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For the past fifty years, director and actor Woody Allen has evoked much laughter from his neurotic-style comedies. Less recognized, however, is his fascinating ability in utilizing both his stunning, humorous wit along with several philosophical concepts. Such a combination creates an engaged and thoroughly entertained audience, as well as a mentally-stimulated one. In his movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the philosophical concepts Allen touches upon deal with ethical and moral issues. What does ‘do the right thing’ really entail; why not do the opposite if it leads to one’s personal success?
In the absence of a God, who’s to say whether the choices we make are right or wrong? Answering these questions say much about the way one sees the world.
This movie investigates such questions by intertwining two separate, parallel plots: the tragic story of Judah, and the comedic story led by Cliff Stern . There are two key moral positions that underlie the entire movie: Those with faith in God perceive the world as morally structured, forgiving, and full of true meaning.
Those who do not believe in a God see the world as empty, pitiless, and devoid of meaning.
After watching this movie for the third time, a consistent metaphor that integrates these positions revealed itself. Throughout the movie, nearly every scene visually and verbally involves the use of ‘eyes’ to symbolize our perceptions on how we see the world, and how people do not see themselves and events the way others may see it. Although there are several elements, characters, and events worthy of an individual analysis, this paper will concentrate on how Allen’s film represents eyes to unveil hidden truths.
To illustrate the use of ‘eyes’ in this film I will investigate its role in the lives of Judah, Cliff, and Rabbi Ben.
Keep in mind that all four of these characters each wear over-emphasized glasses. Within the first few minutes of the film, Judah reveals he makes his living as an ophthalmologist. Judah’s occupation certainly comes as no coincidence, for it stems from his religious past. During a speech at a charity dinner, Judah relates to the audience this past: “I’m a man of science. I’ve always been a skeptic, but I was raised quite religiously, and while I challenged it even as a child, some of that feeling must have stuck with me. ” He continues to say that his father once told him, “the eyes of God are on us always. Although he revokes his religious background, it’s apparent that this ‘feeling that stuck with him’ manifested itself in his occupation; in order to fill a void which religion would fill. With the removal of “God’s eyes,” Judah made the, perhaps unconscious, decision to take up a job that deals with seeing… thus assuming the role of God. He rhetorically asks the audience, “What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes I assumed. ” Judah’s relationship with his father left him with a sense of awe and fear of these “intense eyes” that could see past his deceitful acts.
So, his concern with vision arises from his compulsion to hide the blemishes of his character. It’s evident that Judah sees himself as a moral man: wealth, success, and a valuable role in the community are reinforced by images of him wearing a tuxedo as he’s accompanied by his family. This “family man” portrayal describes Judah’s external appearance. Wouldn’t a man blessed with this amount of success persisted in doing “the right thing” all along? Judah’s morality is put into question once his mistress sends a letter to his wife, exposing Judah’s devious actions (Judah destroys the letter immediately before his wife sees it).
Judah saw no troubles in fooling around, for his efforts made him happy and he was never caught (there is no God to see his immoral choices). The letter breaks Judah’s illusions of this fantasy world he’s been living. Judah says “it’s as if I’ve awaken from a dream,” to reinforce how he must now face reality. Interestingly enough, at this point Judah now wears a pair of glasses, when forced to look at his values and actions from a different perspective. So in Judah’s case, these glasses represent his inability to see the true nature of the world, which has now directly confronted him.
Judah’s brother, Jack (who sets up for the mistress to be killed), accuses him of not “living in the real world,” due to his state of wealth and privilege. Judah’s success composes this blindness he has of the “real world. ” Jack, defined as pragmatic and amoral, lives in this apparent “real world” for he represents honesty and a lack of illusions even though he exemplifies unjustness. Essentially Judah and Jack adhere to the same moral, or immoral, compass. However Jack acknowledges his lack of morality, while Judah’s success leads him to falsely believe he embodies ‘rightness. Jack represents the dark and immoral side of Judah’s consciousness. With his mistress unable to listen to “logic” and “reason” Judah states, “I manage to keep free of that real world, but suddenly it’s found me. ” Darkness overpowering Judah’s conscious, results in the death of his mistress. Post-murder, guilt plagues Judah, leading him to consider confessing. The camera consistently focuses on his eyes, showing the audience Judah’s shock and dismay towards his own behavior. Afflicted with hallucinations of his religious past, he repeatedly hears the words from his father: “God sees all. Latent, unconscious beliefs in God awaken in Judah’s mind. In reference to the murder he says, “God have mercy on us, Jack” and “Without God, the world is a cesspool. ” Judah’s guilt originates from his fear of getting caught as well as this “moral code” which has now been violated. Fear of “God’s eyes” or perhaps even Judahs father’s law dominate his mind as if they watch his every move, exposing his actions. The film shows Judah consistently looking left and right implying that “something” watches him.
A final blatantly philosophical dialogue takes place as Judah visits his childhood house and envisions a past debate his family members had over morality. According to his father’s religious view, he will be punished even if he is not caught since “that which originates from a black deed will blossom in a foul manner. ” This crime that Judah committed will some way or another be punished. As an opposition, his Aunt Mae provides the model which the film follows: “I say if he can do it and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free. Aunt Mae also encourages Judah’s father to “open his eyes,” disclosing the fact that six million Jews were murdered and Hitler got away with it. We all want to believe that we live in a perfect, moral world where justice is served, however this does not exhibit how the world really is. In fact, Judah proves his Aunt operates as a sort of Oracle. After a period of fear and irritability, Judah proceeds to live his happy life. Guilt passes, and the momentary belief in God grows quiet once more. One morning Judah opens his eyes and sees his conscious is guilt-free and the “crisis is lifted. Judah comes to ‘see’ that God is not watching, and in a world devoid of divine presence, all acts are permissible… including murder. In Judah’s world, the “eyes of God” are attributed to himself. That determines his internal appearance. The second story line deals with a self-styled, passionate yet unsuccessful idealist filmmaker named Cliff (played by Woody Allen). In the opening of this narrative strand, Cliff delivers his beliefs on his world view to his niece after watching a movie: “Don’t listen to what your teachers tell you, just see what they look like, that’s how you’ll know what life’s really about. Cliff asserts that observing and questioning another’s motives elicits their values and true nature. Just listening and accepting the superficial, external appearance leads to a false impression and ignorance. To shatter this external appearance, Cliff uses film as a tool for exposing these lesser known ‘realities. ‘ In fact, ‘eyes’ are symbolized again through filmmaking as a method for displaying new perspectives. Relating to Judah’s world, by the film’s eye the audience maintains the ability to see past his artifice which other characters are blind to.
Furthermore, in a movie that deals with God and seeing, the audience acquires those “God-like eyes” that see all; that Judah feared. In Cliff’s case, he uses film to exploit his foil, Lester. Cliff directs a documentary about television producer Lester (described as rich, famous, and successful), for a program entitled “Creative Minds. ” Contrary to others, Cliff perceives Lester as shallow, pompous, and sub-mental. Lester supports his egotism by referring to his “closet full of Emmys” as an item that symbolizes material success.
Cliff only directs the movie to gain financial support for his documentary about a philosopher named Professor Levy. Cliff describes his philosophical film as more substantial: “See no limos, no bimbos, no awards. This guy is just a thinker, an intellect. ” The tension between Lester comes as a classic ‘flash vs. substance’ debate. Cliff prefers to create films that mentally-stimulate, rather than mindlessly entertain his audience. He wants to film quality films that matter, and have potential to change the world.
Lester sees such ambitions as ‘grandiose fantasies’, favoring frivolous material that will sell and further his fame, usually synonymous with crass commercialism. In the real world, high aspirations do not pay off, you’ve got to deliver. All delivery, no essence. Flash and delivery mask our stigmas and flaws. Creativity sacrificed in return for power and money. Other characters in the film fail to see Lester’s pomposity, because they have been seduced and falsely impressed by his charisma and wealth. Cliff receives a minor victory over Lester when they preview a few scenes Cliff pulled together for the documentary.
This short film reveals Lester seducing a mindless woman, compares him to Mussolini, and has his voice synced over an image of a donkey. The woman represents his shallowness, the donkey as a literal ‘jackass’, and the comparison to Mussolini represents Lester’s narcissism and hunger for power. The fact that Lester’s superficiality rewards him with power ticks Cliff off most, perhaps with a dose of jealousy. As he watches himself from this new perspective, a faint glimmer and widening of Lester’s eye acknowledges the fact that he ‘may not be perfect’ as Lester likes to put it.
However he abandons the thought that he ‘deadens the sensibilities of a great democracy’ as Cliff loves to point out. In other words, this documentary was supposed to create a ‘profile of a creative mind’, however Cliff painted a picture of what he saw instead. Lester refuses to fully accept these notions, affirming this view does not represent the ‘real me’. Cliff questioned Lester’s values, and this contradiction of perceptions lead to Cliff’s removal from the film. As a sub-plot, both Cliff and Lester compete over an associate woman producer, Halley. In Cliff’s world, he believes he will truly win the girl over due to his values.
The film hints at this: it shows Halley shrugging off Lester, making sarcastic comments towards him, and taking interest in Cliff’s side projects. At first, both Cliff and Halley see Lester through the same lens that the preview portrayed him as. During a wedding reception towards the end of the movie, the camera does an excellent job in illustrating how the opposite happens. A slight glimpse reveals Lester and Halley embracing each other, implying they are together. Without any words spoken, the camera depicts what Cliff thinks by focusing intensely on his eyes.
A couple of things can be taken from this: Halley up until this point appears with glasses on. With Lester, she removes her glasses. Halley abandons her glasses, only after she abandons her values. With virtue thrown out the window, she nows sees the once pompous and arrogant Lester as ‘endearing’. Camera focusing on Cliff’s eyes suggests he is in utter disbelief. In his eyes, Cliff deserved the girl, for he promoted grander values. In his world, such atrocities do not occur. He utters a small phrase, “This is my worst fear realized. ” The fear that the world does not operate in accordance with his inner-values.
In the end, Cliff’s espoused idealism led to his ultimate downfall. Clinging to beliefs creates an illusion, an illusion that may betray us. A rabbi named Ben links together both plots. Morality, faith, and forgiveness make up Ben’s character (even Judah and Cliff refer to Ben as a ‘saint’). Ben embodies all the qualities that Judah’s father possessed, they both adhere to religious beliefs. At his core, Ben conceives “Without moral structure, there’s no basis to know how to live! ” Ben relies upon objective, absolute rules to guide his behavior.
Contrary to Jack, Ben represents the latent religious beliefs of Judah’s unconscious. However, Ben’s vision appears to deteriorate as the movie progresses. Ben literally goes blind in the movie. Figuratively Ben’s blindness foreshadows the coming ‘sins’ that occur, and signifies the immoral atmosphere that underlies this movie. Also, Ben’s blindness generalizes the fact that all religions are blind to the cruelty and corruption of the world. When Ben asks Judah if his issues with the mistress were resolved, he bluffs saying the woman eventually ‘gave up and moved away’.
Ben responds “You got lucky! ” Completely oblivious and blind to the actual murder, Ben trusts Judah’s word. As Judah’s success led to his blindness, Ben’s religion does as well. Judah points out Ben resides in the “kingdom of heaven. ” In order to have faith one must disregard the negative, reinforce the positive, and believe we live in a just world. Through the lens of this “kingdom of heaven” justice is served. By dimming the lights on sinful acts, one can happily live about their life in sheltered ignorance. As the film comes to an end, a scene presents Ben sporting a pair of black glasses.
These glasses indicate Ben has gone fully blind, and so has all moralities in this movie. By the end of the film, God abandoned all of society. The universe is indifferent to our actions: an apparent depiction of how the real world truly exists. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” illustrates an existential truth. We all have fantasies, stories we tell ourselves about our expectations of the world. These expectations usually fail to correlate with the way the world really is. We live in an imperfect and Godless world. The murderer prospers, the virtuous man fails, and the superficial succeed.
The good guy does not always get the girl. Open your eyes, realize that all meaning is man-made. Realize that without an objective law mankind is free. Free to choose how we develop ourselves in this world, and where we look to for meaning. The individual is the arbiter on how to live. Our actions define us, not our dogmas. In the words of Professor Levy: “We define ourselves by the choices we make. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly. It is only we, with your capacity to love that gives meaning to the indifferent universe. ”
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