Woody Allen’s films have always been something special I share with Mom. He’s a brilliant filmmaker but certainly not universally beloved. While he’s put out a new film nearly every year for over fifty years, they aren’t all hits. His success and cultural relevance come and go but his artistic vision remains constant as he makes what he wants to make, regardless of the fanfare that comes with it. But Mom and I adore them all, always trying to catch his latest film in the theatre and we’ve enjoyed countless hours watching his body of work together on DVD. Given all this, I was quite excited to learn over a lovely conversation on Twitter that Andrew shares this passion! The excitement grew when he suggested we write simultaneous posts spotlighting one of his films. And our “Woody Allen Wednesdays” were born. Huzzah! For the first, we’re looking at 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.
Hannah and Her Sisters is an excellent example of Woody Allen’s work; it’s a classic for many reasons. It follows the lives of three sisters – Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey), and Holly (Dianne Wiest) – and the family and friends who fill their lives over the course of a year. It’s simultaneously funny, dark, deep, existential, thoughtful, bright, theological, philosophical, nihilistic, and ultimately hopeful. And do you know what? That’s exactly why I love Woody Allen. Many filmmakers give us works that can be broken down and mined for philosophical depth but with Woody Allen it’s all there intentionally. He is uncompromisingly intelligent, directly referencing thinkers and theories from across our philosophical, theological, cinematic, and literary traditions. I can think of no other filmmaker who explores the BIG questions in as direct a manner as Woody Allen, whether he does so in a way that makes us laugh, cry, cringe, or lose ourselves in deep thought.
There is so much that can be and has been written about Hannah and Her Sisters but, for me, what I think of most often when I watch the film is the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. Woody Allen’s character in the film, Mickey, is Hannah’s ex-husband. He’s also a hypochondriac. An issue with a slight loss of hearing in his right ear leads him to the conviction that it’s a brain tumor and he’s going to die. Even after he receives a clean bill of health, he spends the whole film wrestling with the meaning of life.
What, Mickey wonders, is the point of anything if we’re all going to die? This is a MAJOR theme in Woody Allen’s work. The search for meaning, especially amidst our seemingly meaningless existence, is a hallmark of what he does. This question of whether or not there is any meaning to life is an ancient one. We seek meaning. We crave meaning. We, in many ways, need meaning. As a result we struggle with the question of whether or not meaning is present in life and, if so, to discern what that meaning and purpose may be. And, should we decide that life is inherently meaningless, we then must wrestle with how to live a life that is inherently devoid of any set meaning.
So Mickey is asking these big questions just as Qoheleth did before him. “Ecclesiastes” is the Greek translation of Qoheleth, both the name of the author who composed the book and the book itself. The wisdom in Ecclesiastes comes from the conclusions Qoheleth’s drawn from the life he’s lived. The central theme of Ecclesiastes then is futility. Humans are unable to make sense of the world around them – to see a coherent pattern or plan to our lives and nature – in the movement toward lasting goals, a line of development, or progress. As a result, all is futile. Now Qoheleth doesn’t deny that there is meaning or a plan he just affirms that we as human beings can’t see it or understand it. That makes everything futile. The only certainty is death. Death is the one universal event in every human, every animal, every organism’s existence. It cuts across all levels of morality and class. We all die. And there is most likely nothing coming after it. Qoheleth then goes on to affirm that the goal of wisdom is to discern what can and cannot be known and that then becomes a central goal of life.
This is the exact realization that plagues Mickey. He tells his writing partner Gail, “Do you understand how meaningless everything is? Everything! I’m talking about our lives, the show, the whole world. It’s meaningless.” Gail replies, “Well, eventually [death] is going to happen to all of us.” Mickey says, “Yes but doesn’t that ruin everything for you? It makes everything…it just takes the pleasure out of everything. I mean you’re gonna die, I’m gonna die, the audience is gonna die, the network’s gonna…the sponsor…everything…”
We need to note that Qoheleth was writing before there was any real belief in Judaism of any sort of afterlife. Once you have an idea of heaven, hell, or reincarnation, you often answer these questions differently – something Mickey wrestles with in the film as well. As he struggles to find meaning, he does explore religion, considering leaving his Jewish faith for Catholicism.
Priest – “Now, why do you think you’d like to convert to Catholicism?”
Mickey – “Well, because, you know, I’ve gotta have something to believe in…otherwise life’s just meaningless.”
Priest – “I understand but why did you make the decision to choose the Catholic faith?”
Mickey – “Well, you know, first of all because it’s a very beautiful religion and…and it’s a very strong religion, it’s very well structured. You know I’m talking now certainly about the-the against school prayer, pro-abortion, anti-nuclear wing. ”
Priest – “So at the moment you don’t believe in God.”
Mickey – “No an-and I want to. I’m willing to do anything! I’ll dye Easter eggs if it works. I…I need some evidence. I gotta have some proof. You know what, if I can’t believe in God then I don’t think life is worth living.”
Priest – “It means making a very big leap.”
Mickey – “Yes well can, can you help me?”
This is natural. We, as human beings, often seek the transcendent when we look for meaning in existence and/or when we fear for something. So Mickey, like so many of us, turns to God. He struggles through the film with his concept of God – considering Catholicism as well as joining the Hare Krishnas – but even if a connection to God continues to allude him, he knows he needs something to believe in.
As Mickey wrestles with this painful search for meaning he delivers an important monologue. Following an epigraph quote by Leo Tolstoy – “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless ” – Mickey narrates, “Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds but in the end, none of ’em knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do. I read Socrates…uh, this guy used to knock off little Greek boys, what the hell has he got to teach me? And Nietzsche…his theory of Eternal Recurrence, he said that the life we live we’re gonna live over and over again and the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means uh, I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. It’s not worth it. And…and Freud, another great pessimist…I was in Analysis for years and nothing happened. My poor Analyst got so frustrated the guy finally put in a salad bar. Look at all these people jogging, trying to stave off the inevitable decay of the body. Boy, it’s so sad what people go through with their-their stationary bike and their exercise and their…..Maybe the poets are right. Maybe love is the only answer. Sheesh, but I was in love with Hannah and that didn’t work out too well.”
His existential musings lead him to love as the answer. I think that’s a brilliant answer! Speaking very personally, for me how we define love – what love is – is the most important question of our lives. Love – its role, its pursuit, its purpose – should be the center of life. Love is (hopefully) the core of our relationships with God, family, friends, significant others, our self, even our jobs (again hopefully) to a degree. How we define and understand love will shape how we exist in those relationships. So there is no question in our lives more important than: What is love? Love is everything. Love gives life meaning. And without love, life has no meaning. But even the answer of the poets and mystics isn’t an easy answer.
In my absolute favorite line of the film Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Cain (yes, there are other characters in the film…I know I’m just focusing on Mickey but let’s just roll with it okay? I’m in a groove and this digression is pulling us off point)) is talking to his therapist. Elliot is wrestling with whether or not to end his marriage. He tells his therapist, “For all my education, accomplishments, and so-called wisdom, I can’t fathom my own heart.” WOW. I mean WOW!!! Talk about PROFOUND. Love so often is this mercurial force that moves in, around, and through us, transforming all it touches, and we can’t even begin to control it although we want to. I mean, we say “Love is God and God is love” all the time yet we still think we can control it? If love is Divine, how can we ever hope to bend the Divine to our command? It’s a hubristic yet common goal to be sure. So while love can be the answer, it’s not always the easiest of answers – and it will always require a great deal of surrender, often more surrender than we’re comfortable with. The film illustrates this, in part, by showing several couples in various stages of shaky relationships. Life and love aren’t like the romcoms make them out to be. So, if we say love is the meaning…what do we do when love falters, fails, shifts, or changes?
Qoheleth assures us of this uncertainty of life as his book begins to draw to a close. We will never know when evil will come or when good will arrive. And we don’t necessarily know when things will get better. Despite all that is frustrating or futile in life, Qoheleth ends by reminding us at the end of the day, understanding it all or not, we need to do our best to follow God anyway. For Qoheleth we must make our own meaning in life because the ultimate meaning will always be obscured to us. We find value and meaning in our friends and loved ones, in relationship. We find meaning in being obedient to God, not blindly but because we’ve chosen to. We may not understand everything but we can live a life of point and purpose, of meaning and value. We find such a life living in loving relationship with God, our family, and our friends.
I think that’s another major theme we find resounding through much of Woody Allen’s work as well. So often he stresses following your bliss, doing what you want regardless of what others think, and most importantly the power and importance of the relationships in our lives. Hannah and Her Sisters certainly demonstrates that, depicting all manner of relationship through the film. We see family, friends, and lovers all trusted, tested, and tried. Like Qoheleth, you can’t finish the film without the clear sense that it’s impossible to survive life – let alone find any semblance of meaning – if we try to go it alone. And, also like Qoheleth, despite all the darkness we find at times in the film, it ends in a very hopeful light.
There you have it folks, our very first “Woody Allen Wednesday.” I hope you enjoyed it! Now you should go read Andrew’s piece too!