Woody Allen‘s press conference at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday could have driven listeners to despair, if it weren’t so funny.
The points Allen made in his typically bleak, self-deprecating way at the festival where he came to show his new film, “Irrational Man,” include:
> People make irrational choices in their lives every day including the choice to believe in religion.
> If he could reshoot every one of his movies, he would.
> We’re all going to die.
> Life has no meaning.
> Every great work of art will be gone one day.
> The only thing an artist can do is distract people from the bleakness of existence.
> Oh, and he made a huge blunder when he agreed to make an untitled six-episode television series for Amazon.
“It was a catastrophic mistake for me,” the 79-director said to laughter in the Cannes press room. “I’m doing my best with it, but I should never have gotten into it.”
“I thought six half-hours would be a cinch, but it’s not. It’s very, very hard. I’m not good at it, I’m floundering. It could be a cosmic embarrassment.”
But then, the comedy of discomfort and embarrassment has run through Allen’s entire career – including “Irrational Man,” in which Joaquin Phoenix stars as a philosophy professor who starts the movie mired in deep depression, until he perks up at the thought of committing a murder (and at the presence of Emma Stone, with whom he has a fling).
“I think in everybody’s life there are turning points when you suddenly realize that something momentous could happen if you make a choice,” said Allen, who was accompanied at the press conference by Stone and Parker Posey. “In this case, the choice that Joaquin makes is irrational, but it’s not so irrational given the choices that we all make in our lives.
“People need something to believe in. People choose religion — and that’s an irrational choice if they think that if they lead a good life they will die and go to heaven. That’s no less crazy a thought than Joaquin thinking that if he commits this act, his life will turn around for the better.”
He returned to the subject later in the press conference, sliding into a monologue that had the press in stitches even as it sketched a profoundly dark worldview.
“It’s true of any religion,” he said. “The fact that it doesn’t work doesn’t matter. It does make your life better if you have something to believe in.”
“The bottom line is that life has its own agenda, and it runs right over you. We’re all going to end up in a very bad position sooner or later. The same position, but a bad one — and the only way out of it, the only thing you can do as an artist, is to explain to people how life is worth living and has a meaning.”
He shrugged. “Now, you can’t really do that without conning them. We’re living in a random universe with no meaning. Everything that Shakespeare or Michelangelo or Beethoven did will all be gone one day. It’s very hard to sell anyone a bill of goods that there’s any good to this.”
So his tactic, he insisted, is simple: “The only possible way you can beat this is through distraction. I distract myself by making these movies. I think, ‘Oh God, can I get Emma and Parker to get this scene right?’ Like it means something, like if I make a bad movie I’ll die.”
Allen, who said that he always wanted to be a “ponderously serious” filmmaker but only turned to comedy because “that’s where my gifts were,” and nobody would give him money to make serious films, summed up his career this way: “Moviemaking is a nice thing to keep you busy. It’s like they give the inmates in an institution basket weaving or something. It keeps you occupied.”
Then again, maybe he was in a particularly dark mood despite the bright Mediterranean sun outside. After all, press conferences and photo sessions are hardly Allen’s favorite ways to pass his time. When one interviewer asked him if he ever had his own thoughts about murdering someone, he had a quick answer.
“Even as you speak.”