Vicky Cristina Barcelona

March 6, 2009

There’s an essay up at Overcoming Bias entitled “Joy in the Merely Real,” which discusses the poet’s sentiment that science, in its relentless drive to explain and categorize everything, robs the rainbow of all it’s mystical, mysterious coolness. The author of the post argues that science is simply an attempt to describe how the world actually is. If, upon discovering that the rainbow can be understood as a product of some basic properties of light, you no longer believe that it is beautiful, that’s a problem with you, not with the rainbow. There’s nothing inherent to mathematics that forces you to believe nature is less beautiful once you understand some aspects of it. Ultimately, the facts are what they are. How you react to them is your own decision.

The annoying thing about Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that Allen seems to believe that depression and boredom are the only reasonable reactions when one really understands life and love. Thus, the only people in the movie who aren’t depressed and bored are those who are completely vapid. In the film, the deeper your insight into the human condition, the more depressed you are, and appropriately so. You want to be happy and content, but you get bored with mundane things. You strive for monogamy, but you find yourself constantly tempted by all the beautiful people who surround you. You didn’t ask to be born into this condition, but here you are, your entire life being determined by forces over which you have no control. Who wouldn’t be miserable under such circumstances?

This is the dilemma at the heart of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake as well. In short, life is the worst possible combination: People have consciousness, but they don’t have free will. They know that they don’t want to do the things they are doing, but they are compelled to do them anyway. In Vonnegut’s world, as in Woody Allen’s, there is no such thing as morality; everyone acts the way they do because they are being pushed along like miserable leaves on a breeze.

Vonnegut and Allen’s objection to the world boils down to the same thing: there is this person inside each of us, screaming at the injustice of life and wanting things to be different, but that person has no decision-making authority. But there is another philosophical tradition that sees our enlightened selves very differently, and that is Buddhism. Buddhists agree that life is full of suffering, and see that an even greater source of pain is our desire to make the world be as we want it to be. On the other hand, where Allen’s philosophy stops, Buddhism argues that there is a way out, and that is to accept the world as it is and be satisfied with that, rather than constantly comparing it to your own ideal vision. “Who you are” is not a meaningless concept, and the fact that you really do have feelings and emotions does not invalidate the idea that you can take responsibility for your actions.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the message is that it’s not your fault life is so hard and you have all these feelings, so there’s no reason for you to even bother with the notion of “making a decision.” Just do whatever you feel like doing. You should follow your feelings because your feelings are who you are. The only alternatives are to deny your feelings and live in quiet desperation, or to get caught up in material things and going around like an idiot, concerned with nothing more than your electronic entertainment system.

Perhaps it is overly optimistic to expect that you can live up to the Kantian ideal, under which all your decisions come from you and you alone, without any regard for external factors. But Hedonism strikes me as a silly over-reaction in the other direction. If there really is no standard other than your own satisfaction and happiness for how to live, why not choose to live in a way that will make you satisfied and happy? It’s pretty clear from Vicky Cristina Barcelona that, even though Allen believes Hedonism to be the result of a hard-nosed view of human nature, he doesn’t think pursuing it makes people happy.

You don’t have to deny reality to be happy, you just have to get beyond the idea that everyone is either deceiving themselves and thus only thinks they are happy, or understands how terrible the world truly is and is thus unhappy. Allen had it right the first time, back in Annie Hall, when he said

There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

Allen makes a mistake in believing that understanding the world leads inevitably to depression. The characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona are depressed, but that is only because they could never get over the discovery that real life is not perfect.


2 Responses to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    Hmm –

    I think you underestimate Allen. VCB certainly gets at the pathos of determinism, but I don’t think it passes judgment on it to the extent you assume. If anything, I think there’s more of your Buddhism to it – nobody ends up happy, but it’s not like the events within are tragic or depressing – what happens happens, and the characters move on with their lives. No catharsis, just continuation.

    Depression and boredom are certainly familiar feelings to Allen, but there’s a hint of something else that comingles – not optimism exactly, but maybe reverence at the way we muddle along in spite of the depression and boredom that are so prominent. Think of the architectural montage in Hannah and her Sisters. Or the gentle treatment of the menage a trois in VCB – it would be an easy thing to satirize, but it was actually pretty delicate – these sad living stereotypes come together, have sad, stereotypical emotional interactions, and drift apart – but, I got a sense of that being okay, rather than depressing.

    If that made sense.

  2. tincolor Says:

    It’s funny, I had a completely different reaction to VCB. As in, I didn’t think of any of the things you wrote about in your post. To me, VCB is a fundamentally different film than Annie Hall in that in Annie Hall Woody Allen is making a statement directly about people and the relationships that they make, giving, as you said, a fairly direct and clear message about that from Allen himself. Whereas VCB does not contain a message per-se, but rather it is more of a deconstruction of idealized romantic love.

    Allen’s VCB is in many ways Johansson’s short film that she talks about in the opening of the movie, the one about how it’s so hard to define love. What I felt really worked in VCB was that Allen accumulates all of these stereotypes of love, spanish guitar music, Johansson’s romantic idealism, Bardem’s paint splattered artist personal etc. etc. and he constantly reworks all the elements until a portrait of romantic love in its many faces is created. But in the end Johansson is unhappy with her idealized image, and the other girl has learned to view both the positive and perhaps stale elements of her stable relationship with mister sweater around the shoulders. I’ll try to explain myself a little bit clearer later, but I feel that VCB is a collection of stereotypes, idealizations and juxtapositions of the two culminating not in a standard Allen closing monologue, but in a sense ending as a kind of case study would, with Allen saying, here’s what happened what do you think?

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