Philosophy and ethics are problematic concepts when it comes to their application in contemporary cinema – if not because they are less-than-marketable topics, then because they are so poorly served, even by well-intentioned films and filmmakers. The film medium is malleable enough to serve even the most abstract or demanding of ideas, yet traditional Hollywood narrative tactics are so deeply rooted in our perception of movies that it becomes rare for a director to formally experiment with the medium in such a way that the language of cinema comes to articulate a new, “original” thought.
It is all too easy for our idea of “film philosophy” to be reduced to three-act stories set on college campuses with brooding academics who recite quotes from Kant, Rousseau and Heidegger. Such films are not philosophical, but merely generic rehashes of familiar plotlines set to the poetry of philosophical men. They are signs of reaching, of a pretense towards insight. And by “they,” I mean specifically Woody Allen’s latest undertaking, Irrational Man, a film that is nonetheless notable for how it owns up to the question of ethics – one that has been dogging the iconic director’s career since the turn of the century.
Of all contemporary filmmakers who could have possibly taken on the subject of ethics, Allen may be the most provocative candidate. Ever since his scandalous separation from Mia Farrow and marriage to Soon-Yi Previn in the 1990s, his name has become a byword for the socially taboo, as well as the morally unethical. It would seem that such turgid waters would yield unbearably potent material for an allegedly astute cinematic artist, yet while Allen has diligently gone on writing and directing films for the last twenty years, each new entry to his repertoire has remained conspicuously silent on the single most pressing subject in his private life. (It is notable that in this time, Allen has become less visible as an actor in his own films, just as he may be accused of turning a blind eye to his long self-aggrandized personal dilemmas.) He was always our most conspicuously neurotic filmmaker, a fact which has also come to establish him as one of our most narcissistic, and least insightful.
Irrational Man is a film about dissatisfaction with intellect, and an idealistic move towards “action.” On cinematic terms, physical action is always more palatable than any kind of contemplative act, and the same might be said of a man who has so completely thrown moral caution to the wind. After years of bogging himself down with personal grievances (aired both during his famed therapy sessions and the running times of his films), Allen took action in a way that few aside from himself have found acceptable, or moral. He has not backed away from his decision, nor has he ever shown any signs of doubt or regret. This from a man who seemed for years to be gasping for breath in an uncompromising, damning world, of which he was made out to be the most pitiable victim. Allen’s claim for “fulfillment” was made at the height of self-value, flown clear in the face of public opinion, and anxiety was cast off like a rubber mask as the elusive, selfish flesh was revealed underneath.
If one were to hope that there was anything more waiting to be found behind such a face, Irrational Man does little to encourage that another layer will ever be uncovered. It is an embarrassing failure, not only for how it fails to meet any standard of cinematic quality, but for how it perpetuates Allen’s weak arguments of superiority through action. It glorifies the notion of an individual locating fulfillment through a destructive act without at all owning up to the potential incorrigibility of such an action. It shirks responsibility and instead settles for evasive self-appeasement. Not only is this a dispiriting concession on Allen’s part to purely egomaniacal thinking, but its use within the narrative is a gross misinterpretation of continental philosophy, and an insult to the film medium as a whole, which would welcome true originality of form if anyone were to offer it. The closest Allen ever came to upending convention through film was in the beloved Annie Hall (1977), a film which looks increasingly coy and gimmicky, packed with self-pity and inexpressive of genuine human compassion. Mr. Allen appears to be far happier upsetting structure on a social level, as the one consistent characteristic of his films has never been introspection or experimentation, but conservatism and complaint. It is a matter of inquiry versus reflection, and Allen cannot help looking merely a feckless, cowardly juvenile hiding behind the ideas of more galvanizing and challenging men.