Crimes and Misdemeanors
d. Woody Allen / 1989 / USA / 104 mins
Viewed at: The Box @ FACT (Liverpool, UK)
Every now and then, a film just leaves me floored. Not in an ‘Oh my God, that film was sooooo amazing’ kind of way, but more like ‘Oh my God, what can you possibly say about that’. Undoubtedly one of Woody Allen’s finest efforts, I find Crimes and Misdemeanors to be simply so broad, and so deep, that it seems almost futile to try and elicit some sort of plain spoken reaction to it, especially in a throwaway blog post.
That this is a good film is beside the point. As the notoriously immoral 1980s drew to a close in a hail of mock-virtuosity and political turmoil, Allen created a film that takes in a philosophical view of that morality and virtue, and provides a damning exegesis on the ethical implications of how we appear to others, how we see and are seen.
When Cliff Stern – a filmmaker struggling with honesty and integrity – tells his documentary crew that “Comedy is Tragedy + Time”, it is more than just another Allen alter ego raising a quasi-intellectual chuckle, it’s a broader comment on the underlying themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors. It reminds us that every act – from the globally significant to the practically meaningless – is entirely dependent on how it is viewed, where it is viewed from, who it is viewed by and – most pertinently – how its impact has been ravaged by time and the imperfections of memory.
But rather than continuing to blather about the Aristotelian virtuous man or Dostoyevskyian ideas about the weight of conscience and the inefficiency of justice, I can only recommend seeing Crimes and Misdemeanors itself, and marveling at the skill of an intellectual filmmaker at the peak of his powers.
ADDENDUM: I can’t let all this serious discussion pass without mentioning the circumstances of my first encounter with Crimes and Misdemeanors. I saw the film as part of the final session of the Film and Philosophy course at FACT Liverpool, but the night before I had watched an episode of Family Guy entitled Chick Cancer, in which Peter decides to direct a chick-flick and Stewie reencounters an old flame. Filled with densely packed pop-culture references (as always), this particular episode featured a couple of Woody Allen bits that I got, and one I did not.
Stewie and his girlfriend sitting on a park bench and quietly berating passers-by was a clear reference to Annie Hall, while their encounter under a bridge was yoinked from Manhattan. I had figured that Stewie’s adversary was some kind of reference too; a pompous, self-important Hollywood type, muttering notes into a dictaphone in a voice that sounded very much like Alan Alda. It turns out it wasn’t Alda, but it was a direct (and rather accurate) reference to his portrayal of Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the commercial comic foil to Cliff’s ‘serious’ documentarian.
Once again, it’s important to remember that – even if you’re only watching a puerile cartoon – we can only see what we can see, and all we can see is what we know. You know?