Cecilia Sayad on Crimes and Misdemeanors
Is God uncaring, or is he just ironic? Is the free will with which he endowed us an act of generosity and trust,or a sign of indifference? Do our crimes disappoint him, or is it rather he who let us down? Can the absence of morality be equated with the absence of the all-pervading father? Has God abandoned us, or was he simply never there?
These questions of God are as ubiquitous as they are unanswerable in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. In a patent dialogue with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the film’s main plot revolves around a murder committed by a prestigious ophthalmologist, Judah (Martin Landau), and the effects of this crime on his (lack of) Jewish faith. Put simply, faith is understood in terms of one’s relationship to God, which in this film has three dimensions: one works on the level of plot and is conveyed through the characters’ existential interrogations; the second constitutes a self-reflexive discourse about authorial control, or lack thereof, by establishing a parallel between God and author figures; the third, finally, approaches God as a construct.
Whereas Judah evades the Almighty by ignoring laws such as “thou shall not kill,” the unhappily married and struggling filmmaker Cliff (Woody Allen) presupposes the existence of a superior power, a moral structure governing the universe. Cliff’s greatest ambition in life is to finish a documentary on the philosophy professor Louis Levy, his spiritual and intellectual mentor, who struggles to make sense of human existence after losing his whole family to the Holocaust. While Judah’s lack of ethics leads him to confront and ultimately elude God, Levy’s misfortunes and Cliff’s frustrations incite them to cling to God’s indirect manifestations in justice and in love. “It is only we with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe,” says Levy. The central role of spiritual investigations in the film calls to mind Mickey, Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters character, who eagerly seeks God by attempting various religions after doctors rule out a possible brain tumor. Death is incidentally central to all the characters—while it inspires Mickey to find life’s meaning, it shows Judah that murder is not only a solution—and it may even open doors for peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, Louis Levy resorts to spiritual inquiries when faced with the loss of loved ones, and his process touches Cliff deeply. Common to all of their searches is the absence of a fair and loving God—denied by Judah, who ignores his commandments; lost for Levy, who finally commits suicide; and deceiving for an astonished Cliff, who sees in his Godlike mentor’s deadly despair a disturbing contradiction to the life lessons he so valued.
God is a simultaneously overbearing and absent voice in Crimes and Misdemeanors. After listening throughout his Jewish upbringing that “the eyes of God are on us always,” Judah becomes a nonbeliever who is nevertheless haunted by the figure of an all-encompassing father. When his abandoned mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to tell his wife about their affair and make public the irregularities in his fundraising to build an ophthalmologic wing in his hospital, Judah enlists the aid of his mobster brother to have her killed. Much like in Crime and Punishment, God is conflated with an underlying moral structure—one that is confronted by the protagonists of both the film and the novel. Additionally, just as in the book, murder is a pragmatic solution, and the victim is objectified as an obstacle that simply needs to be removed.
The crimes committed by Raskolnikov in the novel and by Judah in the film are motivated by an attempt to preserve a certain social status. Raskolnikov, practically bankrupt, fears his sister will engage in an undesired marriage only to save him from financial difficulties he could yet resolve by killing his pawnbroker. Judah is afraid that the revelations of his ex-mistress will destroy his marriage and career. The characters in both the novel and the film experience torturous and consuming guilt after rationally planned and coldly committed murders. However, whereas in Dostoevsky Raskolnikov’s confession and sentence suggest that religion triumphs over individualism, in Allen it is the latter that prevails, as indicated by Judah’s professional achievements and final declaration of his tranquility of spirit.
It follows that to Judah, whose biblical name brings to mind that who abandoned and betrayed, the rejection of God is a matter of survival, as it equals the lack of severe punishment—thus absence entails relief. Nevertheless, to Cliff and Levy absence is experienced as abandonment, thematized also in both the unmasking of prestigious characters and the disappointment at protective figures. Cliff ridicules his famous and obnoxious TV-producer brother-in-law (Alan Alda) in a promotional documentary that he reluctantly accepts to direct. Levy’s suicide, in turn, is deceiving in that it contradicts his philosophy. Finally, the relationship between Judah and his rabbi friend (Sam Waterston), who is also a patient, is equally marked by powerlessness. Neither can the doctor stop the rabbi’s progressive blindness (a metaphor for God’s?), nor can the rabbi offer a solution to Judah’s moral dilemmas about his extramarital adventures.
The dissatisfaction that marks the dynamics among the characters ultimately contaminates the film’s open-ended structure. God’s loss of authority, evident in Judah’s unpunished sins, parallels the lack of authorial control simulated in Allen’s refusal of narrative closure. By that means Allen dismisses the finalizing powers ascribed to authors, much in the manner theorized by Bakhtin’s readings of Dostoevsky’s novels. Where in Dostoevsky Bakhtin conceives of an author that does not retain surplus information about his characters, in Allen we find a director refusing to resolve his complex (im)moral tale: Judah apparently overcomes guilt, frustrating our thirst for justice; while Cliff’s future remains unclear. Moreover, Bakhtin argues that in Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels the author is only an unprivileged voice taking part in his own internal dialogue, where his conflicting ideas are incarnated by various characters. Crimes and Misdemeanors encapsulates this model by featuring the director in a secondary role in a multiple-plot narrative. Finally, God’s absence, reflected in his impossibility to offer neither reprimand nor comfort, is mirrored in a simulation of authorial impotence. Nevertheless, Allen’s very presence on the screen is a reminder of the presence of the author—especially as the character of Cliff bears the recurring personality traits recognizable from previous roles played by the director, calling attention to his figure as an auteur. To wit, Allen’s authorial figure haunts each of his screen appearances.
Filmmaking itself calls attention to the author’s double movement of non-interference and omnipresence. First, the interruption of Cliff’s project by Levy’s death relativizes directorial control, exposed as it is to life’s contingencies. Secondly, the unfinished documentary on Levy, shown always as an unedited film, for this very reason points to what Bazin called the respect for reality’s spatiotemporal integrity. The professor is depicted in long, uncut takes, characterizing an unmediated image and an invisible filmmaker. Conversely, the TV film on the Alda character is a clear example of directorial manipulation. Cliff destroys the producer’s reputation by including outtakes showing him harassing young women, as well as by retaining images of hysterical outbursts that would otherwise have been edited out. True, film is treated as a medium that reveals the essence of things, as Bazin would put it. None of the images portraying the nasty producer is fabricated. Yet Cliff juxtaposes takes of him yelling at his crew to shots of Mussolini in Eisensteinian montage. The choices made by Cliff stress the fact that no image is unmediated—and no author is in fact invisible. Thus where Bazin suggests that only non-interventionist directors can capture the soul of the objects filmed, Allen renders explicit the constructed quality of all images. Paradoxically, while Godlike in his control over his film, the director nonetheless gives it autonomy by calling attention to his manipulating techniques—as if by stressing the artificiality of the filmed image he simultaneously revealed its pure, untainted aspects. This ambivalence also manifests itself in Allen’s constant refusal to follow actors as they leave a framed space (champs vide) which suggests on the one hand an inert camera indifferent to the movement of characters in and out of field, and on the other calls attention to a director behind such decisions, the unconventionality of which makes his presence all the more palpable.
The search for God that is central to Crimes and Misdemeanors proceeds through an explicit process of deconstruction. To Levy, God is the product of human creation: “In spite of millennial efforts, we have not succeeded to create a really and entirely loving image of God.” Judah’s crime, Levy’s suicide, Cliff’s frustrations, and the rabbi’s conformist acceptance of his progressive blindness all constitute different expectations toward, and responses to, God. By approaching him through varied perspectives the director scrutinized God’s image like one obsessively dissects a text in search for meaning. Allen’s uncaring and absent God is the product of the diverse ways in which we all conceive of him. Humankind, as much as God, is the true target of Allen’s skepticism.