Sunday, October 17, 2010

Woody Allen’s Hell

10/17/2010—The reviewers are saying that it is only a shallow movie about uninteresting characters making bad choices. So, who cares what the movie says? But to me, Woody Allen’s new movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is a searing indictment of the human condition. We have no self-insight, we make foolish choices and then when we are disappointed, turn on others in rage or despair. The main characters either commit acts of violence or seem utterly capable of doing so when their desires are thwarted.

This movie gives the lie to the easy “good without God” school. These characters are all utterly without God and they are not good at all. Only one character genuinely loves (and it is his deceased wife he loves); only one character seems to be grounded, even a little, in truth (the gallery owner). And if we reflect on ourselves and our small acts of violence every day, we can see ourselves in Allen’s universe.

We can be sure that Allen would not think that religion has anything to do with improving humanity’s situation. The characters in this recent movie are not much different from the murderer in his earlier, great movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors. And that character was fully grounded in Judaism. Stranger is a sketch while Crimes was the full bloody canvas. But essential humanity is the same.

Are we really the way Allen sees us? And if we are not necessarily that way, what are the sources of judgment, compassion and sacrifice?

Allen is no help to us at answering these questions. The conclusion of Stranger seems to be that lies and truth are about equal and you can live just as well, or badly, out of illusions. I cannot accept that. Any improvement in humanity must begin with a commitment to truth. While it is true that Freud called religion an illusion, I don’t think that is so. Religion seems to me very concerned with truth. In fact, religion teaches truth so well that people are often led out of it when the religion seems false.

This latest Woody Allen movie is a challenging reminder. Of course we need not be like his portrayal of us. But we can be. So we must try to live our lives truthfully, carefully and lovingly. Allen’s characters don’t any longer even make that effort.


  1. To me, movies from the later Woody Allen have become unwatchable. The unrelenting barreness, misanthropy and narcissism of the characters is corrosive and depressing. It's almost an understatement to say that Allen's characters are moral monsters with neither compassion or self-knowledge, like all predators.

    This seens like a good place to post part of this sermon from Augustine, which demonstrates the opposite traits of self-awareness, empathy and compassion.

    When what I am for you terrifies me, I am comforted by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian. The first is the name of the office I received; the second names the grace I have received. The first brings danger; the second salvation. That action of God has cast us out onto a great sea in the midst of a storm, but when we recall by whose blood we were redeemed, the calm of this thought brings us into a safe port, and even while laboring in this work, we rest in the common benefit. If, then, it delights me more that with you I have been bought than that I have been set over you, then, as the Lord commands, I will be your servant all the more willingly lest I be ungrateful for the price by which I have been found worthy to be your fellow servant” (Sermon 340, 1; PL 38, 1483)

  2. The key to Augustine's sermon is his belief that the person he is, --- one of God's subjects -- is not to be confused with the office he holds.

    Secularism's challenge is to persuasively convey the same truths about human nature without recourse to the idea of a governing deity.

  3. The following is from an op-ed by Peter DeWaals in the NY Times entitled "Morals Without God".

    Instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution? Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.

    The article is online at:

  4. I did not see Antonio Manetti's last comment before writing today's entry, but it certainly is germane to thinking about what evolution teaches us about ourselves and our situation.