Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Woody Allen the Subversive

Tibor R. Machan

By now there are actually books about Woody Allen’s philosophical ideas—for example, by my former colleague Professor Aeon Skoble. (Indeed, you might find interesting his single author and edited books about Seinfeld and even The Simpsons.) This isn’t all that surprising to those of us who are fans of Allen, albeit sometimes disappointed ones. His work does often contain fascinating themes, among which the most recent one, explored in his well received movie Match Point, is the phenomenon of luck.

Unfortunately Allen drives home the point so obviously and with so little subtlety that there is nothing much to figure out—it’s just the point he makes, with rather little art to show in the process. Moreover, Match Point is little more than a relocated version of his earlier disturbing original film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which a murderer gets away, in a fashion, with his crime. (Or does he?) Match Point, however, wraps this story in the larger and constantly reiterated theme that life hinges primarily on luck—from the first to the last scene the idea is not only illustrated but driven home by several characters—as when it is noted of a newborn baby that of all things luck is what we must have most of in life.

Not only does Allen drive this point home relentlessly in this fictional fare but in a rare TV interview he gave several years ago, one in which he belittled himself and his works repeatedly and in a very serious tone, the same point was repeated over and over again. Allen said he considers himself simply lucky, as far as his career in the movies is concerned, dismissing suggestions that he has artistic talent as either a writer or director, not to mention actor.

Mind you, he may well be right about all of this as far as his own career is concerned. I am no Allen biographer, nor have I studied his accomplishments professionally, so I am not qualified to assess whether he is right about how much luck had to do with it all. I am merely an oft-satisfied member of his audience. But as I listened to the interview, it was my distinct impression that Allen was putting us on albeit in an earnest enough tone. Moreover, he seemed to do it not for any particular reason but merely because he was in a foul mood.

Yet never mind that. What is noteworthy is that he has been peddling the idea of the allegedly all-pervasive impact of luck on all our lives, indeed on everything that happens in human affairs. And this is quite subversive since though it may be true in some cases, it isn’t in most. It doesn’t even seem true where Woody Allen’s career is concerned. He is certainly a diligent worker, disciplined enough to make numerous pretty entertaining movies—write them, act in them, direct them, probably market them as well—and he contributes significantly to some other art forms. He is a regular performer in a Manhattan based Dixieland band in which he plays the clarinet, and his choice of music for his movies’ soundtracks is probably one of his most memorable feats, giving clear evidence of his own full an unwavering appreciation of the work of other artists, none of whom appears to have relied mainly on luck in their own artistic achievements but worked very hard to make the music that has delighted millions over many decades.

So then why does Allen preach this garbage about how luck is all pervasive, all determining in human affairs? Beats me—he is, of course, a comic, has admired all types of comics, and so it is probably best to see his championing of luck as an element of his comedy. Unfortunately, some might take it farther because Allen is pretty good at pressing his point and did so recently in one of his serious works.

I am writing these lines while flying across the country in a jet and all I can say that whether we arrive safely better be more than a matter of luck. Not that luck isn’t some of it but all the work and care, all the close attention to what makes up such a trip, surely have a lot more to do with whether we will make it than mere luck. (And if you are interested in a philosophically serious but very readable discussion of luck, you could do much worse than read the short treatise Luck by Professor Nicholas Rescher. He, at least, isn’t just kidding when he thinks through the topic in his characteristically careful way.)

But there is another matter worth considering--Woody's subversive idea about how it's all about luck is just what the Left likes to propagate about how economic success has nothing to do with achievement, with accomplishment, with virtue, with hard work--I's all just an accident. Bunk.

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