It was a little surprising to hear that Woody Allen would be doing press for his new movie Magic in the Moonlight, a period romantic comedy starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone opening in limited release on July 25. The 78-year-old filmmaker is coming off an nasty public battle over renewed accusations that he molested his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was 7 years old, the kind of ugliness that often leads distributors to hide someone away while directing attention to the less controversial members of the cast and crew.
But Allen, along with Firth and co-star Jacki Weaver, showed up in New York today to address gathered journalists for a press conference ahead of which everyone was cautioned to keep their questions to the movie. It didn't matter — Allen instead directed the conversation to a monologue on his particular views on existence. It's a theme not unrelated to the movie, in which Firth plays an illusionist who tries to debunk a spiritualist played by Stone, all the while hoping that her psychic powers are real and proof of something beyond the known in the universe. When asked about why so many of his main characters are neurotic and believe life is meaningless, Allen unleashed the following spiel:
"I firmly believe, and I don't say this as a criticism, that life is meaningless," he began. "I'm not alone in thinking this — there have been many great minds far, far superior to mine, that have come to that conclusion. And unless somebody can come up with some proof or some example where it's not, I think it is. I think it's a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and that's just the way I feel about it."
"I'm not saying that one should opt to kill oneself," Allen said. "But the truth of the matter is, when you think of it, every 100 years, there's a big flush, and everybody in the world is gone. And there's a new group of people. And that gets flushed, and there's a new group of people. And this goes on and on interminably — and I don't want to upset you — toward no particular end, no rhyme or reason."
"And the universe, as you know from the best of 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 shorter than you think, really, because the sun is going to burn out much earlier than the universe vanishes, so you don't have to wait for the universe to vanish. It'll happen earlier than that. So all these plays and these symphonies, the height of human achievement, will be gone completely. There'll be no time, no space, nothing at all. Just zero.
"That's why over the years, I've never written or made movies about political themes. Because while they do have current critical importance, in the large scheme of things, only the big questions matter, and the answers to those big questions are very, very depressing. What I would recommend — this is the solution that I've come up with — is distraction.
"That's all you can do! You get up, you can be distracted by your love life, by the baseball game, by the movies, by the nonsense. Can I get my kid into this private school? Will this girl go out with me Saturday night? Can I think of an ending for the third act of my play? Am I going to get the promotion in my office? All this stuff, but in the end the universe burns out. So I think it's completely meaningless, and to be honest, my characters portray this feeling. Have a good weekend."
Despite the punch line, Allen actually had more to say about how movies have provided that distraction for him. "I've spent the last 45 years escaping into movies," he said. "I work with beautiful women and charming men, funny comedians and dramatic artists. I'm presented with costumes and great music to choose from and sets and I travel a certain amount to places. So for my whole life I've been living in a bubble. And I like it."
Allen described the job of an artist as to provide a temporary respite from "the grimmest reality." "I've thought to myself at times that there's a story in two filmmakers. One filmmaker makes films that are deep, intellectual, profound, and confrontational, and the other one makes purely vacuous, escapist films, and I'm not sure if the one who makes the escapist films is not making a bigger contribution than the one who makes the deeper films.
"You're in the world and it's so terrible and all these things are going on, and you go into a dark room, the movie theater, and you're there for an hour and a half, and Fred Astaire is dancing. It's like drinking a cold drink on a hot day, and you're refreshed, and you walk back out into the terrible heat, and you can take it for another few hours, maybe more. The artist can't give you an answer that's satisfying to the dreadful reality that's your own existence, so the best you can do is maybe entertain people and refresh them, and then they can go on and meet the onslaught until they're sunken and crushed and then somebody else comes along and picks them up a little bit."
In the midst of his affirmation of the power of and need for fantasy, Allen did say something that had a tinge of real-world resonance. When speaking of the divide between reality and fantasy, Allen brought up The Purple Rose of Cairo. "The problem is, in that movie, Mia Farrow had to choose between reality and illusion, and she had to choose reality, because if you choose illusion it's crazy. You can't, you'd just go mad.
"So she choose reality, and it hurt her in the end," he said.