Woody Allen -- the Epitome of Western Civilization?
Is Woody Allen the epitome of Western Civilization? Reading this chilling interview with the pedophile, neurotic film-maker, one might be forgiven for seeing him as the emblematic poster child of why our culture is in such a pitiful state. Isn't he everything that the pseudo-uber-intellectual, effete, urban, liberal, angst-ridden, sexually liberated, culturally tolerant, open-minded, godless and ultimately soulless Westerner aspires to be? He's rich, he's successful, he's bored, he's endlessly analyzed, he sees through the petty niceties of conventional society and realizes they are so much foolishness, he sees the ultimate meaninglessness of a godless life, and pursues his hedonism and selfish, narcissistic lifestyle with little thought to where he is headed, or what he believes. He essentially believes only in his own momentary sensual distractions, flirtations, ego-boosting filmmaking, and pursuit of fame and at the same time, that famously disingenuous search for "privacy".
The clips for his new movie are painful to watch. The same old nebbishy schtick -- only now, at a feeble and decrepit 73, they not only look foolish and amateurish, they look downright creepy. He's nothing but a pervert, dressed up in Jewish angst. But he's not even an authentic Jew. If he were, he could never use the Auschwitz metaphor as applied to his own mewling, self-inflicted self-pity. Let's add self-parody to the mix. What seemed clever and trendy and so urbanely chic in that slightly bohemian way 30 years ago, seems sick and dead in 2006, with Israel fighting for its life, and the world spinning dizzily towards some ultimate confrontation between Good and Evil. But what does a man like Woody Allen know about Good and Evil? He is beyond such antiquated preoccupations of bourgeous, middle-class morality.
So you don't need God in your life? Here's the ultimate destination. Some Twilight Zone-worthy dark place, where we can almost hear Rod Serling intoning the final phrases of some long-lost episode -- There he is, Woody Allen, the ultimate modern Faustian character, wandering in a meaningless universe of his own creation, sentenced to an eternity of hell in his own refusal to recognize even one iota of something of meaning that exists outside his own pitiful self-regard.
Not one other person enters the picture here. After ten years of marriage to his step-daughter, there is no regard for her feelings as he endlessly opines about how the one thing he missed out on was the groupie experience. How he misses ogling girls in the street in short skirts. How he misses, in short, being able to be a dirty old man and a lecher one more time, because, sadly, time has caught up with him, and even his vaunted intellect is no longer enough to ward off a case of the heebie-jeebies on the part of a prospective date. After having a number of children, both adopted and natural, the joys of fatherhood seem to have eluded him. Indeed, he's so urbane and sophisticated that he has bored even himself, much less his audience. Even his film-making seems to have had little other purpose than to provide him with the perks, the money, the access to women, etc. Gosh, you mean it wasn't all about ART? And in perhaps the most fittingly ironic statement, he admits to feeling excluded from the in-crowd at a Playboy mansion party. Is this what it all boils down to? What's it all about, Woody? Playboy - that perfect symbol of the emptiness of the hedonistic modern lifestyle, bereft of responsibility, bereft of meaning, bereft of love. How fitting.
Well, what's the point? As Dostoevsky once said -- without God, anything is permissible. And he might have added, without God -- that is without love -- life ultimately has no meaning. Look no further than Woody Allen, pathetic loser.
Cloud In the Silver Lining
Woody Allen is saying goodbye with the same wan handshake he used for hello 30 minutes ago. "I hope I haven't depressed you," he says apologetically.
The 70-year-old writer and director has been musing about life, sex, work, death and his generally futile search for hope, and frankly, mere depression hardly seems like the right response. Flat-out terror is what is called for here.
Yes, the world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.
"You do the best you can within the concentration camp," he says, cutting straight to the life-as-Auschwitz metaphor. "It's very hard to keep your spirits up. You've got to keep selling yourself a bill of goods, and some people are better at lying to themselves than others. If you face reality too much, it kills you."
What'd you expect, a pep talk?
You thought a sit-down with Woody Allen would cheer you up? He is not the anxious, gesticulating quipster he's played in so many of his movies, a man who bundles his despair with a batch of winning one-liners, a bit of vaudeville by way of Camus. There is little shtick about the real-life Woody Allen, who says that outside of his work, he is rarely funny.
Instead, he is chatty, rueful and, though he seems vaguely uncomfortable with the setting -- an empty reception room at the Mark Hotel, where he is gabbing his way through an afternoon of interviews -- he is almost evangelically passionate about a few subjects. None more so than the chilling emptiness of life.
"It's just an awful thing," he says, shrugging a little, "and in that context you've got to find an answer to the question: Why go on?"
For Allen, the point isn't really popularity or immortality. The point is therapy. For months at a time, the craft of moviemaking submerges him in the highly diverting business of writing a script, casting actors, picking out costumes and creating a realm over which he has total control. It turns the mind away from the gloom. It's also a pretty sweet lifestyle.
"I never wanted movies to be an end. I wanted them to be a means so that I could have a decent life -- meet attractive women, go out on dates, live decently. Not opulently, but with some security. I feel the same way now. A guy like Spielberg will go live in the desert to make a movie, or Scorsese will make a picture in India and set up camp and live there for four months. I mean, for me, if I'm not shooting in my neighborhood, it's annoying. I have no commitment to my work in that sense. No dedication."
You'd need a good shrink or two to explain how someone so prolific -- he's also written lots of comic pieces for the New Yorker, plus the occasional play -- could consider himself a slacker. But he isn't kidding.
"Look, it takes a couple of months to write a script. This isn't 'Finnegans Wake,' " he says. "I pull it out of the typewriter, bring it in, three days later I have a budget. Then we do pre-production, which is about 10 weeks. I mean, I'm not doing a $100 million budget. I'm working with $15 million or so. I shoot for about 10 weeks maximum."
[...]He dislikes looking back, if only because his life seems wispy to him in hindsight and death is a punch line that turns the past and present into cruel farce.
"It's like the two trains at the beginning of my movie 'Stardust Memories,' " he says. "There's a train with these gorgeous winners on it, and a train with all the losers in it. You want to be on the train with the winners, but five minutes later, you're pulling into the same depot. My 70-plus years will be spent better than those of a beggar on the streets of Calcutta. But we'll wind up in the same place."
No consolation. Not religion, not drugs. There isn't even the pleasure of gaining wisdom.
"There's an upside to going from 19 to 25 because you stop making the Three Stooges mistakes you make when you're a teenager," he says. "But once you get up in years, like seventies, there's nothing good about it. The dynamite women you see on the street, that world is gone to you.
"You know, it's inappropriate," he mutters, as though he's about to think better of discussing this. "One of the great pastimes of my life was eyeing girls in short skirts, and that's gone. They're unavailable to you, and in the few cases where you could work your magic, it's to no practical avail because you can't plan a future if you're 70 and she's 22. So your flirtation life goes, which is a big part of everybody's enjoyment in life."
But how about this? Thanks to Woody Allen, a couple of generations of nebbishy non-jocks were able to get dates. He created the archetype of the nerd who lands the babe. Can he look back on that achievement with some joy?
"No. Because I was always the guy struggling on the outside to get in. I remember being in Chicago and I was invited to the Playboy mansion. This was a long time ago. And this bevy of beautiful girls was there and I couldn't get to first base with any of them. And this guy I was with said, 'They only talk to me because I'm with you. I can go to bed with them because I'm with you.' And I am me! And I'm not in bed with any of them."
He isn't knocking his past girlfriends, and no disrespect to his wife, whom he has often called the best thing that ever happened to his romantic life. It's just that he missed out on the whole groupie experience. And like a lot of things, it leaves him feeling cheated.
"For me, being famous didn't help me that much. It helped a little. Warren Beatty once said to me many years ago, being a star is like being in a whorehouse with a credit card, and I never found that. For me, it was like being in a whorehouse with a credit card that had expired."