To be fooled twice is shame on me. This Chronicle is dedicated to my dear friend B, through whose agency Woody fooled me yet again.
Several years ago in Chronicle 67, I condemned the pretentious immorality of Woody Allen’s 1987 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, whose success and prestige struck me as a sign of spiritual decadence. I see no need to alter this judgment. Nevertheless, that film had sophistication and wit, and if the pseudo-dilemma it posed was ultimately a simple choice between good and evil–whether to kill or not a woman who was “ruining one’s life”–the character was complex and his situation problematic. What is more, and this is a point I shall return to, Crimes and Misdemeanors is situated in Allen’s own New York Jewish milieu, and for once to be “Jewish” doesn’t just mean whining and an occasional word of Yiddish, but belonging to the People of the Holocaust. Not that I concur in this amputation of all but the last half-century of the people’s existence–it is precisely this, I think, that is the source of Allen’s moral emptiness–but for a Jew of Allen’s generation, just old enough (Allen was born in 1935) to have understood what was happening in World War II, the Judaism=Holocaust equation is an understandable, if not quite excusable simplification.
Crimes and Misdemeanors was the last Allen film I saw. All Allen’s wit and nostalgia cannot mitigate the ugliness of a morality that justifies cold-blooded murder. But the other day, my friend B lent me a DVD of Match Point, a film Allen made in 2005, a good eighteen years after Crimes and Misdemeanors. Yet I was appalled–but not really surprised–to discover that it is a stripped-down version of the same plot, more pretentious but less complex, and even more crudely immoral. It soon became obvious both that the protagonist would get away with murder and that the auteur would titillate us with false hopes for simple justice in order to press upon us with his final twist that morality is a sham. Killing is fine if you can get away with it, Allen tells us, and in his world you always will. One longs for the days of the much-reviled Hays code, which set in stone the common-sense moral principle that art that demonstrates the impunity of evil is itself evil.
Here once more is the man confronted with a woman who is “ruining his life,” this time with no mitigating circumstances. Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a tennis pro in an exclusive London club, makes friends with a wealthy young member who invites him to his country home. The latter’s sister Chloé–played by the sweet and appealing but frightfully, no doubt deliberately miscast Emily Mortimer, who belongs neither by accent nor body language to the social class into which she is thrust–falls in love with Chris. Her parents raise no objection, being altogether taken with him despite his obvious lack of charm, and he is soon married to Chloé and taken under her father’s wing in one of “his” firms. But Chris has become attracted to the brother’s fiancée Nola, an American sexpot and would-be actress played quite effectively by Scarlett Johansson. They have a moment together in the rain before Chris’s marriage; then Nola and the brother separate and we lose sight of her, although we know we will meet her again.
At this point, one can already guess the rest of the story. Chris and the now unattached Nola run into each other in London. Bored with his wife and her insistent desire to become pregnant–sex as work rather than fun–Chris begins a torrid affair with Nola; why this sexy girl is so totally disponible is one of those plot elements we’re not supposed to think about. Chloé doesn’t get pregnant, but Nola does, and pressures Chris to leave his wife for her. He promises to do so, but we know what’s going to happen. Chris borrows a shotgun from the family estate, gains entry to Nola’s neighbor lady’s apartment and shoots her down in cold blood, trashing her apartment to make it look like a drug burglary, then guns down Nola as she comes home from work.
There’s no need going over the nasty little tricks Allen uses to make us hope our boy will be caught–assuming that Allen is not base enough to imagine that the spectator wants him to escape. The only important one is the following. In the first shot of the film, we see a tennis ball flying back and forth over the net, and Chris’s voice explains the importance of luck, as exemplified when the ball hits the net: it goes over and you win the point, or it falls back and you lose. (The fact that Chris is telling the story in this sententious tone already assures us that whatever happens he’s going to get away with it, unless we wish to imagine that he’s talking from his jail cell like Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets.) Then near the end, when Chris throws the jewelry he pseudo-stole from the nice old lady into the Thames, a ring (it’s made as big as a bracelet to be visible, but it’s supposed to be a ring so it can be inscribed with the lady’s name), instead of falling in the water, bounces off the parapet and falls back on the bridge. Presumably we are expected to equate this bounce with bad luck. But as it turns out, and knowing Allen it could not happen any other way, the ring is a life-saver, because just after a detective has figured out the whole crime, the identifiable ring is found in the pocket of a conveniently dead criminal, thus “establishing” that he rather than our boy killed the old lady.
The most distasteful moment of this distasteful film is no doubt the “conscience” scene right near the end when the hero’s two victims appear hallucinatorily before him; the old lady insists that she was an innocent bystander, to which Chris replies that these things happen, then quotes a famous line from Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus), “Not to be born is best.” Must we chalk such vileness up to “satire”? This is Leopold and Loeb without Nietzsche, killing not even for self-affirmation but for mere convenience.
Not being far from that age myself, I find it sad that a man of seventy finds wisdom in such language. True, Jean-Luc Godard is five years older than Allen, yet in a 2001 film incredibly titled In Praise of Love (Eloge de l’amour), the last film of his I (partially) saw, he includes a lengthy diatribe pointing out not only that citizens of the USA have no right to call themselves “Americans” but that we can’t even use “United States,” since there’s a “United States” of Brazil, or South Africa, or what have you. Godard and his pals should have thought of this gem in June 1944. So here is Godard in the new millennium, thirty-five years or so after using the cinema as a vehicle for similar imbecilities in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967). Yet we can’t really take Godard’s leftist posturings seriously; we must accept him as an eternal infant–the downside of his lifelong febrile creativity.
Allen’s problem is not leftism or infantilism; it is the Holocaust. Allen’s oeuvre is suffused by a profound, originary resentment against God for “permitting” this exemplary evil. In Crimes and Misdemeanors and even in Match Point, where it’s not so obvious, Allen isn’t really saying that it’s OK to murder people who get in our way. He’s not even really saying that life is all a matter of luck. What he is saying is that if God allowed the Holocaust to happen, then the very notion of justice is a sham. If the ring had gone over the bridge and Chris had been convicted of murder–in today’s world he’d probably be out in a few years anyway–that would not be justice either, only bad luck, just as in 1943 a Jew in Brooklyn was lucky and a Jew in Warsaw was not.
I’ve made the point often enough that the Holocaust was a watershed moment of history. But although it seems obvious what was “bad” about the Holocaust, recent history shows it wasn’t obvious at all. The first important film on the subject, Alain Resnais’ landmark 1955 short Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, Nacht und Nebel), presents it as an illustration of “man’s inhumanity to man” without once mentioning the word “Jew.” A few years ago in an offhand remark, a doctor of my acquaintance in enlightened Santa Monica disparaged the idea that the Nazi atrocities were in some privileged fashion “about the Jews.” No doubt there were indeed the Gypsies and the homosexuals, as well as plenty of others. But one can only use the lesson of the Holocaust to the benefit of all if one first accepts that, yes, the Holocaust was “about the Jews,” not just because their deaths were more numerous and a higher percentage of their overall population, but because, with all due respect, the Nazis from Hitler on down didn’t spend much time talking and writing and obsessing about the “final solution” to the homosexual problem or the Gypsy problem.
Yes, the Holocaust was about the Jews, and it is just for that reason that Allen’s ethnocentric bitterness is on the side of evil rather than good. God may or may not have “allowed” six million Jews to be killed, but it is Allen, not God, who allows his characters to get away with murder. The lesson of the Holocaust is that the root of “man’s inhumanity to man” is resentment, not simply of the Other but of those who are first, however beneficial this firstness may be to the population at large. That is why murdering Gypsies, although no less ugly and wrong than murdering Jews, is not an adequate point of reference for understanding the Holocaust, and why treating the Jews as just another set of Gypsies won’t do either. Nor is it relevant that the firstness of most victims of the Holocaust was largely symbolic, that the shtetl Jews taken into the woods and shot hardly appeared to be “first” in any meaningful sense. If God can be accused of having abandoned the Jews by “allowing” the Holocaust, it’s because God was from the outset a Jewish creation, or discovery if you prefer. Whether one lives under the New Testament or the Uncreated Koran, the Jews are still the “chosen people,” not because they are “superior” to others or even smarter, but because their ancestors thought of the One God first. There are many other forms of firstness, and as the United States is discovering since the end of the Cold War, the burden of being first is the resentment of everyone else. This resentment does not go away when one combats it, but it does so even less when one appeases it.
To make a film to “demonstrate” that it’s all blind chance, that as Einstein refused to say, “God plays dice with the universe,” is to deny the responsibility that comes with firstness and in so doing, to fail to learn the moral lesson of the Holocaust. Calling the Jews who died at Auschwitz “unlucky” trivializes their martyrdom. The evil madness of the Nazis, a good deal of which seems to have rubbed off on their Islamist disciples, is that one can create a “compact” community by eliminating those who bear witness to what came before. The annihilation of the Jews would allow the “Aryans” to tell the story of their own firstness as the founders of “Western civilization,” in passing, justifying the slaughter of Slavs and other “inferior” peoples whose land and wealth they could plunder without compunction. But first, they had to eliminate the Jews.
The sin of the Holocaust is “against humanity,” to be sure, but more specifically it is a sin against firstness, an expression of the resentful refusal to accept that the firstness of the other is the indispensable motor of human history. Humanity would not exist if its discoveries, starting with the discovery of language that defines it, had to be made by everyone at once; our greatness is our ability to communicate the achievements of the first to others so that they may then become first in their turn. (The Egyptians were first in their own way well before the Jews.) The Holocaust was history’s most unambiguous and coherent attempt to deny this.
The task of those of us, Jews in particular, lucky enough to have been passed over by the Holocaust’s perpetrators, is to affirm the morality of firstness. It’s a good thing to condemn people for mistreating those they deem their inferiors, but it’s easy. What is hard, and becomes harder every moment that the United States remains alone at the “asymmetric” pinnacle of world power and achievement, is to condemn people for hating, and on occasion massacring, those they resent as the first. Our task as human beings and Holocaust survivors is to fight resentment by refusing to give in to it either in others or in ourselves. By turning the Holocaust into an excuse for a resentment symmetrical with that of its perpetrators, Allen is doing all of us a disservice. I hope he gets the message while he still has time.