Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Of Woody and Whedon (or the Power of Redemptive Art)

There is no God.

That is the belief of two very famous filmmakers: Woody Allen and Joss Whedon.

Woody is an Academy Award winning director who has made such critically acclaimed films as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Bullets over Broadway, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, and other for a total of around 50 feature films.  

Joss Whedon came to fame as a hot young script doctor who was called in to save big-budget movies from bad stories.  He achieved cult status with his amazing TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, followed by others like Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse.  But he hit another stratosphere when he directed the outlandishly successful Avengers feature and help shepherd Marvel's other Phase Two projects.

Woody and Whedon: atheists.

They both subscribe to the same existential view of life, the universe, and everything.  Both men believe that life is ultimately void of meaning or purpose.

Woody made this clear in an interview he gave a few months back.

Ultimately, life is meaningless:  “I firmly believe — and I don’t say this as a criticism — that life is meaningless….I think it is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Nothing we do in this life, even his own art will have any lasting meaning:  “And the universe — as you know from the best physicists — is coming apart and eventually there will be nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the great works of Shakespeare and Beethoven and Da Vinci. All that will be gone. Now, not for a long time, but gone. But much shorter than you think, really, because the sun is going to burn out much earlier than the universe vanishes. So, you won’t have to wait for the universe to vanish, it’ll happen earlier than that and there will be nothing.

Woody's solution to all of this is to simply distract himself from the horror:
“The distractions take many forms… In my life, I distract myself by turning on the baseball game or going to the movies and getting lost in the movies, or obsessing over the third act of my play — you know, a lot of stuff that’s annoying and puzzling and stimulating, but not terrifying.”

And you can see this clearly reflected in his work.  Annie Hall begins with a boring, self-indulgent monologue about life’s emptiness.  His characters often are amoral creeps who slide about through life, all the while obsessing over younger girls.

If Woody is correct, what should it matter if an older man lusts after the young female form, no matter the age.  As long as you don’t get caught, why shouldn’t someone with a tendency to much younger girls indulge in his sensual desires.  After all, according to Woody, none of it matters.  What better distraction could you have from existential terror than for the overwhelming ecstasy of lustful indulgence?

You see this in his characters and, dare I say, you see this in his life.  Woody is living in a way that is completely consistent with his world view.  Whether it is marrying his step-daughter or molesting other children (allegedly), no one is really shocked by this.  The characters in his movies are empty and soulless.  And even when they are not, Woody only admires them as pleasant distractions.

And his movies are not that good.  I know this might be a very controversial point, but I (and I know this is anecdotal), have never met anyone who thought that Annie Hall deserved Best Picture over Star Wars.  Woody makes for a horrible leading man, lacking all masculinity and relatability without any moral compass.  

And that is fine with Woody since his movies don’t need to be good.  They only need to be distracting.

Contrast that with Whedon, who also believes that life is meaningless.  You can see that idea creep into his serialized stories.  It comes up a bit in Buffy, a lot in Angel, and is there from the beginning in Firefly.

Whedon once tweeted something very Woody-esque: “Everything is a drug. Family, art, causes, new shoes… We’re all just tweaking our chem to avoid the void.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he elaborated: “Everything we do really is just a little marker on the long road to death. And sometimes that’s overwhelmingly depressing to me, and sometimes it makes me feel kinship and forgiveness. We’ve all got the same ending to the story.... I can’t believe anybody thinks we’re actually going to make it before we destroy the planet. I honestly think it’s inevitable. I have no hope.”

And yet this is not reflected in his art.

Unlike, Woody’s main characters, Whedon writes about heroes.  A hero is someone who will put the good of others, the greater good, above themselves.  For Woody, there is nothing above the self.  And according to Whedon’s philosophy, he would have to agree with Woody.

But Whedon taps into the universal idea that human beings are called to be moral heroes.  

When I wrote my first film review on this blog about The Avengers, I made reference to how Whedon is much like the doctor in existentialist novelist Albert Camus’ The Plague.  In that story, the main character believes 3 things that all cannot be true at the same time:

  1. The purpose of life is to be a saint.
  2. You cannot be a saint without God.
  3. There is no God.

And the character goes through the novel trying to be a moral hero all the while unable to give an intellectual reason why, since God does not exist.  Camus is most famous for writing the critically acclaimed existentialist The Stranger.  But Camus struggled with his atheism.  Toward the end of his life he was meeting regularly with a priest.  I believe that if his life was not cut short, he would have converted.

And I believe that the way he began that journey away from bleak emptiness towards the light was through his art.

I can see that in Whedon’s writing.  Now I cannot see into Mr. Whedon’s soul (nor Woody’s for that matter).  I am not making the case that his conversion is somehow a forgone conclusion.

What I am saying is that I see great hope for him because of his hope.

As mentioned above, he has no hope for himself.  But in that same interview, he goes on to say, “My stories do have hope because that is one of the things that is part of the solution—if there can be one. We use stories to connect, to care about people, to care about a situation. To turn the mundane heroic, to make people really think about who they are. They’re useful. And they’re also useful to me. Because if I wrote what I really think, I would be so sad all the time. We create to fill a gap—not just to avoid the idea of dying, it’s to fill some particular gap in ourselves. So yeah, I write things where people will lay down their lives for each other ...Hopefully, that need gets translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope. Because if we take that away, then I’m definitely right. I want to be wrong, more than anything. I hate to say it, it’s that line from The Lord of the Rings—“I give hope to men; I keep none for myself.”

You cannot be a hero unless you have hope, not for yourself, but for others.  

Whedon struggles because he wants his characters to have hope but he cannot give them a reason.  Save a life?  That person will die anyway?  Save the world?  The world is going to be destroyed anyway?  

Sometimes he grasps at intellectual straws.  On Angel, the main character concludes life is meaningless but still helps others because (and I’m paraphrasing), “In a meaningless world, an act of kindness is a rare, beautiful thing.”  But of course even if it is rare, there would be nothing objectively beautiful about it.  

In his movie Serenity, a priest (or he calls them “Shepherds”) inspires an atheist hero to action saying, “I don’t care what you believe.  Just believe!”  This is also irrational gibberish.  Beliefs not based in truth are wrong.  No rational person would ever apply that statement to someone who believe stomping on infants was a means to salvation.

My point is that Whedon the man has intellectually accepted existential despair.  But Whedon the artist still has hope.  And in that hope, in that art, he might find illumination.

And that is the best thing that art can do, particularly storytelling.  Woody is right when he says that every work of art will eventually go away.  But art can still be what Tolkien understood it to be: a window into Beauty Itself.

Both Woody and Whedon have closed the door on God.

But if Whedon opens the window to Beauty, he just might find Him.

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