“There’s an old joke, um, two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know. And such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” So begins the famous monologue at the beginning of Woody Allen’s best-known work, Annie Hall.
The emptiness of life and its inevitable end are the subjects Allen returns to with the greatest frequency (or perhaps second most after his prowess in the realm of self-pleasure). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Allen does not have a casual relationship with death; his milieu rarely allows for a mafia bloodbath or an animatronic monster rampage. Allen addresses death and his fear of dying in nearly all of his films, but his opinions shift and waver over the course of his filmography—as is to be expected during a filmmaking career spanning six decades.
Within the opening minutes of Love and Death, Allen’s 1975 homage to and parody of classic Russian literature, Allen’s Boris and Diane Keaton’s Sonja have the discussion that Allen inserts, one way or another, into nearly all his films:
Boris: Sonja, what if there is no God?
Sonja: Boris Dimitrovich, are you joking?
Boris: What if we’re just a bunch of absurd people who are running around with no rhyme or reason?
Sonja: But if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not commit suicide?
Boris: Well, let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then see they found something.
This bit of dialogue is ensconced in an otherwise broad comedy, so its philosophical weight is much softer than it will be in later films, but it marks Allen’s early, less involved meditation on death. He ends the movie at peace with both his death and his agnosticism, as he jokes, “After all, you know, there are worse things in life than death. If you’ve ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know exactly what I mean. The key here, I think, is to not think of death as an end, but think of it more as a very effective way of cutting down on your expenses.”
In 1979’s Manhattan, Allen introduces another common refrain: the reasons to live. Despite the “unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe,” Allen’s writer character Isaac Davis ends the film with the realization that the things he loves—Willie Mays, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and so on—make life worthwhile. What follows can best be described as the ending Nora Ephron stole for When Harry Met Sally….
Stardust Memories, which immediately followed Manhattan in 1980, represents perhaps Allen’s most doubtful position on the subject. Allen opens his deliciously Byzantine homage to Federico Fellini’s 8½ with two trains running parallel in the same direction. As he straddles twin inspirations in Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, Allen’s trains represent the two paths he can follow in life; he is stuck on the train full of sad, angry, bitter unattractive people but desperately wants to escape to the other train, which carries fun, laughter and a young Sharon Stone. Tragically for Allen, he is intellectually incapable of letting himself enjoy life despite his knowledge that both trains end up in the same place. In the film within the film, Allen’s Sandy Bates ends his film similarly to how he ends Manhattan. In short, he is in love with love. The brief moments of perfection outweigh the self-doubt and horrors of the world. He accepts that his contribution of humor is worthwhile despite his inclination to address social problems. However, in the frame story, he is not as positive. The actual film ends with an elderly couple befuddled and disappointed by his film and an empty movie theater. Allen suggests that he doesn’t think entertainment alone is enough.
The beauty in making a movie every year is that you can change your mind. Allen does just this is in both The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Shadows and Fog (1991). In the former, Mia Farrow plays a frequently abused housewife in Depression-era New Jersey who finds solace and escape in the romantic comedies shown at the local movie theater. In Shadows and Fog, Allen’s absurd homage to Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, the film closes schmaltzily in a traveling circus’ big top with the suggestion that everybody loves the magician’s illusions. Indeed, the magician says “they need them like they need the air.” In both instances, Allen relents on his self-loathing position enough to acknowledge the value of his craft.
Allen revisits the Manhattan sentiment in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) when his character Mickey attempts suicide. When the imaginary invalid Mickey survives a cancer scare, he is struck with the knowledge that everything is meaningless because everyone will eventually die. This sends him on a religious quest in which he comically attempts a conversion to Catholicism that involves Wonder bread and mayonnaise. It suffices to say that Mickey fails to find god, and this is why he attempts to kill himself. (“You know, I felt that in a godless universe, I didn’t want to go on living.”) In this instance, he is unable to accept the possibility of the existence of God as he was in Love and Death. Thanks to some well-timed perspiration, Mickey’s attempt fails, and he wanders the streets of Manhattan aimlessly until he stumbles upon a screening of the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup. It is here that Mickey has his Manhattan epiphany:
“And I started to feel how can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn’t it so stupid? I mean, look at all the people up there on the screen. You know, they’re real funny, and, and what if the worst is true? What if there’s no God, and you only go around once, and that’s it. Don’t you want to be part of the experience? You know, what the hell, it’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, geez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.”
Allen’s realization that he’ll never have the answer marks a major shift in his discussion of death over much of the rest of his career.
In both Another Woman (1988) and Alice (1990), Allen shifts his obsession from death to life. He accepts that knowledge of any afterlife is as yet unknowable, and that impacts his philosophy. As a result, the paths Gena Rowlands and Mia Farrow travel in Another Woman and Alice, respectively, represent a decision to run toward happiness and away from unhappiness. Neither rank among Allen’s finest works, but they are interesting in that they (among others) mark a turning point in his career.
The decision to live manifests itself in Allen’s most recent critical darling, Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson’s Gil, who plays the best Allen surrogate in many years, doesn’t concern himself with death at all. He, like the title character in Alice, wants to extract value from his previously shallow life. He is still neurotic, and he has all of Allen’s tics and prejudices, but he does not concern himself with his own demise.
Allen closes Annie Hall with a joke about relationships that can also be applied to his evolving view on living life: “I thought of that old joke, ya know, the, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; ya know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and, but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”