Friday, August 3, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen's new film is, I think, better than his last one. The only way in which it's inferior is in showcasing its featured city. Rome actually looks better in real life than Allen makes it seem here, although that could be because his taste in urban scenery is different from mine. It might also be because what's so good about Rome is not so much this view or that but the fact that the good bits go on and on and on, which is probably hard to show in a film. Anyway, like his last one this one made me think, partly in ways it was clearly intended to.

Let me show off: when I was having dinner with my family at a restaurant in the square shown here earlier this summer a camera crew showed up and started filming. A crowd, including my children, gathered around to watch. We didn't recognize any of the actors, but the rumor was that the filming was for French television. Perhaps Allen had a similar experience (or perhaps his whole career feels like this), because one theme of his  latest film is fame, and specifically the way people will flock to look at and hear about famous people despite their having no other reason to take any interest in these people at all. Why should my (non-French) kids want to see French television stars? The whole thing could even have been a psychology experiment to test the lure of a camera crew with bright lights and alleged stars. What seems at first to be bad acting and/or writing on Allen's part near the beginning of the film in retrospect seems possibly deliberate. Allen's character is on a plane and complaining about his fear of turbulence. It isn't funny or interesting or how people talk in real life. But it's recognizably Woody Allen, neurotic and kvetching. Why should we care? Well, why indeed might be his point. And yet he's made a career out of this sort of thing. Why should this be? What sense does it make?

Allen's view of life is basically that it is meaningless, and that's the general theme of To Rome With Love. All kinds of things happen by pure chance (a man becomes famous and, just as suddenly, ceases to be so, another man finds a beautiful prostitute in his hotel room offering to do anything he wants (she has gone to the wrong room by mistake), couples meet and get married following a chance encounter, and so on). And three times, just in case we miss the point, people refer to "Ozymandias melancholia," the despair brought on by thinking that all human achievements will eventually end up in ruins, like the ruins with which Rome is peppered. And, just in case we don't get the Ozymandias reference, another character says that it's "ironic" that the once great Roman empire is now in ruins. I don't know whether Allen really has a point to make, as such, but the movie is sort of a meditation on contingency, on the way things, especially love and fame, come and go for no real reason. 

If that sounds depressing wait, there's more. One character runs a funeral parlor, dealing with death all day long, and he works long hours to support his family. Although the film is a comedy, it includes the end of an opera in which the last line, after a couple of people have been stabbed to death, is: "La Commedia è finita!" My Italian is not great, but even I can translate that. The end of the comedy is death. The whole film is reminiscent of Schopenhauer's claim that: “The life of every individual is really always a tragedy, but gone through in detail, it has the character of a comedy.” But this is a comedy. Every character's story ends more or less happily, and there is a lot of enjoyable absurdity along the way. You might not ROFL or even LOL but you will GQO (grin quite often). 

One more note before I get to any bigger point: not everything is arbitrary here. One character who apparently "just has something about her" that makes her attractive also works hard to seem interesting, in a phony way, so maybe she makes herself attractive this way rather than just lucking out. And another character's failures seem more stupid than "ahead of their time" as a kinder person might put it. And yet there is an awful lot of luck here too. It's luck whether you're born pretty or plain. Powerful and/or famous men are presented as being very attractive to women, and power and fame, in turn, are presented as having a lot to do with luck. You might have a fine singing voice but never be discovered, or you might find yourself famous simply for being famous. Very much depends on opportunity, and opportunity is largely a matter of luck. Or so Allen seems to see things. (And he has a point.)

Now for my attempt or gesture at a bigger point. If tragedy is not just a story with an unhappy ending but a story of how a fatal flaw in someone's character produces an unhappy ending then Allen's view of life does not lend itself to tragedy. Character is not destiny in his world. A thief is created by the opportunity to steal, nothing more. We are all more or less the same, differing above all in the opportunities that happen to present themselves. This can only lend itself to comedy, not tragedy. (Of course it might not lead to any kind of coherent story.) Perhaps if life seems meaningless then you really do have to laugh.

Another feature of the film is that the story seems to take place out of time. Somehow a woman's stepping out to get her hair cut and getting lost allows for (what seems to be) several days' worth of adventure and misadventure. Somehow also a character in the film becomes a sort of narrator or chorus, visible to perhaps only one other character. We seem to be outside space as well as time, or at least the normal rules don't apply. So we see things, in a way, sub specie aeterni.

Maybe that's a stretch, but the prevalence of sheer chance along with this apparent freedom from the laws of time and space means that we have at least the suggestion of the makings of a Schopenhauerian work of art. Allen presents the world roughly as Schopenhauer says a work of art presents it. And for Schopenhauer this is a key to enlightenment. The early Wittgenstein (up to at least August 1930) seems to have thought in similar terms (I quote the relevant passage here). Now here's what I'm wondering: what kind of connection might there be between senselessness in the sense of the non-applicability of the principle of sufficient reason and senselessness in the sense of nonsense? Consider tragedy, say Hamlet or Macbeth. All the killing has a cause (so the principle of sufficient reason applies in that way) but still might strike us as senseless. Indeed, we might not even have a tragedy unless it strikes us that way. The killing needs to be not just bad but terrible, hard to accept or comprehend. Perhaps the coming apart of reason and cause could even be regarded as the essence of tragedy. Comedy is not like this. There does not have to be a causal nexus in comedy, everything can happen by chance.

Both comedy and tragedy then can make us question, or simply suspend, our faith in the causal nexus. It need not be part of a comedy at all, and it is not enough for tragedy. If belief in the causal nexus is superstition, as Wittgenstein once wrote, then drama is anti-superstition. (And we might question the very meaning of 'causal nexus', since Wittgenstein can't be in any position to reject belief in it a priori unless the very idea is suspect. Of course we can at the same time question whether he's right. Or his rejection of such belief might be a matter of personal taste. But it does seem to be a problematic idea, leading to questions like what caused the causal nexus?, or apparent evasions like talk of grounds rather than causes, or moonwalking into some version of the cosmological argument.) In this way, that is, by combating superstition, fiction might be more honest than non-fiction, or at least the kind of non-fiction that leaves superstition alone. Fiction reminds us that it ain't necessarily so, that things could be otherwise, which is both true and mentally liberating (potentially anyway). Maybe that's why we like it.

[I was reminded of the passage from Wittgenstein by Reshef Agam-Segal, and some of what I say here is inspired by his recent work on seeing aspects. I'll try to make the connection clearer, or better, or both, in the near future.]


  1. A very thoughtful interpretation... I still wonder if some of it was still unintentional bad acting however! I love your description of the best part of Rome being the good bits going on and on and hope I can go one day and discover what this means.

  2. Thanks! You might be right about the acting.