Woody Allen Points Me to C. S. Lewis
Forty years ago I watched a lot of Woody Allen movies (Bananas, Sleeper, Take the Money and Run and others) and enjoyed their zaniness. I resonated with their not-so-subtle statements about life’s absurdity. Rather artfully, Woody articulated through film that belief in a god, the supernatural, or any other overarching metanarrative that points to meaning or purpose is ridiculous.
But something inside me nagged at the emptiness these films surfaced. After the closing credits quit, the residual laughter diminished with each passing movie.
And then Woody turned dark. You can only laugh at meaninglessness for so long. Along came his Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanors and other films that left a terrible nihilistic taste in my mouth. I had to take a break from watching his movies because the despair was palpable – on the screen and in my heart.
Years later, Allen arrived at a dramatically different conclusion about life in Hannah and Her Sisters. The movie shrugged its shoulders about all the Nietzschean insistence of meaninglessness and suggested that even if there is no ultimate meaning, you can still enjoy life by watching a Marx Brothers’ movie or falling in love.
Thus, romantic love became the promoted, celebrated, worshipped salvation in many of his movies (even if done so with a Woody Allen smirk). But something still seemed incomplete or disappointing or inadequate. And the films became increasingly crude, paralleling some envelope-pushing immorality in Allen’s personal life. Again, I had to take a break.
Somewhere in this on-again-off-again film viewing process, I started reading C. S. Lewis, particularly his Mere Christianity. He also spoke of moments of disappointment in the chapter on hope. But he turned the problem on its head. Instead of seeing events like falling in love or visiting a foreign country or taking up a new exciting subject as setups for despair, he saw them as pointers to “a different world.” “Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it,” Lewis wrote of our deepest desire, “but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
Two recent Woody Allen films revisited pointers to another world, although Allen still insists there is no “there” out there. In Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender, a novelist who writes about nostalgia has an “epiphany” (the word chosen by Allen for his script!) about the disappointment with the present. “That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying….The belief that I would be happier in the past is an illusion I need to get rid of if I’m going to live a life of meaning.”
So close and yet so far! How much more complete is Lewis’ reflection about unsatisfying experiences. In The Weight of Glory, he also spoke of nostalgia, saying it was “our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off.” It is “no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” In his Surprised by Joy, he defines joy, “the central story of my life” as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
Woody Allen’s most recent film, Magic in the Moonlight, again tries to say what he posited much more artfully in Hannah and Her Sisters, that romance could offer some sense of temporal meaning to life even if there is no ultimate, eternal meaning. But both that message and the movie let us down. And in a disturbing way that several movie critics are quick point out, one has to wonder if Woody Allen is making movies about older, atheist, cynical men falling in love with beautiful younger (much younger!) women to justify his actions off the screen.
When people “suppress the truth,” immorality of one form or another inevitably follows, as Romans 1 so graphically states. But when we respond to pointers by asking where they point, it can lead us to joy, hope, and eternal life. As Lewis so delightfully put it, “the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
May we find ways to point our friends who are disappointed by Woody Allen movies (and other works of art with a hollow center) to another writer who pointed us to hope, joy, and the God who satisfies.