The Moral Conundrum(s) of Woody Allen

Okay, so what are we talking about here? Morality? Choice? The randomness of life? Murder?
By  · Published on May 23rd, 2017

“Kant said human reason is troubled by questions that it cannot dismiss, but also cannot answer. Okay, so what are we talking about here? Morality? Choice? The randomness of life? Murder?” – Abe Lucas, Irrational Man

Depending on whom one is talking to, the name Woody Allen might provoke either a warm glow of cinematic nostalgia or a cold shudder of moral disdain. Allen’s alleged abuse of his stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, along with his well-attested predilection for far younger women, has tainted his reputation for many and given pause even to ardent fans. But part of what makes the moral conundrums of Woody Allen so lurid is that the director seems to be working them out, year after year, in the plots of his films. No other filmmaker has provided so complete (and, at times, heavy-handed) a record of their evolving ethical preoccupations, nor invited such ready comparison between their work and personal life. To detractors, each romantic pairing between Allen (or one of his surrogates) and a younger female co-star amounts to a kind of dare, a willful flouting of bourgeois morality.

In keeping with both journalistic objectivity and the present state of the evidence, I’ll not presume Allen guilty of the worst offenses he’s been accused of (including abusing Farrow). But even leaving these aside, much remains to be explored surrounding the ways Allen engages himself, his characters, and his audience in morally charged predicaments. Three films, in particular, seem representative: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005), and Irrational Man (2015). None of these is considered Allen’s best work, nor is any the clearest exemplar of his personal style, but all plunge unabashedly into Dostoevskian ethical quandaries, and taken together they represent a startlingly explicit picture of Allen’s moral concerns.

To refresh the reader’s memory, here are the plots of the three films. Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two parallel stories — one involving an ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) who has his mistress killed when she threatens to reveal their affair, and another involving a married documentarian named Cliff Stern (Allen) who falls for another woman. Match Point follows tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) as he falls in love with, and then — under similar circumstances to Judah — murders, an actress who’s dating his soon-to-be brother-in-law. Finally, Irrational Man concerns a troubled philosophy professor named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who, in the midst of an affair with one of his students, resolves to murder a corrupt judge to restore meaning and exuberance to his life. In each film, Allen crafts a kind of thought experiment — a hypothetical world in which to explore his intuitions around murder, infidelity, meaning, and chance.

One interesting thread to track across the three films is Allen’s shifting relationship to religion. Allen’s identity as a Jewish filmmaker has generally been more cultural than religious, but in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the role of faith is foregrounded. Judah, the biblically-named protagonist, is revealed early on to be a skeptic of religious faith — a disposition, we’re led to assume, that contributes to his decision to have his mistress killed. In the immediate aftermath of the crime, he is haunted by pangs of religious guilt and has  of his Jewish upbringing. And although Judah is never punished for his crime, suggesting an absence of cosmic justice, the dominant impression Allen leaves in the film is that religious faith is a necessary (if not entirely plausible) check on human cruelty. “If necessary,” Judah’s father says in a flashback, “I will always choose God over truth.”

And yet when Allen revisits the story in Match Point, God is altogether absent from the proceedings. Chris Wilton bears none of Judah’s religious misgivings but instead places his faith in chance. In the film’s opening moments, as a tennis ball teeters along the top of a net, Chris reflects in voiceover: “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck.” Whereas the drama of Crimes and Misdemeanors revolves largely around Judah’s conscience, Match Point’s tension hinges on whether Chris will be caught. It’s as though the latter hero’s amorality represents, in Allen’s mind, the logical result of the slippery slope away from God begun by the former.

By the time Irrational Man was released in 2015, Allen’s Judaism had long since taken a sideline in both his films and his life. Appearing in the 2013 documentary The Unbelievers, he explains, “You can’t live a life based on delusion…You’ve got to constantly not only be challenging your own beliefs but be willing to say that you had been wrong and misinformed for your whole life and change your views.” But if the existential despair of Irrational Man’s Abe Lucas is any indication, this loss of faith hardly brought an end to Allen’s searching. Like Chris, Abe is heavily preoccupied with the role of randomness and chance in human affairs (we’re told it’s a major subject of his philosophical work), but he’s unable to derive the psychopathic thrill from it that Chris does. Abe — and, it would seem, Allen — has long since moved past an ability to believe in religion, but he nevertheless pines for its consolations (he says of Kierkegaard, “he was, after all, a Christian; how comforting that would be”).

Paradoxically, Abe regains a sense of meaning by committing a murder — precisely the act that, in the former films, attested to the universe’s meaninglessness. What’s more, Abe is thwarted in his attempt to kill his student at the film’s end because he trips on a flashlight and falls down an elevator shaft — a flashlight that he had won for her by guessing a random number at a carnival earlier in the film. Allen appears to have come full circle: the meaninglessness of Crimes and Misdemeanors and the dumb luck of Match Point give way, at last, to a kind of cosmic justice.

If all of this seems less than clear or consistent, Abe Lucas’s words may bear reminding: “much of philosophy is just verbal masturbation.” Nevertheless, there is no question that Allen has been grappling over his seemingly interminable career with a particular set of questions — questions that, as Kant (and Abe) put it, he “cannot dismiss but also cannot answer.” Among these are the relationship between moral law and cosmic order; the role of luck, chance, and randomness in human affairs; and the blurriness of the line between minor infractions and unforgivable sins.

It’s this last topic that bears most heavily on Allen’s personal life, as well as our relationship to his films as viewers. While there’s no reason to believe that Allen has ever committed a murder, the tribulations of his romantic life have long been on display, both in his work and in the press. Take 1979’s Manhattan — arguably his finest film. Consider that the central relationship in the film, between a 42-year-old Allen and a 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway, is said to have been based on Allen’s relationship with actress Stacey Nelkin, which he denied until 2014. Further consider Hemingway’s claim that, after shooting, Allen made advances toward her, which she rebuffed. Are these behaviors permissible, or loathsome? Is our impression of them merely the product of what Allen has called Americans’ “infantile” relationship to sex? Is there any objective authority to which we can appeal to say that these behaviors are wrong?

It’s no accident that Allen tends to juxtapose the crime of murder with lesser offenses of infidelity and old-young relationships. Given the conviction expressed in his films that the moral law depends on a God who isn’t there, it’s no wonder that he finds himself perpetually troubled by the dual impulses of guilt and rebellion. He seems confident that certain transgressions are mere cultural taboos, while others are genuinely wrong — but where to draw the line? Where indeed. Even for those of us who feel that morality can be conserved without recourse to cosmic meaning, the experience of attending and enjoying Allen’s movies remains perplexing. Should one think twice about being a Woody Allen fan? It’s a question I cannot dismiss, but also cannot answer.

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