Religion as Art and Idea in the Films of Woody Allen
By Joey Earl Horstman


I love Woody Allen movies, and look forward each year to his new release. My wife, Leah, considers this a character flaw. I claim Allen is the thinking person's Leslie Nielson, the artist's Mel Brooks. I say his movies are intelligent, formally and thematically challenging, with just the right combination of slapstick and sophisticated humor. Leah claims I just can't resist male neurotic whining.

Well, who can?

In my defense, though, and to Allen's credit, there is more to a Woody Allen film than that. There is more than the stock jokes-on anality, on the superiority of New York to L.A., on human inadequacies, both sexual and philosophical.

There is more to the films than the liberal sprinkling of allusions Allen seasons his films with-allusions to Balzac and Bellow, Bergman and Fellini, Eisenstein and Freud (always Freud). What other American filmmaker would turn Dostoyevsky's works into witty banter ("that nice boy next door, Raskolnikov, murdered a woman")? Who else would pull Marshall MacLuhan from behind a billboard to straighten out an obnoxious academic-and expect the audience to get it?

There is even more than the Woody Allen persona, that neurotic schlemiel who, in its various incarnations, combines the lechery of Bob Hope, the lostness and sensitivity of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, and the wit and goofy looks of Groucho Marx.

Woody Allen's films offer more because Allen the filmmaker, unlike the characters he plays, never sits still. Though Alvy Singer remains static, watching Annie Hall grow, Pygmalian-like, beyond his control, beyond his comprehension and affection, Woody Allen has always challenged his filmmaking abilities, stretched his talent and creativity, and has expanded what his audiences expect not only from a comedy, but from a film.

Allen began, of course, as a gag writer and stand-up comic, and his early films-Take the Money and Run (1969) or Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (1972)-are essentially comic sketches on celluloid; they bear the same relation to film art as a sermon illustration does to a modernist novel.

Rather than rely on the gags, though, as so many of our comedians do, Allen has grown into a film artist, a filmmaker who uses his medium to explore the philosophical and artistic concerns that confront our age-the nature of attraction and relationships, for example, the role of art and morality in a seemingly absurd universe, the sites of hope or meaning in a human life or relationship. Allen, in his later works, subordinates the jokes to artistic expression and character; he uses humor for certain effects rather than creating effects to present his humor.

Woody Allen now has over thirty films to his credit, most of which he has written, directed, and acted in. His work is surprisingly rich, and, given the strength of the Allen persona, that image of hand-wringing angst, surprisingly versatile. His films range from the dramatic (Husbands and Wives, 1991) and what some might call the "artsy" or European (Interiors, 1978) to the comic, which, in Allen's hands, is itself quite a diverse genre-there are slapstick comedies (Bananas, 1971), nostalgic comedies (Radio Days, 1987), romantic comedies (Manhattan, 1979), parodies (Zelig, 1983), even postmodern metacomedies (Stardust Memories, 1980).

His films employ an impressive range of film techniques as well-from the split screens and cartoon characters of Annie Hall (1977) to the use of the stage and masks in Another Woman (1988) and the Greek chorus of Mighty Aphrodite (1995). Few filmmakers are so willing to try such novel techniques.

Taken together, Allen's films form a conversation, a debate on celluloid. Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), for example-a crass, vivacious character ruled by emotion rather than intellect-becomes the savior of Interiors, bringing life and color to the stuffy, dead world of vases and decorum epitomized by Eve (Geraldine Page). But a younger version of that same character, the aerobics instructor and astrology devotee Samantha (Lysette Anthony), is merely annoying in Husband and Wives, offering stupidity, rather than life, to her older lover Jack (Sydney Pollack).

Lest you think Allen privileges the intellect, though, consider that in Another Woman it is the reasoning faculties that isolate philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands), that blind her to her own coldness and her husband's promiscuity. A sharp, cultivated mind, in Allen's world, increases our capacity for self-deception.

Infidelity, another of Allen's popular concerns, can be positive in one film, negative in the next. In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), adultery is played for laughs, and in fact ends up being good for both adulterers-Lee (Barbara Hershey) leaves a bad relationship with Frederick (Max Von Sydow) and finds both herself and adult education; Eliot (Michael Cain) learns that he in fact loves his wife Hannah (Mia Farrow) more than he realizes.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), however, infidelity turns deadly. And Eliot's rationalization for seducing his sister-in-law in the earlier film-"I can't fathom my own heart"-is pathetic, horrific, when applied to the crimes of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) in the later film.

Allen's films-complex, challenging, engaging-are also, unfortunately for me, difficult to write about. For comedy itself-and especially Allen's brand of comedy-is a most self-conscious narrative form. His films critique themselves, as often as not, and critique the critic.

Which explains why, even in praising Allen's works, I sound and feel a bit absurd. Using words like "film artist," grand terms like "philosophical and artistic concerns," leaves me vulnerable, even begging for, a Woody Allen parody. I half expect the filmmaker to show up with Pauline Kael to straighten me out. There are few tasks as ridiculous as explaining a joke: if you get the joke, you don't need it explained; if you don't, the explanation won't help anyway.

That self-consciousness-a kind of metafilmmaking in which the problems of representation are embedded in the plot and characters and dialogue-both explains the appeal of Woody Allen's films and, to a large degree, accounts for his growth as a filmmaker. For it makes him not only ironic, a characteristic of our times, but aware of what he is doing and how he is doing it, a characteristic of any serious artist.

That self-consciousness also allows Allen to raise significant religious questions-religious questions a secular generation can take seriously because they are asked in comic ways. His preferred way of asking is through a religious quest, a Bergmanesque search for meaning and god writ in small letters, more befitting our ironic age, with the tortured knight replaced by the hypochondriac entertainer, fourteenth-century Europe replaced by late twentieth-century New York.

The clearest example of this is the Mickey Sachs plot of Hannah and Her Sisters. Having brushed too closely with death for his comfort or sanity, Sachs, played by Allen, abandons television producing to search for answers to life's big questions. In less than a year he makes his way through philosophy (to Nietzsche's idea of eternal returns he says, "great, that means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again") and Catholicism (the "against school prayer, proabortion, antinuclear wing"). Desperate, he even considers converting to Hare Krishna, but decides against it because of the wardrobe.

It is the Marx Brothers who finally save Mickey Sachs from despair and suicide-or rather a Marx Brothers' film, Duck Soup. God doesn't show up in Hannah and Her Sisters, which is no surprise. God is as rare in an Allen film as children, minorities, chase scenes, and fidelity.

Woody Allen is at his best when he is at his most self-conscious, when he is asking religious questions and chasing after them. When that self-consciousness fails him-as it does when he tries to answer those religious questions-Allen is the least successful and most reflective of our age, our culture. By unself-consciously adopting the broader, secular culture's attitudes toward belief-by, that is, viewing religion as merely another philosophy, by assuming that faith is solely a human art-Allen's answers, like our culture's religious answers, fail to satisfy.

"The mind," says Boris, the Woody Allen character and narrator of Love and Death (1975), "embraces all the nobler aspirations, like poetry and philosophy, but the body has all the fun." It's a typical Allen line-tight, rhythmic, and not least of all, funny. And it embodies both his comic method and his worldview. The Allen gag sets up a noble aspiration-patriotism, Romanticism, even gangsterism-only to have it comically deflated by the human appetites.

So in Love and Death, Russia's resistance against Napoleon boils down (literally) to a preference for borscht over heavy sauces, and when Sonia (Diane Keaton) is approached by a Spanish nobleman, who woos her with a compliment to her beautiful skin, she says, "Yes, I know, it covers my whole body." So when Boris attempts a systematic philosophy, it comes out: "(A) Socrates is a man; (B) all men are mortal; (C) all men are Socrates."

Allen's world is, in Love and Death as in his other films, absurd. It's a place where cheerleaders and vendors line the epic battlefield and village idiots have a convention; a place where words lose their meaning-Young Nehamken is older than Old Nehamken, and Ivan is "bayonetted to death by a Polish conscientious objector."

Even divine revelation is suspect. After being assured by an angel that his life will be spared, and then being summarily executed first thing the next morning, Boris simply concludes, "I got screwed." In the Allen world, heroic poses, like transcendent messages, result in comic confusion, for the body is always stronger than the mind, the material more powerful than the spiritual.

It is no surprise that Allen gained his popularity in the rebellious years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, for his humor is subversive. Allen's brand of mock-heroism subverts the authorities, the grand narratives of American culture. And Allen recognized early on, as many didn't, that the primary American authority is not political ideology, but the image. What's more, Allen recognized that the means he was using to subvert that authority-namely, film-was the very means that created the authority in the first place.

Allen's simultaneous attraction to and mistrust of the image forms the central tension, not to mention the comedy, of many Allen films, including Play It Again, Sam (1972), where the Bogart of Casablanca is contrasted to Allen Felix, the bumbling but endearing Woody Allen character who tries to live up to such a hard-boiled, masculine ideal.

Four of Allen's films-Take The Money and Run, Zelig, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives-subvert that seemingly most authentic of film genres, the documentary, by themselves posing as documentaries, revealing the intrusiveness of the documenter's point of view. The film image, say these films, is no more trustworthy than the ideal images we have of ourselves. Who we think we are, as individuals and as a nation, is quite different from who we really are.

In his films, then, Allen is a moralist, uncovering, at his kindest, human absurdity, and at his most severe, human and cultural hypocrisy. Humans are fallen and complex, sinners ruled by the baser instincts, he seems to suggest, and no amount of philosophical or artistic or patriotic posturing can completely cover that up. It is an attractive position-both in the early 1970s and even today, when viewing noble acts as fraudulent, as facades masking ignoble desires, is a cultural obsession.

Allen's moralism runs most insistently in two of his recent films, Alice (1990) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994), which threaten to topple over into Morality Play at any moment. In the former film, pampered Alice (Mia Farrow) learns that, to find herself, she must have the courage to give up her affluent lifestyle and live for others. In the latter, playwright David Shayne learns that his wife is more important than his art. Such lessons are certainly nothing new-when put so baldly here they may even be banal-but Allen's skill as a filmmaker makes even these films convincing.

Allen has found a moral voice in his art that he hasn't found in his life. And perhaps this is what most disturbs us about Allen's personal moral failures-that they are committed by a man we trusted, by an artist who seemed to understand the human capacity for self-deception and rationalization. Perhaps we mistook the image of the filmmaker for the real man.

Allen's moralism rests on the same duality that creates his comedy-the split between head and heart, the difference between the ideal and the real. At times Allen seems to privilege the ideal, the realm of philosophy and art and religion, as well as patriotism and romanticism. So Mickey Sachs is saved by the Marx Brothers in Hannah and Her Sisters, and the circus magician, by the art of illusion, saves the Allen character, Max Kleinman, in Shadows and Fog. At other times, Allen privileges the real, which is filled not only with human cowardice and lust and insecurity, but also at times with family and friendship. So in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) chooses life on the audience's side of the screen. Whatever side individual films fall on, though, it is clear that Allen puts truth (which he would never capitalize) on the side of the real and religion on the side of the ideal.

For Allen, that is, art and philosophy and religion are ways to escape life rather than ways to enter life more fully. They are ways to avoid, rather than enhance, experiencing the real. He says as much when talking about his films in a December 1996 New Yorker article: "I've always felt that people can't take too much reality. . . . You spend your whole life searching for a way out. You just get an overdose of reality, you know, and it's a terrible thing. . . . I'm always fighting against reality."

Allen takes this debate most seriously in Crimes and Misdemeanors, which juxtaposes "real" life with "reel" life. In this film it is successful ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) who quests after Truth and God. He undergoes a spiritual crisis after having his mistress killed in order to keep both his marriage and reputation intact. At the end of the film, having worked through his guilt, having suppressed both it and his belief in God (like Dolores his mistress (Angelica Huston), guilt and belief were inconvenient), Judah tells filmmaker Clifford Stern (Woody Allen) the plot of the perfect murder that he has lived through. Rather than a confession, though, Judah presents it as a movie pitch.

Clifford, ever the idealistic moralist, wants to change the ending of the story-the killer would confess his crime, the plot reach tragic proportions. But that's not real life, Judah tells him. That's only in the movies. In real life we rationalize and get on with our lives. Only in art is sin and judgment and salvation possible. And as Judah walks away a happy man, kissing his wife and telling her that they'll have a beautiful wedding for their daughter one day, it is clear that Allen buys Judah's description of the real, though it is also clear that Allen doesn't much like it.

Perhaps the most compelling character in Crimes and Misdemeanors is Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston), to whom Judah confesses his affair, though not his murder. Ben is the most sympathetic characterization of a religious person in Allen's body of work, and it is clear that Allen is attracted to Ben, his strong faith, his gentleness and integrity. It is also clear that Allen sees Ben as irrelevant. Ben's faith has cost him connection to reality.

Ben suffers from a degenerative eye disease and in the course of the film loses his sight altogether. Some critics have interpreted this as illustrating Ben's spiritual vision as opposed to Judah's moral blindness. No doubt Allen is playing with the sight/blindness archetype that Tiresius and Oedipus represent. But given the context of the movie-a context in which Judah can confidently assume that there is no transcendent being or Truth-Ben's blindness doesn't suggest that he can "see" more or more clearly than Judah. In fact, the film suggests quite the opposite. Ben sees less. His faith requires that he block out reality. While Allen obviously prefers Ben to Judah, he sees Ben as "reel," Judah as "real." Though Allen may admire Ben's faith, he also sees it as a denial of truth.

In many ways Crimes and Misdemeanors is Allen's best film. The humor is better integrated into the story than in many of the others, and religious questions are more convincingly asked. It is also Allen's most characteristic film. For, like the others and like our secular culture (and, sadly, like much of Christian culture), it defines faith as a philosophy, an art, a human construct that Allen opposes to reality, which he sees as dark and desolate indeed. Allen cannot conceive of a complex God, a God who doesn't fit neatly into philosophical or artistic categories. He cannot conceive of religion as experiential or faith as incarnational. He cannot conceive of a world created and pronounced good.

In a flashback scene in the middle of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah visits the supper table of his childhood. His orthodox father argues with his intellectual Aunt Meg over the meaning of the holocaust and the absence of God. In the course of the discussion, Meg asks Judah's father what he would choose, Truth or God. Judah's father answers God, and is met by laughter and condescension. But it never occurs to Meg, as it never occurs to Allen, to ask him (and us) to choose between Truth and Not God.