Guest Post by Julian Friedland
Julian Friedland is the author of the new satirical campus novel American Steam. He teaches philosophy at the University of Hartford.
I happened to catch Woody Allen’s Manhattan recently and was shocked at first to recall that Allen had cast himself in the leading role as an erudite professional dating an adoring high-schooler wise beyond her years. The young woman who played that character was a seventeen year-old Mariel Hemingway and the film was released in 1979. Hemingway is of course the granddaughter of the canonical American author Earnest Hemingway. This was a coveted role in a film written and directed by a filmmaker at the height of his career. His previous movie Annie Hall, had won four academy awards, namely best picture, director, leading actress, and original screenplay. At the time, the notion of an impossible romance between a high-school girl and a middle-aged man was surely provocative but it wasn’t exactly scandalous. As is usual with Woody Allen, it was seen as a charming and mostly harmless self-parody of self-indulgent urban intellectualism. Fast forward thirty six years, and if such a film came out today, it would surely be savaged by the p.c. shamerati.
So philosophy as a discipline has just cause to lament the timing of this film’s release. Furthermore, Allen has invited criticism for showing a personal fondness for very young women mirroring that of his screenplay personas. The relationship depicted in Manhattan, for instance, was based on his liaison with seventeen year-old Stacey Nelkin, then a student at New York’s elite Suyvesant high school. And Mariel Hemingway has said that Allen tried to seduce her at the time and that she rebuffed his advances. Later, unsubstantiated accusations of sexual abuse cost him custody of his adopted children.
So Allen is surely not the best messenger for the message delivered in Irrational Man. Yet his personal experiences and imminence as a filmmaker surely bring him the singular voice and freedom required to do it with such A-list actors at Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, and Emma Stone. And while this is not a great film, it delivers a refreshing respite from our hyper-politicized cybernetic world suffused with moral paranoia. Where cell-phones are ubiquitous and colleges are judged by how well they satisfy student expectations. Consumers drive our economy, sadly now including our higher education. And like any empowered consumer, today’s student naturally expects to be pampered and protected. The balance of power has shifted, and the very idea of a professor having any kind of advantage over a student is anathema. Irrational Man gives us a taste of a more innocent time. One where the personal has not yet been entirely subsumed by the political.
Unfortunately, Allen doesn’t seem interested in carrying the profound existential message of his story to its logical conclusions. The ending seems like a cop out—a missed opportunity to complete a truly provocative philosophical argument. As an undergraduate essay, it would perhaps merit a B. Still, this irrational man’s central message is courageous nonetheless. And it should give us pause, right up to its last tragicomic minutes when the entire edifice collapses before our eyes. Before this sorry end, the film’s central and poignant theme is convincingly conveyed by Joaquin Phoenix as Abe, a depressed existentialist philosopher with flashes of brilliance. Abe has reached middle age to find himself utterly alone in a listless and meaningless funk. He yearns to find some real sense of purpose and transcendence in his life. So when he suddenly sees an opportunity to shed the moral dogmas of society and commit a truly great and terrible deed, he jumps at the chance. This is of course the kind of deed philosophers ruminate over endlessly to no avail, namely, is murder ever just? It doesn’t take a philosopher to realize that there are countless cases where killing someone before he does far worse things feels like the right thing to do. The trouble is, civil chaos would ensue were we to regularly carry out such actions.
This is what is so compelling about Abe’s character. He wants to be an ethical person, but to do so, he must shed public reason and open his senses to that feeling, breathing, awakened man—or superman—dying away inside the well-meaning bureaucratic armor society requires him to wear. He has to break through to a genuinely impactful experience of authenticity. One that only a person like him could accomplish, that is, someone untethered to conventional dogmas of good and evil. When Abe finally takes that leap, it’s as if he’s been reborn. He can finally see, taste, smell, touch, and screw like never before. He has transcended the mundane to fulfill his greatest potential. And he takes us with him, for this is the transporting power of fiction—its fleeting sense of forbidden possibility. But it also lets us turn a critical eye on the actual world. This is why great art is at once beautiful and political.
Of course, Abe’s plunge into übermenchdom comes at an existential cost. For as his personal power increases, his emotional attachments whither. All his actions become enslaved by his own will to power. And while this comes as an absolute thrill to his carnally-enthralled middle-aged lover Rita (Parker Posey), it also obliterates the sweet and vulnerable humanity that Jill (Emma Stone) once managed to coax out of him. Abe’s eyes, once filled with wonder at the world, are now imprisoned within a terrifying scowl that seems to cut right through all it looks upon. He has lost what little remained of his ability to care for anyone, except of course himself, who he now sees as a kind of god. People and their problems become mere pieces on a chessboard to him as everything is engulfed by the ominous and icy standpoint of eternity. These are the best moments of the film and it’s a pity they don’t last longer.
Moving to the third act, we get the impression that even a filmmaker with as much Hollywood clout as Woody Allen could not bring himself to articulate the full message of his own übermensch. Instead, he cobbles together an absurd conclusion in which this courageous existential superman suddenly collapses in a fit of cowardice, fearing that Jill, his adoring student-turned-lover will turn him in. Even if we allow for a moment that Jill might actually go to the police, there is no concrete evidence that Abe committed the crime. This is because he has carried out the perfect murder. All that is left are one or two second-hand testimonies of only the barest circumstantial evidence. Jill has no case. Just a crazy theory. Abe would never be convicted. So the film might well have continued a bit longer with Abe running away to Spain as he’d planned with Rita, his colleague and lover in the chemistry department. That would have been a much more gripping climax that would let us ponder the implications of letting two truly liberated souls loose upon the planet. Instead, the film degenerates into little more than a comical farce, à la Bullets Over Broadway, which is quite a let down given all it had begun to explore.
This seems to reflect the tragicomic worldview of Woody Allen’s corpus. Through all the deep existential notions he flirts with, in the end he always just shrugs them off with a scoff. As if we, his audience, were little more than another conquest to woo and leave hungry. Despite everything he has accomplished, Allen has never made—nor perhaps wanted to make—a truly great film. Yet some of us keep hoping he still will. Another version of Irrational Man might have at least come close, maybe a generation or two ago, during that cultural hang time between the fifties and nineties before political correctness set in to self-censor us all. Or maybe it’s just that Allen has always been too self-congratulating to let us go without the cozy consumerist comforts of a happy ending. His audience expects him to stay funny and light. But for a moment, he almost got deep.