SUNDAY ESSAY: Woody Allen v. The Banality of Evil

For all practical purposes the career of Woody Allen is over. The difficultly he is having both distributing his films and publishing his books or even staying out of the news cycle will likely mean that he will fall silent after an incredible 50 year career in a business well known for short careers.

This is too bad because Allen has made some of the best movies in the history of the medium and his interest, some might say obsession, with the moral structure of his characters, usually people of some affluence in New York City, has been a real contribution to the worlds of art, entertainment, and philosophy. Many of his best cinematic characters are deeply flawed, and their onscreen struggles show in stark clarity, in a medium we can watch and enjoy, how human motivations often work out.  Watching a Woody Allen film is so much more fun than reading a somber philosophy text book. In his films there is comedy and drama and lots of jazz music. That Woody’s characters do bad things while seeming so innocent, is as entertaining as it is perplexing.

Woody Allen makes (or made) films about interesting people. Allen’s view seems to be that human morality is centered in the individual and this view stands in stark contrast with the idea of a broader societal morality which locates orality in groups. Group identity and morality is popular in our current day and it was in the past. The current idea of ‘social justice’ and it’s lack was articulated in a book and expression from the Holocaust era, known as ‘The Banality of Evil’.

The term is credited to a writer named Hannah Arendt. She was a German born writer and reporter who went to Israel to report on the trail of a Nazi complicit in the Holocaust named Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann had been captured in South America where he had fled at the end of World War 2. Israeli intelligence agencies discovered his whereabouts and captured him and returned him to Jerusalem for trail. Most high ranking Nazis had been tried by the victorious Allied powers at Nuremberg but this trial was going to be conducted by Jews in Israel. That alone made the Eichmann trial special; Jews would bring forth justice on their own. Eichmann was not the highest ranking Nazi in the Holocaust leadership, but Hitler, Himmler and so many others were dead, and so Eichmann was as good as could be got.

Arendt’s report, which culminated in a book, asserted that Eichmann wasn’t an evil genius or even animated by a burning hatred of Jews. He was more of a man who had little will of his own and abdicated moral thinking and responsibility to the authorities where he found himself, which in his instance was in the Nazi death industry.

His excuse was summed up in the idea that he was just following orders, but Arendt extrapolated that to be an inbuilt flaw in both most humans and most modern societies. It was the banal normality of most people that made the Nazis and the Holocaust so difficult and disturbing. “It could happen to anyone and anywhere under the right circumstances” was the terrifying subtext. Murder and public madness wasn’t an aberration; it was latent in everyone. We are all potential Eichmann clones if society shapes us, and good societies make good people and bad societies, like Nazi society, makes bad people.

Eichmann was still held personally responsible for his actions, in spite of what Arendt thought, and hung.

Allen, via his characters, often looks at human morality through the lens of the individual and never discovers banality, but instead finds a certain narcissistic self justification for bad acts. A fine example of this is Judah, the cheating ophthalmologist in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Judah has it all; he’s a successful doctor in New York with a thriving practice and a lovely wife, and further, he serves on several charitable boards. He did good by doing good, as they say. But, at some point he began an extramarital affair with a stewardess he met on a trip. His home is in the suburbs and she lives in the city so he is able to keep his secret world isolated, but eventually, she begins to crack and claim that he promised to leave his wife and legitimize his secret relationship. He denies this. When she threatens to tell his wife about the affair, he begs her not to, and when she threatens to reveal his financial misdeed with his charitable works, he calls his brother who has connections to the underworld. Judah, after much angst, pays blood money, orders her death, and she is murdered.

Afterwards, Judah is consumed with guilt. He is eaten up with the moral weight of what he has done. In his memories, he hears his religious father, saying that “the eyes of God” see all, and yet he recalls his cynical Aunt questioning the existence of a God. She states that a God that allowed the Holocaust was either weak or non-existent.

But then suddenly, the doom lifts and the sun keeps coming up, and Judah essentially sides with his Aunt; there is no God. He takes a trip with his family and finds he is happier than ever. The murder of his mistress is blamed on some drifter, and he realizes that he got away with it and he should just move on. He is free and happy in a universe with no moral order. Perhaps Eichmann, while he was still free in South America, felt the same way.

Another look in to moral order is offered by an entirely different kind of later Woody Allen film titled “Blue Jasmine.’ The film opens with Jasmine traveling from New York to San Francisco to move in with her sister. Jasmine is tall and elegant and good looking, and her sister not so much. Her sister Ginger is blue collar and works in a grocery store, while lovely Jasmine was married to an extremely wealthy New York financier who it turns out was an serial adulterer, and eventually also found out to be a financial fraud. He killed himself in prison and now Jasmine, the beautiful wife of wealth and privilege, is penniless and without any friends. She moves in with her sister as she left New York; broke, but still full of pretensions.

Jasmine is a fake through the whole movie, and everything from her name to her appearance is meant to boost her social status towards a single end; a luxurious life for herself which she accomplishes through wealthy men. She achieves this status only to lose it in the most complete and humiliating way possible and even then, she fails to change her goals or aspirations or even her tactics. Only in that way does she get her just deserts which are the complete rejection by everyone who knew her. Her sister and her step-son are the only humans she still interacts with from her past and they know she was at least passively complicit in her husband’s serial depredations and she benefited enormously from them. She is, in that way, as guilty as he was, and she still has the gall to look down on everyone not f her now lost status. Unlike Judah in ‘Crime and Misdemeanors,’ Jasmine does not escape her fate; the movie ends with sitting on a park bench mumbling to no one and pouring over the details of her now lost life.

Between Allen and Arendt, I think Allen has a better handle on human good and evil. Human misdeeds big and small is not the product of ‘society’ or any numbing system. It is still, in most instances, the product of human will and choice. Eichmann could have made some excuse and pursued a different job, but he didn’t. Judah made the choice to cheat, and then he made the choice to kill so he wouldn’t have to reap what he sowed. Jasmine had to have known that her husband was deeply dishonest but it paid for her to not notice. Even when her husband stole her sister’s tiny lottery winnings, she didn’t feel any remorse. Survival may force people to do things they might not normally do, but even in the instances of greatest danger, some people take the highest moral road available to them.

People make moral choices; it is the hallmark of the species. We are made as individuals and act as individuals even in collective situations. The locus of behavior is rooted in the individual making choices and individuals are not banal. They are fascinating, heroic, depraved, or boring, but as individuals. I think Hannah Arendt is wrong about Eichmann; he made choices, and he did have choices. The evil he participated in was the collective of individual choices.

Woody Allen has also made choices and derived a consequence. Allen is still physically capable is making movies, but he can’t. Woody Allen, after decades, is persona non grata in the movie industry.

Woody Allen’s birth name is Allen Stewart Konigsberg, and he was born in New York in 1935. He had been married twice in his youth but those marriages ended after a short time. Later, after he became more established, he entered in to a long term relationship with actress Mia Farrow, and she had many children, both biological and adopted, with her previous husband, composer Andre Previn. In 1977, Farrow and Previn adopted a girl from South Korea named Soon-Yi who had been abandoned. Scans of Soon-Yi’s bones were the only way to determine her age and it is estimated that Soon-Yi Previn was born in 1970. Allen and Farrow were never married and they did not live together, but he was involved in her life and therefore, knew Soon-Yi well when she was a child. Allen and Mia Farrow have one child presumably together, and he goes by the name Ronan Farrow.

At some point in the early 1990s, when Allen was in his fifties and Soon-Yi was a teen, they began a physical relationship which Farrow came to know about. The relationship with Mia Farrow and Woody Allen had run its course and around this time, Allen was accused of molesting another adopted girl named Dylan Farrow.

It’s complicated and weird, and it all was reported on in the press in the early 1990s. In 1997, Allen married Soon-Yi, and they went on to adopt two kids as well. In his public statements about the relationship. Allen has articulated his justifications, including, he notes, that he is not biologically related to Soon-Yi and was never her step-father either. He denies outright any allegations of inappropriate contact with Dylan Farrow but both she and Ronan have not changed their stories of his sexual interest in Dylan when she was a child.

For the next 25 years, Allen went on making movies and he was still able to command the attention of some of the world’s most famous actors who regularly appeared in his films. He began to make movies outside of New York, and ‘Blue Jasmine’ occurred in this period. “Midnight in Paris,’ one of my favorite Woody Allen films, occurred here. His choices didn’t doom his career after his relationship and marriage to Soon Yi Became known publicly.

But, no one sees cultural change coming, and cultures change. The tide has turned on Woody Allen and now, though for the first time in his life he’s been in a settled legal marriage for decades, he is being publicly shunned by actors and publishers. The industries that regularly lionized Bill Clinton, Roman Polanski and Harvey Weinstein are rejecting Woody Allen due to his relationship with Soon-Yi and the allegations of molestation of Dylan which have been championed by Ronan, and so his career has likely run its course. He was not guilty, until the collective decision was made that he was. As an individual, he did not change.

Nevertheless, he leaves behind a legacy of fantastic movies that get at the heart of the complex individual that is always revealing through behavior choices, what lies in the human heart.

Hannah Arendt
Adolf Eichmann in the Reich
Eichmann in the dock
Woody and Soon-Yi

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