Believing in absolutely nothing is harder than it looks. The ultra-skeptical Arcesilaus, head of the Platonic Academy in the third century b.c., tried his best: When confronted with the saying “I only know that I know nothing,” which was attributed to Socrates, he is supposed to have replied that claiming to know even that much was going a bit far. But Arcesilaus was an unusual case. Even the most determinedly nihilistic of us normally end up affirming something.
“Woody Allen helps to make us feel comfortable with nihilism.” That was Allan Bloom’s accusation, and the evidence appears to support it. “Mankind faces a crossroads,” Allen once declared. “One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Jokes like that can seem to be Allen’s bribe to make us accept his bleak worldview. The dreams his characters entertain—to be famous or successful, to fall in love, to live in a great city or a golden age—end in disillusionment or worse. Life, Allen told an interviewer a few years ago, is “a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience.” Yet, though Allen’s films camp out on the edge of the abyss, something usually prevents them from sliding into it—and the best word to describe that something is loyalty.
Take Shadows and Fog, whose title encapsulates the film’s atmosphere of dense, disorienting gloom. A murderer is on the loose and the lynch mob is hunting the wrong man, in a town in which the only place anybody attempts a smile is the brothel. Meanwhile, Paul and Irmy, a couple who are members of a visiting circus, are always quarreling, not least because Paul—one of Allen’s stock characters, the narcissistic “artist”—refuses to countenance marriage and children. “A family—that’s death to an artist,” he tells Irmy.
In the middle of a nightmare, the real shock is for something simple and innocent to happen. Paul and Irmy come across an abandoned baby in the street. Paul resists at first: “You’re gonna put her back where I found her, and we’ll inform the police.” But when Irmy remonstrates with him, he takes another look: “She’s so beautiful.” Before long, he is telling Irmy: “We’ll have another baby. . . . I don’t want her to grow up alone. It’s not good to grow up alone.” Hope and new life have dispersed the shadows and fog.
Allen’s freezing negativity melts away when it comes into contact with ordinary human faithfulness. His warmest film, the autobiographical Radio Days, is set in a Rockaway Beach house like that of Allen’s childhood, where the young Joe grows up among a large extended family. While risking mawkishness, Radio Days is restrained by a healthy candor about its characters’ disappointments. “Our lives are ruined already,” says Joe’s mother, Tess, in an offhand way. Her husband, Martin, his head full of hopeless business schemes, is so embarrassed by his actual job that he refuses to tell Joe what it is. The luckless Aunt Bea can never find a man who doesn’t let her down. And so on. But the film’s bittersweet charm turns on family love in all its semi-logical heroism. Joe imagines his squabbling parents being told by a TV marriage counselor, “You both deserve each other,” at which they close ranks in shared outrage. “Look,” says Martin, “we didn’t come here to be insulted.” Tess complains: “I love him, but what did I do to deserve him?”
In the last line of Manhattan, Tracy tells Isaac, “You have to have a little faith in people.” Allen’s more hopeful films recognize that faith, without being, strictly defined, unreasonable, makes possible things that reason alone can’t achieve. Time and again, Allen depicts a man and a woman who are quite reasonably fed up with each other but for the sake of some common adventure—assassinating Napoleon or running a business or investigating a mysterious death—know that they cannot give each other up. When one of them wanders off, the trouble starts. Allen’s films sometimes treat marriage breakdown with a shrug. But sometimes—notably in Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning disintegration in Blue Jasmine—it is an unambiguous calamity. Allen is a professed admirer of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, that remarkable elaboration of the axiom that it is not good for man to be alone, and his films are often like cautionary tales against individualism. More than once, when an Allen character speaks to his or her other half about not wanting children, it serves as an epitaph on a dead-end relationship.
It would be rash to depict Allen as what Boris in Whatever Works calls a “family-values moron.” But if the mind of his films oscillates between skepticism and despair, the heart of them, when they have one, is embodied by that scene from Shadows and Fog when Paul and Irmy fall in love with a tiny baby. Allen’s superficial cynicism hides an intuition that, if our dreams will always betray us, the least we can do is not to betray each other.
Though Allen’s principal icons of loyalty are the love between a man and a woman and between a parent and a child, his supreme example, the hero of Broadway Danny Rose (played by Allen), is celibate. He was once engaged, we learn, until his fiancée called it off. Indeed, this is the story of Danny Rose’s life. An artist manager in Manhattan, he is constantly shepherding performers to the brink of stardom, whereupon they leave him for someone with more clout. Passionately devoted to his acts—choosing their set lists and outfits, waiving his fees, providing limitless moral support—his idealism lands him with the scrapings from the bottom of the show-business barrel: a one-legged tap-dancer, a blind xylophonist, a team of piano-playing birds. Part of the film’s pathos derives from the clash between Danny’s high ambitions for his clients (“If you take my advice, you’ll become one of the great balloon-folding acts of all time”) and the sense of the fight going out of him. There is less work around these days, and Danny’s successes never stay for long.
His latest hope is Lou Canova, an aging crooner rising fast, thanks to a nostalgia boom and Danny’s unstinting care. An important concert is coming up, at which, unbeknownst to Danny, a big-name agent will be in attendance. The married Lou insists that Danny bring along Lou’s mistress Tina. (“She’s been lucky for me.”) With some reservations, Danny goes to fetch Tina, which takes him to a lavish party where he immediately tries to make friends with everybody. Even when it dawns on him, mid-sentence, that this is a mafia party, he can’t stop seeing the best in people:
danny: What do you do, Rocco?
rocco: I own a fleet of cement mixers.
danny: No kidding! Isn’t that a very big organized cr—? (His face falls. Brightening) Cement—that’s fantastic! You always need cement. That’s what’s great about cement. It’s not like tape recorders.
Through a series of well-meaning mistakes, Danny offends a mafia mother, who announces a vendetta. Danny and Tina are forced to flee, and it’s that image again: a man and a woman, baffled by each other, but united by an adventure that they can’t opt out of. As the hit men close in and time ticks away toward the concert, Lou sits at home getting drunk, helpless without his manager. Can Danny save the day?
Of course he can, but only through his steadfast fidelity to his friends—and, we begin to realize, to his eccentric but rather noble principles. It is normally inadvisable to have one’s main characters explain their personal philosophies to each other, but here it seems only natural:
danny: You know what my philosophy of life is? That it’s important to have some laughs, no question about it, but you gotta suffer a little, too. Because otherwise, you miss the whole point of life. And that’s how I feel.
tina: Yeah. You know what my philosophy of life is?
danny: Ach, I can imagine.
tina: It’s over quick, so have a good time. You see what you want, go for it. Don’t pay any attention to anybody else. And do it to the other guy first, ’cause if you don’t, he’ll do it to you.
danny: This is a philosophy of life? This sounds like the screenplay to Murder Incorporated.
The poetry of his clients’ careers, Danny knows, involves the prose of his self-sacrifice, whereas for Lou, making it big means that “I gotta do what’s right for my career.” The film’s imagery suggests that it is Danny who lives in the larger world. When Tina hangs out with Lou, they trail around a miniature golf course, looming over the imitation castles and windmills. When she’s on the run with Danny, they break into a warehouse full of floats for the Thanksgiving Day parade and hide themselves behind fifty-foot-tall inflatable cartoon characters. It’s true that the floats are merely products of the imagination, as, perhaps, are mafiosi who can’t shoot straight. But as the two runaways make their escape, you remember that charity, as Chesterton once put it, is “the imagination of the heart”—and that Danny Rose is dreaming dreams that not even Woody Allen can puncture.
Dan Hitchens is a doctoral student in English at the University of Oxford.