The studio execs are shallow, his fans pesky. And yet, when the void moment arrives, it suddenly seems as though they might be onto something. Job, of the Hebrew bible, takes his complaints straight to God; Sandy gets the modern equivalent: a close encounter. He asks a group of space aliens: "Why is there so much human suffering … is there a God … If nothing lasts, why am I bothering to make films, or do anything for that matter?" Echoing Sandy's fans, the aliens say they enjoy his films, "particularly the early, funny ones," and shrug off his anguish. Sure, the human condition is discouraging, but "there are some nice moments, too." No, Sandy shouldn't "stop making movies and do something that counts" (as he suggests). If he wants "to do mankind a real service" he should "tell funnier jokes."
Are the aliens, and by extension the studio execs and fans, correct in thinking Sandy should stick to comedy? That when confronted with depressing facts about the universe, the best solution is to distract yourself with humor? Or is that a shamefully insufficient response to suffering? The movie doesn't provide a sure perspective—it raises these questions, but doesn't answer them.
It's this sort of earnest handwringing that leads some critics to hail Allen as a genius and others to wish, like Sandy Bates' fictional fans, that he'd go back to banana-peel gags. Naturally, I count myself in the former category, and further deny the common accusation that his "serious" films are intolerably self-indulgent, pleasing only to viewers who majored in Comparative Literature and believe in the curative powers of psychoanalysis.
The proof, for me, that Allen's obsessing represents a smart—and evolving—examination of the Big Questions lies in Crimes and Misdemeanors(1989), which contains not just one but several sustained void moments, of the howling variety, liable to make any critic with an ironic sensibility blush with embarrassment. I might blush, too, if the scenes weren't so affectingly done.
Allen divides the cast along moral lines: There are those who believe there is a moral framework to the universe (with or without God), those who reject notions of value and responsibility, and those who haven't yet decided which side to take. The central character, Judah (Martin Landau), is in the third camp, but when his former mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) threatens to reveal their past to his wife, he ventures into the second. Not willing to accept the repercussions on his marriage, he has Dolores murdered, and manages to live without guilt. Occasionally heavy-handed—you can tell who's who because (I'm not kidding) the moral characters wear glasses—the film's refutation of the concept that murder will out is nevertheless affecting. I'm certain that any non-psychopath will feel positively disturbed when Judah embraces his wife in the last scene.
Here is a character just like so many others Allen created—rich, successful, Jewish, brainy—who, unlike so many others, finds contentment through nihilism. For the nameless woman at the museum in Play It Again, Sam, the logical response to "the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity" is suicide, and we're asked to laugh. For Judah it's murder, and we're asked to despair.
There's a sort of corollary to "void moments" in Allen's films, which, for the sake of parallelism, I call "art moments." These address whether or not creative work is an antidote to emptiness; and over the many hours—conservatively, 120—I've spent watching and rewatching Allen's movies, I've looked out for them keenly. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), for example, contains an art moment that makes my 120 hours seem like a rational use of time. After a medical false alarm, Mickey Sachs (Allen) has a crisis—he quits his job and nearly commits suicide, but then he wanders into a showing of the Marx Brothers'Duck Soup and finds it funny. He thinks, "What if the worst is true? What if there's no God, and you only go around once and that's it? Well, you know, don't you want to be part of the experience?" Art allows Mickey to rediscover pleasure. Not long after his Duck Soup epiphany, he falls in love and gets married.
As with the void moments, the message of the art moments varies. Deconstructing Harry (1997), which considers the merits of art from the artist's perspective, presents creative work as a consolation of last resort for those too pathetic to hack it in reality. Here, art doesn't help you appreciate life; it walls you off from its disappointments.
Like Stardust Memories, Deconstructing Harry follows an artist attending a ceremony in his honor and reminiscing over past relationships. Like The Purple Rose of Cairo(in which a character steps off a movie screen and falls in love with an audience member), it knocks down the wall between fiction and reality—Harry (Allen), a writer possibly modeled on Philip Roth, meets several of his creations. And, as in any number of Allen's films, the protagonist worries about his place in the cosmos. Nevertheless, Deconstructing Harry feels distinct from the rest of the catalog, because Allen plays a character who is not just annoying or neurotic but actually hateful. Harry borrows story lines from his real life for his fiction and in the process alienates his friends by revealing their secrets and portraying them as ridiculous. He is stubborn and refuses to apologize for his misbehavior, even when he sleeps with his psychologist-wife's patient. ("I'm as much a victim as you! You think getting a blowjob from a big-bosomed 26-year-old is a pleasurable thing for me?")