The Yin and Yang of Woody Allen

woody-allen2by Tim Jones8/14/15
Being a long-time fan of Woody Allen, I went to see his most recent film Irrational Man starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. It is definitely a classic Woody Allen movie that explores themes that makes his films unique. He is the one writer and director that’s been able to put onto the silver screen intellectual themes and questions that you might find discussed in a philosophy or possibly even a religion class.

After watching Irrational Man it dawned on me that he really struggles with the dualities and ambiguities in life that each and everyone deals with on a daily basis, even for those who aren’t aware of it. One duality that is Woody Allen himself, either people love him or they hate him, which is irony he would appreciate.

In Irrational Man, I don’t want to give too much away because there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns that occur as the movie progresses and an ending that is pure Woody. But generally speaking it’s about Abe played by Joaquin Phoenix, a professor of philosophy who is starting his first year at a Rhode Island-based liberal arts college, which is Brown University with a different name.

He is depressed, drinks too much and seems to be stuck in a depressive funk. Emma Stone plays Jill as an adoring student who finds him attractive not just for his bohemian good looks but for his intellect. She wants to be the one that helps pull him out of his funk even at the expense of wrecking her relationship with a student she’s been dating for some time. Abe seems as though he’s on the fast-track to suicide until by happenstance he inadvertently finds his ‘purpose’ in life. He decides he wants to murder a local judge who has a bad reputation with locals and Abe wants to take drastic action when he and Emma learn that he is going to unfairly take away the custody of a woman’s two children. He suddenly becomes energetic and excited about everything, including finding his manhood in bed which he apparently had ‘lost’ because of the depressive funk he had been in for so long.

Describing the movie in any more detail would probably give more away than I should and would be spoiling it for anyone interested in seeing it. And it is definitely worth seeing. Allen is the only true intellectual movie-maker around who integrates the big life questions, mysteries and paradoxes, including those that have been around since the time of the great Greek philosophers, and elevates them to the big screen.

Woody Allen takes on the duality and ambiguity that exists in all of us. Are we spiritual beings or are we material beings. Good or evil. Are our identities just symbolic and impermanent or are they something tangible and lasting. Love/Hate relationships.  Free will versus determinism.  At one point in the movie Abe is criticized for his style over substance, or in other words, is he is dealing just in abstractions or with reality.

And one of the themes that Allen touches on again as he has in past movies, especially Crime and Misdemeanors, is morality versus amorality. Can one become like Nieztche’s ‘Superman’ (Ubermensch in German) or Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and rise above typical bourgeois morality by creating a moral universe of one’s own by removing God in the formation of one’s conscience. Allen makes this reference clear in one scene where Dostoevsky’s most widely-read novel Crime and Punishment (where Raskolnikov is the principal character) plays a part in the movie’s narrative and of justifying the creation of one’s own moral code.

What is missing in most of Allen’s movies, however, is precisely the role of God in the formation of conscience that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky address in their writings and the consequences that follow. Allen unknowingly portrays those consequences of God removed from our moral universe in most of his movies, including Irrational Man. It’s a little like trying to find answers to life’s big questions in a room full of fun house mirrors.

In the end however, I give him credit for at least trying to portray those that struggle with the ‘big questions’ at an intellectual level not seen in any other movies. With a lot of humor and irony he goes after those big questions of our existence, including the ultimate one, that of the duality of life and death. It is the one everyone also tries to come to terms with and understand each in their own way.

The following are two typical quotes by Allen, the first his own, the second from his movie Annie Hall: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens” and “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” The yin and yang of Woody. • (839 views)

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8 Responses to The Yin and Yang of Woody Allen

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have not seen a Woody Allen movie in decades and could not stand those I did see. I find his movies pompous and pretentious .

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      One of the great creative talents of our time…and personally a bit dodgy. How he and Frank had Mia Farrow in common, I’ll never know. His films ranged from the juvenile (if funny) to the nostalgically heart-warming (“Radio Days,” for instance).

      He’s a man of the Left, but Dennis Prager said he is a more honest atheist than most. From a Prager article:

      In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, Woody Allen, an honest atheist, made this point in his inimitable way. Allen told the interviewer that, being a big sports fan, and especially a New York Knicks fan, he is often asked whether it’s important if the Knicks beat the Celtics. His answer is, “Well, it’s just as important as human existence.” If there is no God, Allen is right.

      He weaves in some of his secular Jewish shtick into his movies, often to great comedic effect. Not everything he’s done I like. But a few things I do like and I think they are superb.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I believe I’ve seen one Woodie Allen movie (Annie Hall, so like KFZ I haven’t seen one in decades). It was all right, but from what I’ve read about him, his characters all seem to be angst-ridden secular Jews (i.e., Woody Allen). As a science fiction fan, I might like to see Sleeper sometime (it even won a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation). On the other hand, I’ve been advised that no one who likes Richard Powell’s Don Quixote USA should see Bananas.


      Tim – I think you would like Sleeper which might have been the last of his films before he tried to get serious with Annie Hall. Allen is preserved in a capsule and wakes up 200 years (I think it is) in the future. Some historians question him about some artifacts they’ve found. One of them is a tape of Howard Cosell covering some sporting event:

      “We think this was used to punish hardened criminals,” they tell him.

      “That’s exactly what that was,” Allen replies.

      There’s also a cute bit where it’s revealed that future science discovered little chocolate donuts are good for you!

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Little did Allen know in that case how right he was. But that’s one Allen movie I would like to see someday.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Woody Allen takes on the duality and ambiguity that exists in all of us. Are we spiritual beings or are we material beings. Good or evil. Are our identities just symbolic and impermanent or are they something tangible and lasting.

    I can’t speak to this movie, Irrational Man, which I haven’t seen, but all atheists are stuck with the conundrum of everything having no intrinsic meaning. This is hard to reconcile with our daily lives where it sure does look as if there are many things that have meaning.

    So the materialist/naturalist/atheist is left to either diminish meaning (choose your nihilistic movie these days) or — for the intellectually inclined (which can often mean cleverly stupid) — you can navel-gaze and struggle with things such as “duality” and “ambiguity,” somewhat lifting them up into lofty metaphysical concepts — concepts so filled with both angst and a kind of meaning-of-meaninglessness that only The New Prometheans (those few and daring souls who can stare into the void for the rest of us) can interpret them for us, and thus at least give us the best solidity possible, even if ultimate meaning is baseless.

    So, in my view (and as I grow older, and maybe a little wiser), the Woody Allens of the world become too clever by half. You find yourself realizing that the supposed sophistication of the secular upper class hasn’t quite even matched some of the simple truths you’ll find in “Bambi.” But being geeked up by intellectualism, the truths of the secular elite seem valid, if only because of the ever-present glow of a romanticized gloom about them.

    One thing we get from Woody Allen and his type is that truth is truth if it’s hip and smart and stylish. It can be whatever you want it to be. Now, I do agree that often Woody can’t quite help himself and is very honest in handling some of life’s truths. For him, it seems as if movies are a safe medium to escape his atheism and play at things having deep meaning. It’s safe because, after all, movies are just fiction and you can say anything you want as long as its entertaining. But me thinks that there is some depth in Woody that he otherwise couldn’t admit to because of the peer group he is a kingpin of.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it. And I’ll be looking for this latest film at Red Box or wherever. I’d like to watch it.


    Tim (Jones) – I don’t want you to think we (here at ST) don’t appreciate your taking the time to write this, but I must concur with KFZ – Allen is vastly overrated when he tries to be serious. He does have a singular gift for comedy, namely, the ability to project the ludicrous into everyday situations: think of him trying to play the cello in a marching band (I forget which film it was), or that Latin American dictator changing the country’s language to Swedish. And as an actor, he could play one part – the schlemiel – better than anybody.

    But when he tried to tackle serious themes, he got lost. He had enough intellect to realize serious drama is in the end greater than comedy, yet not enough to really do more than some elaborate navel-gazing. He never really did know anything more than himself, and I strongly suspect that his years on the analyst’s couch were the result of his recognizing that in the end, he just wasn’t a good enough (i.e. serious) writer and thinker.

    It wouldn’t be fair to critique a film I haven’t seen, but I will say that the reason I never saw Manhattan is that I was a little uneasy with the plot, in which a 42-year-old writer (gosh, I wonder who that character is based on?) is dating a 17-year-old girl. And of course I knew by the time it came out (1979) that the critics could not be trusted.

    But thanks for the effort in bringing this to us.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Tim (Jones) – I don’t want you to think we (here at ST) don’t appreciate your taking the time to write this

      I agree Nik. I don’t like Allen, but I appreciate it when someone takes the time to put pen to paper and write a sensible review on a movie, book, theater or just about anything which might interest people. We can’t see and do everything, so these pieces help us “be there” in some small way.

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