, in later films, by stand-ins as different as Mia Farrow, Kenneth Branagh and Will Farrell. At the same time, in Allen’s films there is no happy ending, no final fadeout in which a leading lady stand-in for the likes of Dorothy Lamour, Paulette Godard or Jane Russell succumbs to the charms, real or imaginary, of the inadequate hero. Also, unlike Hope or most any other American comedian, many of Allen’s jokes refer to the divine. Even in his early essays, short stories and plays, Woody’s wit found a source of laughter in the existence or nonexistence of God.
If his humor echoes Hope, Allen’s philosophical vision is pure Bergman. For close to 50 years the Swedish author/director, arguably the greatest talent in the history of cinema, has dramatized the impossibility of a successful love relationship because of the absence of divine love. From “The Seventh Seal” (1957) to “Saraband” (2004), Bergman’s creatures have failed to make meaningful contact with a divine creator or to love in a way that will give human life some significance in its journey toward death. In many films, such as “Seventh Seal,” “Winter Light” (1962) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), Bergman takes Christian images and symbols and secularizes them, removing the transcendental dimension and reducing them to a transitory, this-world reference. Thus in “The Magician” (1958), the “resurrection” is but an actor’s trick used to jolt an agnostic doctor. Likewise in “Seventh Seal,” the love of the “holy family”—Jof, Mia and their child—is beautiful and touching, but it does not point beyond to a divine presence. Bergman’s films offer fleeting moments of love but because of the absence of God, such moments will eventually be snuffed out by death. “Love and Death” (1976), Allen’s humorous homage to Bergman, sums up in its title their common vision.
In an interview with Frank Rich almost 30 years ago, Allen spoke about his vision of human existence:
The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless.... Until these issues are resolved within each person—religiously or psychologically or existentially—the social and political issues will never be resolved, except in a slapdash way.... People have to stop and think what their priorities are.Since that interview at least three of Allen’s films have suggested a glimmer of hope. In “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), Mickey Sachs (Allen) is obsessed with his own death. On the brink of despair, he wanders into a movie theater where the Marx Brothers’ classic “Duck Soup” (1933), is playing. While viewing the film he announces in a voiceover that because of the wonderful humor of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, he has decided to opt for the existence of God. It is a contemporary Pascalian wager: his experience watching the Marx Brothers makes believing in God’s existence a good bet.
In “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), while at a wedding reception, filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen) listens incredulously as Dr. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) suggests to him a movie about a man who arranges for the murder of his mistress and lives happily ever after with his wife. Though Stern does not know that Judah’s tale is autobiographical, he is crushed by the thought that serious crime in this world could go unpunished by civil authorities or God, and that murderers could live guilt-free. However, Allen interjects into this scene a lovely shot of the faith-filled blind rabbi (Sam Waterston) dancing with his just-married daughter. It is one of the most hope-filled images in Allen’s work.
In “Alice” (1990) the title character, Alice (Mia Farrow), who was brought up Catholic, sees through the superficiality of her upper-Manhattan, plush lifestyle and the shallowness and deceit that characterize her husband’s relationship with her. Eventually, she finds fulfillment doing volunteer work in a poor neighborhood in Manhattan. As we watch Alice joyfully working with the poor, an acquaintance who cannot understand her decision comments, “It’s that Catholic streak inside her.”
There are no hope-filled images in “Match Point” that can outweigh or even balance images of people drifting aimlessly, sometimes riddled with guilt, but with no possibility, or perhaps even desire, for absolution. Whereas one scene in “Hannah and Her Sisters” has Mickey standing in the back of the church during a solemn high Mass, wistfully wishing he could believe, in “Match Point” there is no hint that anyone wishes for or even suspects any possible existence other than the totally secular lives they are leading.
Even so, as a priest-philosopher I find Allen’s films inspiring. What Allen sees about the human condition he sees deeply and expresses brilliantly—the fragility and finitude of human life, the frequent failures in life commitments, the self-centeredness and shallowness that try to pass as love. And like Ivan Karamazov or Friedrich Nietzsche, his films invite people to see the implications of nihilism. Placing before the audience a Kierkegaardian either/or, he sides with Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor: if there is no God, anything goes.
Shortly after seeing “Match Point” I came upon the following passage from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a constant temptation, so for the unbeliever, faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.” In a recent interview, again identifying himself as an atheist and looking back on his long career as a filmmaker, Allen commented that even if he does not make a film masterpiece equal to one of Bergman’s, it does not mean that he is losing his passport to paradise, because there is no paradise. “You understand that art doesn’t save you. It doesn’t save me. So then I think to myself, what’s the value?”
I agree completely. Movies do not provide salvation. But is that the final word? Many believe that the wonder and mystery of love point toward a possible salvation, toward a possible presence that is infinitely more than an absence. I hope he forgives me, but watching his films—even “Match Point”—I can’t help wondering whether Woody wonders the same.
The Rev. Robert E. Lauder, a priest of the Brooklyn Diocese, is professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, Jamaica, N.Y.
Of Human LifeBy John F. Kavanaugh
Thirty-eight years after its publication, the encyclical Humanae Vitae is once again causing a stir. The Italian weekly L’Espresso featured in its April 21 issue an extended dialogue between the bioethicist Ignazio Marino and the retired Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Martini, S.J. (For the text in English, search the World Wide Web for “chiesa martini marino.”) The discussion includes egg or sperm donation, the scientific use of abandoned frozen embryos, the use of condoms for “spouses when one of them is infected with AIDS,” abortion and euthanasia. Although I did not see the encyclical specifically mentioned, it seems to haunt the proceedings. This became evident in the following weeks, as a flurry of articles raised the possibility that the church’s blanket condemnation of contraception might be modified.
There is extensive literature on the encyclical, including intense critiques and strong defenses. Offered here is merely a reflection that might be worthy of attention when thinking about human life and human sexuality.
My own judgment is that Humanae Vitae, while missing a strategic opportunity, was in many ways prophetic. The opportunity missed was the occasion to articulate clearly the difference between contraception and the taking of human life. After condemning abortion as a means of birth control, No. 14 of the encyclical says that forms of direct sterilization, whether lasting or temporary, and other forms of contraception are “equally to be excluded.” That equally, possibly an effect of seeing only grave matter in sexual sins, has the unintended but disastrous effect of equating contraception and abortion. Abortion is not contraception; it is the termination of an early human life.
It is my suspicion that this faulty “equalization” is behind the sad fact that the abortion rate among Catholics, even in countries like Poland, is little different from that of other groups. If one has already sinned mortally by using (unsuccessfully) contraception, why not try abortion? Failing to teach the difference dulled, rather than formed, consciences. The encyclical should have been called “Of Human Sexuality.” It was on that topic that Humanae Vitae was in many ways prophetic.
The document should have started with the simple truth that sex is only part of the moral life, albeit a significant part. That might have defused the wild reaction to the letter, itself a sign of the fixation on sex. Prior to Humanae Vitae there were many Catholics who thought that sex was the only significant moral topic. Subsequently, although there were still a few who centered their ethical world on sex, many more Catholics joined the general crowd, thinking that sex was the only part of human life that had no moral import. They came to view sexuality solely as a matter of private liberty. Humanae Vitae offered a vision of human sexuality as responsive to the will of God and faithful to the insight that the profound intimacy of sexual intercourse required a profound covenant of persons and an openness to the life that is made possible by the intercourse of man and woman. It warned of the risks of ignoring this vision: commodification of sex and women, fragmentation of the spousal relationship and the distancing of parents from offspring.
Could it be that, unmoored from the will of God, spousal love and the reality and symbolism of reproduction, sex was reduced to a matter of unfettered liberty in fulfilling desire or the traffic of entertainment and commerce?
Those who have chosen the full libertarian agenda that God and ethics have nothing to do with the bedroom or reproduction have some tough questions to face. Are there any moral constraints at all on sexual or reproductive freedom? Is nothing morally required of us in matters of this quite significant part of human experience? Is one’s “heart’s desire” the trump card for all our decisions? One wonders what might be the source of the massive repression of compunction in priests who abused children, of teachers who seduced their students, of parents who violated their own. Surely such horrors have taken place for ages. But have they been done with such absence of guilt? And what of sex itself? Do the astounding profits in pornography, the mounting rates of sexually transmitted diseases, the images of pop and hip-hop music videos or the edgy offerings of the television and fashion industries offer any vision of sex that is even remotely connected to love, commitment or children?
Questions about unrestricted reproductive liberty are even more troubling. In televised cases presented to my own medical ethics class, we encounter “partners” shopping for sperm sold by donor-merchants who look like the latest movie stars. College women are offered up to $50,000 for their eggs—if they are 5 feet 10 inches tall and have an appropriately high I.Q. Babies are born, only to be unclaimed by an ovum seller, a sperm seller, a surrogate carrier for pregnancy and the contracting original couple now separated. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis is used not only to select for healthy prospective babies, but also to select for gender—because “having a boy was my heart’s desire.”
If we are serious as Christians, as Catholics, we have to be willing to admit that every area of our lives—the political, the economic, the personal and, yes, the sexual—is an arena for holiness and generosity. In a totalizing commerce-culture such as ours, if we do not witness to our young that we live “a different way,” we will bequeath to them neither love nor holiness, but moral chaos. Humanae Vitae told us as much.
John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.