My meeting with Woody Allen at a hotel room during the last Cannes Film Festival wasn’t the first time I’d met or interviewed the renowned American actor, writer and director. But it was the first time I had the chance to sit across from him all by myself.
Not only did being alone with Allen afford me an opportunity to talk to him continuously, but also the tone of our meeting was totally different than the usual press conferences. When I later listened to the recording of our conversation I was surprised at how dark his remarks were. Allen told me that he sees himself as a lucky man, but that characterization was shrouded in a view of life as meaningless. Tragic, even.
“Is your outlook getting more pessimistic as the years go by?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. I think I was always pessimistic,” he answered.
Could his outlook on life play a part in the flaws in his work and my long-standing ambivalence about his films? On the one hand I have great admiration for the cinematic path he’s been on, and among Allen’s works are some films that I love. It’s true that every Woody Allen film, even the ones I don’t like, has at least a few brilliant scenes. But there is something in his films that makes me shy away, and for that reason, I’ve never included him on my list of favorite directors.
During our conversation I tried to touch on a few points that make me feel this way about him and his films. The 79-year-old Allen, whose presence in a one-on-one meeting is incredibly sympathetic, cooperated generously. The official reason for the interview was his new film, “Irrational Man,” which was screened at Cannes outside of the official competition (Allen opposes any kind of film competitions). The film received much praise from critics, yet to some extent its strengths and weaknesses reflect what I find to be problematic in all of Allen’s works.
The perfect crime
The protagonist in Allen’s new film is Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a philosophy professor in the midst of an existential crisis. He travels to teach a summer course in New England, where he develops a bond with Jill (Emma Stone), one of his students. Abe is searching for meaning in his life, and he finds it when he happens upon the opportunity to commit the perfect crime – a crime in which there is no way he can be implicated because he has no motivation to carry it out, aside from the will to revive his depressing life. That’s all I’ll reveal. Critics have always broken down Allen’s films into two categories: comedies, and serious films. From the responses it got at Cannes, “Irrational Man” belongs to the latter category.
Allen says he identifies with this view. “When I started making films I wanted to make very serious films, because the artists who were most meaningful to me were [Ingmar] Bergman, and Eugene O’Neill, and Tenessee Williams, and I wanted to make those kinds of films. I was known as a comedian, and so all I could make were comedy films, and so when I finally made a serious film [“Interiors” in 1978] people were very surprised. My lighter work comes easier to me. And because it comes easier, my guess is that I attach less personal value to it.”
I told Allen that I had difficulty categorizing his latest film as either a comedy or a drama, and for that reason I also had a hard time defining his relationship to the protagonist, who has something slightly ridiculous about him.
“Or silly about him,” Allen says. “The notion of a man deciding that he’s going to kill somebody, and that makes his whole life wonderful, there is a comic notion in that. But it’s not the kind of comic notion where the audience is sitting there laughing and laughing and laughing. But the absurdity of it has got a comic notion to it. No questions asked. And we knew that, when I made the film. I knew that that aspect of it is comic. But no, I never kidded myself that audiences would be laughing at it. I thought it would be a serious film, but when you step back and look at it in perspective, that’s why those existentialists felt that life was absurd. It was so terrifying and so painful and so meaningless that they said, ‘What is this? This is silly. You can laugh at it. It’s a joke.’ And I feel that way about the film, you can think to yourself, he’s gonna kill this guy, and that’s what suddenly makes a difference.”
Emotional distance, condescension
Allen’s answer doesn’t solve the problem I have with his relationship to his new film’s main character, but this is a problem I’ve always had with Allen’s films. I’ve never noticed empathy towards his protagonists, but rather a sense of emotional distance and condescension toward them.
“I don’t think you have to like your people to be fascinated by them,” he tells me. “I mean, you get interested in them, yes, and you don’t have to like them. I think liking them is one of those Hollywood things where you say if you change this script so I like the character more, we’ll produce it, but many of the characters that you love in fiction, you don’t like them, but they’re interesting, and I don’t feel the need to like characters. I feel the need only to be interested in them.”
What about identifying? Is it important for you that the viewers identify with your protagonist?
“Yes, I certainly [expect] that people will identify with a certain amount of what Joaquin is saying, even though Emma is the more natural character to identify with, because, you know, she’s a middle-class college student, a pretty college student, has a crush on a teacher. It’s not a big stretch.
“But I think people will understand Joaquin and think, ‘Yes, I know what you’re thinking: you wanna do good, you wanna change the world, you wanna make a contribution, but there’s so much bad coming at you from all sides, and it’s so frustrating and if only I could shake people and try to make them understand that the world could be a better place, not perfect by any means, but better. I think that they will identify with Joaquin, and his impulses to do that and his constant failure and think, ‘My God, I just wanna give up, I don’t care about life, it doesn’t work,’ and then that he gets something to live for, will resonate with people. That they will feel, well, yes if I had something to live for ...
“And it’s interesting this guy thinks that killing this judge is a meaningful act, and it is to him, and suddenly his life gets better. He can smell flowers, and taste wine, and like women, and his whole life he likes living because it’s important to have something, to believe in. And I’ve never been able to find anything to believe in and as an artist, what you want to do is give your audience some reason for living, some reason for coping with life, given how tragic it is. I’ve never been able to find that. I’ve always had a distraction, which I would think of as an aspirin or like a Band-Aid, I can put something on the screen that will dance, and you will forget that life is nothing. You forget for a while, but then the movie ends, and you walk back out and the sun is there and real life comes rushing up to you, waiting for you outside the cinema.”
This was the point in our conversation that I asked Allen if he’s gotten more pessimistic over time, and he said no.
“I think I was always pessimistic. I think if you look back through a laugh film, a joke film, like “Love and Death,” which is maybe my third or fourth film, you could see even in a joke, in a cartoon type of film, you could see the pessimism and the fact that it was dealing with death, and afterlife and meaninglessness. And existential choice, and as you go through all my films, that theme is there all the time.
“I’ve always been very pessimistic, I’ve always felt that life is a bad deal. It’s not a good deal, it’s a tragic thing. And that people try in every way to put some kind of good spin on it. You know, if the real thing really confronts you, it’s terrifying and awful, so people try to get out of it with religion, with art, with culture, and they try to get out of it in any way they can, to put a spin on it. The philosophers try to explain to you that life doesn’t end with death, that death is a part of life, don’t think of it as an end, or that you can choose yourself if life is meaningless or meaningful. And you can choose for it to be meaningful, if you want to make that choice. I don’t buy that. You can’t choose for it to be meaningful, you’re kidding yourself. It’s not meaningful.”
Does being an artist give meaning to your life?
“It distracts me. It keeps me caught up in artistic problems, an endless stream of artistic problems, so I don’t have to sit home and think about those problems which are unsolvable and terrifying. So, the art is a great distraction. I’m thinking about how I can get my second act to work, how can I make this character more credible or less likeable or more honest or how can I make this joke funnier. And this is what preoccupies, when I’m working, working, working, but when that work’s not there, its three o’clock in the morning ”
'Chance is terrifying'
Luck and chance play a serious role in your films’ plots, and in “Irrational Man,” as well. Why is that?
“Well I think people tend to undervalue chance because it’s terrifying. People like to say, I don’t believe in luck, I make my own luck. If you work hard you don’t need luck. People who depend on luck are weaklings and you make your own luck. But I don’t see it that way, I think you can only control things to a certain extent. And if you work hard, do your exercise, eat right, you will make a contribution, but in the end you’re very dependent on luck. You have to hope that you don’t suddenly get one of your cells misfiring in a way, or there’s a little spot on your lung, or somebody’s hoisting a piano on the street, or you know you’ve got to make sure that you’re lucky – and it’s out of your control. You can hope, but that’s all.“
But you describe yourself as lucky.
“I consider myself very lucky because I have been healthy for a good long time and I was able to save my life by a silly quirk of being able to write jokes. What could be more absurd. I was a bad student. I never read books. I was thrown out of school because I was a bad student, dropped out of college. My marks were bad. I didn’t know what to do. All my friends were going to college to be doctors and lawyers. I was going to do what my father did and become a waiter, a cab driver, a bartender, a million little jobs. I wasn’t suited for anything; I had no profession.
“But by some miracle, I could crack jokes. Nobody in my family wrote them out, not my father, my mother, not my grandparents, my uncles, nobody. And suddenly I could write jokes, and they’re good jokes. Not like somebody makes at a party, an amateur. They were good. And I could give them to people and they’d pay me. And they would tell them on television or the radio. And people would laugh and it saved my life. I was able to earn a living and get on television, and then I started telling the jokes myself and people were laughing. I was able to be in movies and then they let me make movies. And the whole thing was lucky.
“But if I couldn’t write jokes, if that silly little whatever it is that gives one person an ear for music – I don’t have a real ear for music. The people next to me in my band will hum a melody and they can play it right away just hearing it once. I can’t do that. But I can do jokes.”
'I've never been a Hollywood filmmaker'
Many people see your cinematic process and the way you work as an alternative to the way the American film industry does things. Do you identify with that?
“I think so, I mean, I don’t live in Hollywood. I don’t really make films in Hollywood, I don’t make my money from Hollywood, when I was a boy in my teens, I idolized Hollywood and those movies. I loved Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and all those films. And I thought, My God, wouldn’t it be great to live in Hollywood, but as soon as I got to be 20 years old and I saw films like Bergman and Fellini, I thought to myself, God, there’s a different world out there. So I’ve never been a Hollywood filmmaker. I’m not a member of the motion picture academy. I don’t go to the Academy Awards.”
Is there anything in American cinema today that gives you pleasure?
“Yes, there are some very talented filmmakers, some who work out of the system, some within the system. I mean the two guys who are [heading this year’s Cannes festival], Joel and Ethan Coen. Scorsese is a fabulous filmmaker of course. Paul Thomas Anderson is wonderful, these people are serious filmmakers who do their best to navigate around the studios and the money people and still make first-rate films. I don’t have their skill to navigate like that. So I make films for much less money and I raise it privately, and I don’t have to talk to anybody, to do what they do. But they’re very good at doing what they do so in the end they get the same freedom that I get, very cleverly and they get more money to make their films. I can’t do that. I haven’t got the patience. I would take less money and nobody bothers me, I have complete freedom.
Do you believe the industry should work the way you do?
“Yes, because there’s a lot of young talent out there, very gifted filmmakers, and they can’t get their movies on. And that’s the biggest stumbling block to the movies that there is. Getting a picture made is such an ordeal and there are very talented guys out there. Comedy guys, serious guys, and they work and they struggle and maybe they raise $500,000 or a million dollars, and they work under terrible conditions, and you can see they have a lot of talent, so it’s terrible. There should be many more filmmakers –and they’re there.”