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Seeking Life’s Purpose With Woody Allen

August 4, 2014

By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor

Woody Allen met with members of the press, including the Pioneer, on July 17 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The week before the release of his new film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” he, along with actors Colin Firth, and Jacki Weaver, frankly discussed how his religious beliefs have trickled into his writing, and the role of the artist in society.

Photo of Woody Allen, Jacki Weaver and Colin Firth by Pete Barell
Photo of Woody Allen, Jacki Weaver and Colin Firth by Pete Barell

It is widely known that Allen is an atheist. His films, with their existentially nauseated nerve-ball characters (think Alvy Singer from 1977’s “Annie Hall”), sprinkle metaphysical life questions into casual conversation. What happens when we die? Will we have any real legacy? Does Death have a sense of humor? How long is it until the sun explodes? In a Woody Allen film, all of these questions may be asked in an offhanded, fastidious succession — on a city street, or even the bedroom.

The writer/director has often laced macabre notions with comedy. His latest film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” (released on July 25) is a romantic-comedy that challenges religion up front, nestled within an array of humorous, fast-moving dialogue. In the film, the snobbish stage-magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) seeks to disprove the clairvoyant abilities of a young American spiritualist named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) on the 1920’s French Riviera. Stanley is a man who firmly lives by logic. Sophie just may defy logic.

“Colin’s character wants nothing more than to be wrong,” said Allen. “He wants to find out that there is more to life, and that [Sophie] is right that there are unknown, magical, and amazing things [in the world]. As soon as he sees that there may be more to life, he sees purpose, underlying meaning; it changes him completely. He smells the flowers and loves everything. His life has changed.”

Firth’s character lives rigidly in a technical, empirical manner — what he sees is what he gets. To him, any illusion, like his own stage act, is purely a spectacle that can be broken down, figured out and debunked. When Sophie provides “mental impressions” of personal family information she couldn’t possibly know, Stanley develops a new, albeit wary, hope for an afterlife.

Perhaps Allen truly wants to believe in something greater as well, but has not been thrown a wild card such as Sophie. He is a man of logic, just like Stanley. He must construct his own magic. “Magic in the Moonlight” is not his first film to involve the otherworldly– “Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) saw a man walk out of a film into real life, and “Midnight in Paris” (2011) incorporated time-travel fantasy. At a young age, inspired by Harry Houdini, Allen studied and performed tricks.

“I’ve been escaping my whole life,” he explained. “Ever since I was a little child, I’ve been escaping to the movies on the other side, as an audience member. I’d sit in the movies all day long. When I got older, I escaped into the world of unreality by making movies. I prefer the magic to reality and have since I was five years old. Hopefully I can continue to make films and constantly escape into them.”

The 78-year-old filmmaker believes that life, in the end, is meaningless. To deal with that void, he turns to distraction. “I’m not alone in thinking this,” he said. “There have been many great minds, far, far superior to mine, that have come to that conclusion. And unless somebody can come up with some proof or some example where it’s not, I think it is. I think it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and that’s just the way I feel about it.”

“Magic in the Moonlight” contains references to philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, famous for his atheism and embrace of the physical world over the idea of an afterlife. It is no surprise that Allen’s philosophical curiosities have trickled into his writing, as he is considered one of the premier auteur (distinct voice) filmmakers in cinema and has been doing so for decades.

But where does the artist fit into Allen’s world? At first, he expressed a somewhat depressive view , again citing logic and science — eventually the universe will come apart, and human achievement will be utterly gone. “All the great works of Shakespeare and Beethoven and Da Vinci, all that will be gone,” he explained. “There will be nothing, absolutely nothing: no time, no space, nothing at all. Just zero.”

The journalists chuckled here and there, as Allen shredded apart the meaning of life before lunchtime. Yet, there was an ultimate, positive message embedded in his words: that artists are here to help, at least in the present. They are here make life less drab, with their pretty pictures, musical notes and language.

“I think it’s the artist’s job to try and find some solution or reason to accept things,” said Allen, who found an anecdote to further explain, about two types of filmmakers existing. “One makes films that are deep, intellectual, profound and confrontational. The other makes purely vacuous escapist films. I’m not sure who makes the deeper contribution [to the world].”

“[Experiencing art] is like drinking a cold lemonade on a hot day,” he explained. “You’re refreshed. Then you walk out into the terrible heat, and you can take it for a few hours more. That is the only thing I can think of the artist doing. The artist cannot give you a satisfying answer to the dreadful reality of human existence. So, the best you can do is maybe entertain people, and refresh them for an hour and a half. Then they can go on and meet the onslaught, [until] somebody else picks them up again.”

Allen believes that the artist is here to distract, to provide that escapism he has been welcoming his whole life. They provide the magic, even if it is an illusion. And with a filmography that stretches over nearly fifty years, he is has proven a supreme distractor — even if only for a short while, as we gaze up at the big screen.

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