Is life meaningful?  According to director Woody Allen’s theme in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, the answer is a resounding, almost in your face, mocking “NO!!”  Life is not only pointless it is actually absurd– something to survive in any way possible.  In order for meaning to exist, God must exist.  If there is actually no meaning, no God to make a difference between good and evil, to reward good and punish evil, then the definition of crimes and misdemeanors, of morality itself, is merely a human construct based solely upon expediency.  In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen brings to the screen a group of characters whose lives and philosophies intersect to illustrate the nihilistic, anti-God worldview in all its bleak despair, cynicism, absurdity and moral relativism.

The movie parallels the lives of two men.  Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a successful ophthalmologist with a seemingly perfect life, full of family and public honor.  Unfortunately Judah ensnares himself in a Fatal Attraction type of affair.  The other main character is the cynical, struggling, documentary filmmaker, Clifford Stern (Woody Allen himself).  Unable to earn enough money with his own “serious” work to finish his current project, a documentary on the philosophy professor Louis Levy, Clifford is forced to stoop to the distasteful task of making a flattering documentary of his egotistical brother-in-law, who is a highly successful sitcom producer.  Judah’s story is told in a very serious tone through the use of highly dramatic lighting and set to a soundtrack of brooding classical music. Conversely, the story line involving Clifford is somewhat light hearted and comical, sporting jazz music and clips of old black and white movies.  However the same question as to the existence of an ultimate moral standard hovers over both scenarios.  The different dilemmas which the characters confront are typical of Western culture and easy for an American audience to relate to.  How many of us have seen our neighbors or co-workers get away with something that we were called on? Not to mention the countless times that we have witnessed politicians and celebrities practically get away with murder with little or no consequences.

Allen’s take on the traditional moral perspective is presented mainly through three different characters, all of which are straw men in their own way.  The first is Clifford’s other brother-in-law, Ben, a Rabbi who is going blind. His progressive blindness is a commentary on Woody Allen’s opinion of religion.  Referring to the literal and figurative blindness of Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston) in Crimes, Allen says:

“Ben is the only one that gets through it, even if he doesn’t really understand the reality of life. One can argue that he understands it more deeply than the others. I don’t think he does myself. I think he understands it less, and that’s why I wanted to make him blind. I feel that his faith is blind. It will work, but it requires closing your eyes to reality.”[1]

Ben is a very sympathetic, but somewhat naïve character. In one scene we find Judah, Ben’s ophthalmologist, treating his eye condition. Judah, whose life is on the brink of falling apart, unburdens himself to Ben about his infidelity. Ben counsels Judah from his perspective of religious morality to confess his transgressions to his wife and seek forgiveness, but Judah is skeptical of that outcome.  In a later scene, Judah agonizes within himself on the “final solution” to the crisis of exposure and ruin he is facing from his unfortunate neurotic lover.  Judah is actually considering whether to authorize the murder of his lover, or to confess his sin to his wife.  As if to punctuate the angst in Judah’s tortured mind, a storm is unloading thunder and lightning in the background, as he walks into the scene lost in an imagined discussion with Ben, who plays the part of his conscience.  The only light source is from the fire burning in the fireplace and the occasional flash of lightning. It is interesting to note that in this conversation Ben is speaking the truth. Ben tells Judah that without a real moral structure (or law), all is darkness; that structure is the only thing that gives one a basis for how to live. This structure is in fact a real moral law, which means there must be a lawgiver, a God who sees everything and will provide ultimate justice. Allen has Judah dismiss Ben’s counsel by accusing Ben of living in the kingdom of heaven, not in the real world. Judah’s decision is finalized when he opts for moral expediency… “What good is the law if it prevents me from receiving justice?” And with that he makes the call that ends his lover’s life. In Judah’s “real world” justice begins and ends with himself.

Allen’s second perspective on traditional morality comes from Judah’s father, Sol (David S. Howard).  Sol raised Judah and his brother Jack in a very traditionally Jewish home. His mantra to Judah and his brother growing up was “God sees everything.”  However, this household was not without its share of questions and doubts as to the reality of a moral law.  Judah recalls these early conflicts on a visit to his childhood home. Wracked with the guilt of having his lover murdered, he seeks consolation from memories of his youth. The scene in Judah’s childhood home is preceded by a sequence of Judah driving through a dark tunnel and emerging out into the light at the end of the tunnel as if to indicate that something from his childhood will illuminate his present situation and allow him to emerge from the darkness of his guilt.

As Judah wanders through the rooms of his childhood home, he imagines he hears his father praying in the dining room, and he looks in to find his teenage self and his family sitting around the table for the Passover Seder.  His aunt May, impatient to get to the eating, makes a snide comment about Judah’s father wasting time with the nonsense of religious tradition thereby sparking off an argument about the existence of morality. May, who is very cynical and angry, says that there is no such thing as ultimate morality. Invoking the horrors of the Holocaust, millions of Jews dead with no ultimate consequences, May expresses her nihilistic philosophy that “might makes right”.  Someone at the table quips that Sol’s kind of faith is a gift; it is so strong that one can use logic on him all day, and it won’t make a difference, he will still believe. To which Sol replies, “Must everything be logical?”

In the middle of this remembered conversation, Judah, from the present, steps in from the doorway and asks what will happen if a man commits a crime; if he kills.  Sol responds that in one way or another he will be punished. Sol’s friend says that he will be punished only if he is caught. May interjects that if he can get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he is home free.  Sol responds by saying that his sister is brilliant but has lead a very unhappy life. Sol’s response to May represents a pattern in the entire scene, in which Sol resorts to insults or assertions rather than engaging with the arguments.  One is left with the impression that religion does not have good answers. This impression further reinforces the false idea promoted by Allen that logic is not part of faith in God. Faith in God, according to Allen, is necessarily “blind” faith; recall Rabbi Ben. Sol’s friend asks him, “What if all your faith is wrong, what then?” To which Sol replies that he will still lead a happier life than those who doubt. His sister is flabbergasted and asks if Sol prefers God to the truth.  Sol replies that, if necessary, he will always choose God over the truth. It is often stated by many an atheist that the definition of faith is believing in something that you know is not true.  This is obviously what Allen’s opinion is. What Allen has done here is kind of disingenuous. He has equated the ability to know that there is a real right and wrong with faith and thereby sets up a false dichotomy.  He has made the situation an either/or, either faith (and by extension morality), or logic and reason (and by extension amorality). By repeatedly setting up faith in opposition to logic, morality becomes merely a human construct that is in essence illusory, a crutch for those who are too weak to face reality.

Allen brings his God-defaming, morally expedient worldview home through another perspective of morality presented in the character of Professor Levy, the subject of Clifford’s “serious” documentary.  Levy has no family. He also apparently survived the Holocaust, and yet on the surface seemed to maintain a positive view of life. Our first encounter with Levy is from a clip of one of Clifford’s interviews shown to his love interest, Halley Reid (Mia Farrow), a PBS producer.   Here we see another of Allen’s skewed presentations of morality. In the interview Levy expounds the early Israelite’s conception of God. Levy thought it was unique that the Israelites were able to come up with a concept of a God who cared but also demanded that one behave morally, as if loving someone and demanding good behavior were incompatible. Allen has Levy call God’s integrity into question with the example of Abraham’s sacrifice of his only, uniquely born son, Isaac.  Levy claims that “despite millennia of effort, man has not managed to create an entirely loving image of God” a conclusion which entirely misses the wonderful loving image of God in this story Who tries and strengthens Abraham’s faith and ultimately provides Himself a sacrifice for sin. This is Allen’s devious way of dismissing God as merely a construct of man’s mind.  And, we are back to the same story, second, third, fourth verse…the morality that flows from such a finite human construct is fatally flawed. And it is!!

Allen is careful to state through dialogue between Halley and Clifford, that Levy maintains a “positive” view of life by self-ascribing value to humans through emotional love. This is Allen’s way of perpetrating an illusion that will help one through the long dark night of existence in a miserable, meaningless, cruel and indifferent universe. Toward the end of the movie, we discover that Levy commits suicide, reinforcing Allen’s idea that love and morality are human constructs which are unable to sustain the crushing weight of meaninglessness.

In the nihilistic wasteland, “might makes right”. Those with the power get to dictate their own morals. All else is blind faith and wish fulfillment presented by the religion of Ben and Sol, or futility in the face of an indifferent universe represented by the suicide of professor Levy. Allen wants to leave the impression that he is being fair to both sides of the argument by giving the viewpoint of morality to the sympathetic characters. However, those characters are straw men manufactured to bolster his worldview.  Allen uses logic as a two-edged sword to dismember the weakly crafted opponents of his worldview, but fails to see that the sword cuts both ways.  Sure he can decimate his straw men. Their positions were not defensible in the first place. Indeed, Allen fails to apply the same logic to his own position, thus striking off the legs of his argument.

By placing reason and logic in opposition to moral truths, Allen posits that it is unreasonable to claim the existence of a real right and wrong. Yet this in itself is a truth claim. It is interesting to note that the moral perspective in this movie is very specifically Jewish, which makes righteousness dependent on law keeping.  In this context forgiveness does not make sense. For those who break the law, like Judah, and who have no Christ on the Cross to provide the remedy for God’s broken law, there is ultimately no way to salve the raging conscience, no way to find peace with God.  The only recourse left to try to escape the crippling guilt, is to redefine the law, and go about establishing self-defined righteousness. As Allen himself states in the documentary, Woody Allen: A Life in Film, one of the central messages of Crimes is that: “there’s no God, and that we’re alone in the universe, and that there is nobody out there to punish you . . .”

Despite the flawed and skewed worldview depicted in this movie I still think it a valuable film to watch.  Like most of Allen’s films it is witty and engaging, definitely a thinking person’s film.  The acting by the star-studded cast is magnificent, and the elements of the filmmaking such as lighting and score make the film a delight to watch.  Allen is certainly a master at his craft. Aside from that, the film asks the right questions. It can be a very profitable conversation starter between Christians and non-Christians.  Additionally for the Christian apologist, this film offers an excellent opportunity to dissect and evaluate a worldview that is common in our Western culture today, and to be better prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

[1] Stig Bjorkman, Woody Allen on Woody Allen, (Faber and Faber, 1994), 224-225.