Woody Allen is still searching for the meaning of Life.
Woody Allen is one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, turning in one or two movies, year in and year out, since 1969. He has been nominated for 15 Academy awards for his acting, writing and directing, winning for both best screenplay and director in 1978 for Annie Hall, and best screenplay in 1987 for Hanna and her Sisters.
The 75-year-old filmmaker strides purposefully into the room in Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, a khaki jacket hangs on his shoulders, thick glasses cover his eyes and a nervous smile painted on his face. He looks unassumingly tame but when he talks, a fire of profound wisdom, occasionally coloured with convivial banter, gushes out of him.
His films invariably dwell on the absurdity of existence and the inevitable mortality, youth and old age, marital angst and infidelities, crime and romance, science and religion. But after all these years of trying to unravel the intricate complexities of life and the psychology of those who inhabit it, Allen is still struggling with the same questions that he was asking when he began writing at the age of 16.
“We still have the same questions that were asked by the Greek playwrights thousands of years ago, and by Shakespeare and Chekov and nobody seems to make any progress with them,” he says. “It’s hard for us to get comfortable that we want things explained to us, and things are explained more and more, and we learn more things, but there is something about human existence that’s incomprehensible.”
“Life itself is a very unsatisfying, unresolved issue. Everybody goes through life trying to find the meaning of it, trying to find some kind of great love, some great ambitions. When you finally die, you haven’t really learned any great answers or any great meaning of any of your questions.”
Some of those existential dilemmas were battled with by the characters in Allen’s new movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. In the film, aging Alfie leaves his wife, Helena, to pursue his lost youth with a free spirited call girl named Charmain. Consequently, Helena abandons rationality and surrenders her life to the loopy advice of a fortune-teller. In the meantime, their daughter, a bored housewife, develops a crush on an art gallery owner, while her husband, suffering from writer’s block, becomes moonstruck over a mystery woman.
“I think my film shows a group of characters running around in frantic pursuit of some way of dealing with the troubles that life offers, all the sadness and the terrors. There’s a lot of noise and people doing foolish things and hurt other people and get hurt themselves, and in the end the next generation comes along and all the people that are on the face of the earth now are gone, and it’s a fresh generation of people so it goes toward no apparent end,” Allen says.
Allen suggests that we waste our lives brooding over the brevity of life and our mortality instead of just accepting it. There is a tall dark stranger waiting for us, but unfortunately not the kind we want to meet.
“We can’t go round thinking that, because you’ll learn you have to live as though life is not a little temporary thing, and that you will not meet a tall dark stranger, but that you will just go on in perpetuity, and some day you’ll be surprised that it’s not that way, but until that time it’s best not to think of it and to the degree that you can push it out of your mind.”
People who can accept death as part of life, and are not terrified by it, amaze Allen. “These people are either religious, which is a gift that they have, or they have some kind of personal resources that I don’t have, and I will never have, I guess,” he quips.
Indeed, Allen doesn’t much believe in God or any spiritual practices. He is so scientific minded that he even denigrates alternative medicine. “I feel what little progress one can point to in human existence really comes from science,” he stresses. “It’s unglamorous, and it doesn’t solve all the problems and it’s disappointing at times, but it’s the best we have. When you are sick, you should go to a doctor to cut out the tumour rather than take some kind of odd herbal thing you put on and hope for the best,” he laughs.
In the movie, Helena seeks the wisdom of a fortune-teller in her quest in finding a meaning of her life. Allen believes that Helena’s action stems from a weakness of her mind. He is actually surprised by people, like Helena, who put their faith in such “a ridiculous thing” and guide their decision by it, but nonetheless, he understands it.
“If it works for them, it’s no different than my parents, who are moderately religious Jewish people, and they put their faith in all that. Some people put it in fortune-telling, Catholicism, Judaism. As long as you have something, it seemed to me that it was better than nothing, even if you were deluded about it, and I feel all these people are deluded, but if it makes your life better, then why not?” he laughs.
Allen’s solution to overcoming the tormenting thoughts of his pointless existence and mortality is distractions. “If I sit home, and I think about it all the time, I get terrified and anxious and upset, but if I distract myself, if I work a lot, if I go to the movies or if I watch the tennis match or if I watch the baseball game… this helps me to get through life,” he enthuses.
However, Allen couldn’t escape the social and political troubles that beset his city, New York. He is disgusted by the “brainless bigots” who are rallying against building a mosque in downtown New York. He believes that only the people, who have lost loved-ones in September 11, are entitled to make their case in this matter.
“I’d argue with them that to build this mosque downtown, which I’m completely in favour of, would go a certain amount toward seeing that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. It’s a positive step toward bringing people together and to not allow it is a step in the other direction. It’s a polarising step. It seems to me a clear-cut issue that this mosque should be built.”
In spite of being religiously scientific, Woody Allen admits that he is a surreptitious guy, who insists on slicing a banana in 7 pieces on his cereal. “You know I could cut it in 6 or 8, but I have nothing to lose by cutting it in 7 and that takes the possibility that it’s a 7 because there is so much of the world that we don’t understand. So who knows that by me bringing my hand down here, I am not creating a little breeze that in some way affects something somewhere else – everything is so interdependent. Therefore, I cut the banana in 7 slices because things have been going well, and I see no reason to mess with good things,” he laughs.
Neurosis aside, Woody Allen, unlike the characters in “You will meet a tall dark stranger”, feels that he is a lucky man thanks to his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, who is 34 years younger than him.
“I’ve had my share of misfires over the years like everyone else, but I did get lucky with my wife, and if you had told me when I was young that I would be happily married now for years with two kids, to a woman much younger than me who was Asian, I would have said you’re crazy, because I thought I am going to get married to some actress or some director or choreographer or someone in my business, and someone more age appropriate for me; something more logical or natural. This thing occurred and it’s worked out very well.”
If Woody Allen, the legendry pessimist, has met his tall dark stranger, then there is hope for us all.