Throughout the movie Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen, the characters of Judah and Lester have similarities and differences that reflect Alan Watts’ main theme of morality and insecurity in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity.
Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors intertwines two stories. The first involves Judah. Judah is a wealthy eye doctor and family man, who has had a two year affair with Dolores. Dolores threatens to go public regarding the affair and Judah’s shady financial dealings unless Judah leaves his wife. Judah calls on his mobster brother to kill Dolores, which he arranges and has committed. The second storyline involves Cliff, a nerdy and unsuccessful documentary filmmaker, who is in an unhappy marriage. While working on a documentary about a TV personality named Lester, Cliff falls in love with Halley, a network producer. Halley rebuffs Cliff because he is married. When Cliff finally gets divorced, Halley has become engaged to Lester.
Throughout both storylines discussions arise about God’s role in establishing ethical values, and whether the world would be valueless if God didn’t exist. Judah and Lester are both financially successful. Each of them has an enormous support network of family and friends, admirers (both personal and professional). Though they both use women for their own self-centered needs, to their immediate women, they both have the capacity to be warm, caring, and romantic. Judah is the type of person who doesn’t bask in his success and is very humble while Lester is a gloater, self-promoter, shameless, and pompous. Lester continually uses woman for his own personal image while Judah only used one women, Dolores, to fulfill his loneliness. Another key difference between Lester and Judah is that Judah is a smoker while Lester is a non-smoker. This is symbolic of Judah’s addictive personality.
Allen used eyes as a pervasive metaphor in the film. Judah is an eye doctor, the rabbi, Ben, eventually goes blind. Crimes and Misdemeanors is about people who don’t see. They don’t see themselves as others see them and they don’t see the right and wrong of situations. The rabbi is not only physically blind but metaphorically blind to other things, to the realities of life. The rabbi’s blindness is also a gift, he’s blessed and lucky because he has the best gift anyone could have, he has genuine religious faith.Although Allen claims that the rabbi is detached from the reality of the world, clearly Judah is as detached as the rabbi if not more. During an imaginary conversation with Rabbi Ben, Judah describes three levels of aloofness that are characterized in the movie by himself and Ben. In both cases, aloofness is caused by a particular worldview. In the case of Ben, the view is that the world originates from a wholly good God. In the case of Judah, it is the view that he himself is a moral person, which view causes him to ignore his own questionable moves.
In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Watts argues that our primary mode of relinquishing presence is by leaving the body and retreating into the mind. Although Judah doesn’t technically leave his body, in the scene where he visits his old house we see an example of someone retreating into their mind. Visiting his childhood house, Judah imagines his family celebrating the Passover dinner, discussing religion and morality. He asks what happens if a man kills. The image of his father answers that one way or another he, the sinner, will be punished. Judah’s uncle interjects and states that only if the man that killed is caught he will be punished. His aunt makes a very important statement that pertains to Judah’s overall conclusion of the situation. She states that if he can do it and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics of the situation, then he’s scot-free.
Judah retreats into his mind in order to self-evaluate his seething cauldron of thoughts, anxieties, and moralities. To be clear, the mind as a worthless or fundamentally perilous human faculty is not dismissed by Watts. Watts in all actuality insists that if we let its unconscious wisdom unfold– like for instance in the memory scene– it is our ally rather than our antagonist. It is only when we try to control it and turn it against itself that problems arise.
The brain produces our insecurity and existential anxiety amidst a universe of constant flux. Paradoxically, recognizing that the experience of presence is the only experience is also a reminder that our “I” doesn’t exist beyond this present moment, that there is no permanent, static, and immutable “self” which can grant us any degree of security and certainty for the future– and yet we continue to grasp for precisely that assurance of the future, or in Judah’s case the assurance of his innocence, which remains an abstraction.
Our only chance for awakening from this vicious cycle, Watts argues, is bringing full awareness to our present experience.Happiness, Watts argues, isn’t a matter of improving our experience, or even merely confronting it, but remaining present with it in the fullest possible sense. We don’t actually realize that there is no security, Watts asserts, until we confront the myth of fixed selfhood and recognize that the solid “I” doesn’t exist. And yet that is incredibly hard to do, for in the very act of this realization there is a realizing self. What makes us unable to live with pure awareness, Watts points out, is the ball and chain of our memory.
Judah and Cliff meet up at the end of the film, and Judah presents an anonymous version of the murder– as though it might be a plot for a movie. It becomes clear that Judah got away with the murder, and suffered no long-term guilt and in the end is overall happy.