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"Irrational Man" makes all kinds of evil possible

Woody Allen seems to be unable to stray far from the theme of murder: under what conditions would someone murder someone else. What happens when someone does commit murder? "Irrational Man" is a case in point.

A philosopher at a college in Rhode Island teaches a class in situational ethics, and lives the situation and ethics as much as he teaches the course. He lacks motivation and is looking for something, or someone to give his life meaning. His course mirrors some of the philosophers that he teaches, like Kierkegaard.

Emma Stone, one of his students, is drawn to him like a patient needing care. She is the nurse, he is the patient.

He attends a party, where he shocks the younger students by playing Russian Roulette, with real bullets, scaring Emma Stone. The result is that she feel even more attached to him, and wanting to give him hope.

We have a contradiction in this movie; many of the philosophers place contingencies on meaning in life, to the point that it is impossible to achieve meaning. On the other hand, Allen introduces music throughout the film, Ramsey Lewis’ The “In” Crowd. It’s a strange selection, since Lewis’ music seems to celebrate life. But Abe Lucas does not really want to celebrate life.

On the contrary, his choices seem to celebrate the result of death. What happens when a life is snuffed out? Is life better or worse? What happens when people take it upon themselves to decide who lives and who dies?e

The “In” Crowd was recorded at Bohemian Caverns, a jazz night club in Washington, D.C. Ironically, it close the year after the release of Irrational Man. It’s not like a studio recording; it has cheering, clapping, the audience moving with the band, encouraging celebrating life.

The music does not seem to be in sync with the plot of Irrational Man. Rather than celebrating creativity and performance, the movie seems to celebrate death, if anything. It may be the perfect death. But it’s still death. Or is it? What if it celebrates the reawakening of life through death? One man dies, another man lives, by the choice of one man. It’s not like a duel or that one of the men in this tryst had a chance or saw the other one coming. It’s not like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Just so, Lucas says he gets Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, the staggering cost of committing a crime. Or does he? It’s quite the opposite in the movie. Lucas seems to count the cost, but continue in his quest for equanimity, through acting like God. He has counted the cost and decided that he, better than anyone else, should do something about injustice.

What happens when professors so live their philosophy that their lives become as futile as their thinking? Must they do things that bring meaning to their lives because they essentially become meaningless?

(The movie is slightly racist, since the only black person is the movie is a secretary who shows him to his temporary residence. Not including the music, which is by Lewis, who is black).

Emma Stone, who plays Jill, narrates the story, with Phoenix:

Human reason is troubled by questions it cannot dismiss, but also cannot answer.

Morality, choice - the randomness of life, esthetics, murder?

I think Abe was crazy from the beginning.

Was it from stress. Was it from anger? Was he disgusted by what he saw as life’s never ending suffering. Or was he simply bored by the meaninglessness of day to day existence.

He was so damn interesting and different, and a good talker. And he could always cloud the issue with words.

Existentialists feel that nothing happens until you hit rock bottom.

Among the main existentialist philosophers were Soren Kierkegaard, Frederich Nietzsche, John Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The movie mentions Kierkegaard and Sartre.

An existentialist could either be a religious moralist, agnostic relativist, or an amoral atheist.

Lucas: Emotionally, I was at Zabriskie Point, or part of the counter culture.  But is this no more than his attachment to a hard liquor flask? 

Lucas teaches young Jill’s ethical strategies class. 

Jill: He’s very radical, or very original. You either love him or hate him. His wife ran off with his best friend.

Lucas: Kant would argue, that in a truly moral world, there is absolutely no room for lying. Even the smallest lie, destroys his best categorical imperative.

Kant would say that if a killer came to your house, looking to kill a man hiding upstairs and asked you where he was, you would be obliged to tell. him.

In his perfect world, you couldn’t lie.

I can see the logic that if you open the door just a crack, you accept the world where lying is permitted.

You would say if the Nazis came to your house and asked if Anne Frank was hiding in the attic, you would have to say she is upstairs.

Actually that wasn’t what he was saying. He was wondering if lying should be permitted in some situations, like the situation that Lucas refers to.

Lucas: There is a difference between theory and reality.

Real nasty, ugly life.that includes greed and hate.and genocide.

If you learn nothing else from me, you should learn that most of philosophy is verbal masturbation.

Kierkegard: When making every day decisions, we have absolute freedom of choice. You can do nothing or anything. And this feeling of freedom creates a sense of dread. A dizzy feeling. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.

Lucas reflects on the banality of life as a teacher. Instead of being excited about stimulating the mind of students, he is bored:

Another batch of kids. Nice kids but mediocre kids, who will shape the world with their passivity.

Usually the students parrot what they have read, but I found your thinking fresh and well presented, speaking about Stone.

I was very influenced by your ideas on randomness and chance.

When you disagreed with me, your arguments were well reasoned and original, Lucas says of his student.

His idea of existence is too bleak for her, like there are no redeeming joys or pleasures. When I look back at all that verbal posturing.

You want to see a difference to save the world, but when you see what you’re up against . . . 

There was no way I could have realized during that first discussion that there was a lot wrong with Abe. He was so fascinating and vulnerable. I must say that I found him attractive.

I always loved the Russian writers, especially Dosteyevsky.

Dosteyevsky got it.

But if D got it, his ideas did not seem to make an impression of him.

If the Russian writers wrote about anything, they wrote about good and evil not as something abstract, but as something that gnaws away at the insides of people.

While Allen seems to explore good and evil, he does not have a solution.

He’s brilliant, but he’s a sufferer. He was traumatized because his best friend was killed in Iraq. You know his mother committed suicide; she drank bleach.

In other words, selective pathos. The student has compassion on her professor, her mentor. But he does not reciprocate the feeling towards humanity.

It’s obvious.that she, as a much younger woman, is drawn to the strangeness of Lucas.

Is it a coincidence that his step daughter was attracted to him?

What this really gets at is that Allen was also attracted to a younger woman, who started out as his step child in his household.

Simone DeBouvier pointed out, that 

In a society shaped by men, women are thought of as beings existing only in relationship to men.

I agree with that completely.

Bouvier was a French writer, existentialist philosopher. Intellectual, political activist, feminist and social theorist. She had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory. She is known for her 1949 monograph, The Second Sex.  a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. She is also known for her open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Bouvier actively seduced many of her female students:

She and Jean-Paul Sartre developed a pattern, which they called the “trio,” in which de Beauvoir would seduce her students and then pass them on to Sartre. De Beauvoir and Sartre would both take part in political campaigns to abolish the age of consent laws for sexual relationships in France.

What is the upshot? When one must create one’s own sense of morality, it often devolves to the baser instincts  - fulfilling sexual desires.

Bouvier and Sartre never married. They didn’t have any children.

But back to the movie:

Stone: (On night stands). Do you find that fulfilling?

I did it for a time. It had a certain frantic quality.

One day it stopped being exciting.

I couldn’t find a reliable painkiller, the orgasm.

I couldn’t remember the reason for living.

And when I did, it wasn’t convincing.

What if it wasn’t a distraction. What if you decided to commit yourself to one person?

At a college student party: An attractive coed says, what’s Russian Roulette? She is the stereo typical.stupid cute girl insulted by Allen: The stereotype is: if a girl is cute, she is not typically very smart; smart girls who attend schools like Harvard or Yale are unattractive, like Lena Olin.

And why do they do this for money or what?

The young student, who has a party in his rich parents house:

If you want to kill yourself, go to the chem labs full of cyanide. Don’t do it in front of us.

Allen has all of these clues to the end or demise of the movie, or main character, even though it’s hard to remember them all.

Lucas: This is an existential lesson better than in the textbooks.

50 50 odds is better than most people get in life.

He’s so self destructive, but he’s so brilliant.

He writes very well, very lively. It’s a triumph of style.

The substance just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

His ideas are romantic, but so flawed.

I fear for him, I do.

Romantics think suicide is romantic.

Jill:  The truth is that I was attracted to Abe because he was a lost soul.

He was an original thinker. The problem was he had no zest for life.

He had no zest for life. No clear reason for living.

I wanted so much to help him.

Lucas: My bullshit book on Martin Heidegger is not going to make a scintilla of difference to the world.

I started out to be a world changer and ended up a passive intellectual who can’t fuck.

What Allen seems to be attempting is either to condemn his behavior or justify them - the fact that he developed a relationship with one of his adopted children when she was a teenager, and then married her.

If this was wrong, and many people would say it is, how does he reconcile his own life.

Lucas: I was teetering on some kind of - unable to deal with my feelings of anger, frustration, futility.

They( say that drowning is a painless way to go. Actually, drowning is not all that painless. It’s actually quite horrible. Swallowing water. Sounds inhumane.

Kierkegard. Sickness unto death.

You suffer from some kind of despair.

(Thomas Spangler is the judge).

Frank sticks her kids in the corner of a garage.

(Not likely, but it fits the male stereotype).

I’m going to lose my kids.

(The opposite thing happens to men, but because it’s a woman,

we feel sorry for her. We don’t feel sorry for men who have bad spouses).

I wish he got cancer.

It’s not logical to wish that someone got cancer, because if he did, it would probably not have an immediate effect on the custody of children, nor is it likely that a male judge would be that biased. It’s actually more likely that a female judge would be biased again the father, and grant custody to the mother, even though there is evidence against it.

Lucas: He won’t get cancer. If you want him dead, you have to make it work.

You could kill him but you would be a prime suspect.

On the other hand, I could kill him for you lady, and no one in the world would know that I did it.

I could rid you of this roach and end all your suffering.

I could perform this blessing for this woman and no one would connect be to it.

I don’t know any of the parties involved, I have no motive and when I walk out of here, I will never lay eyes on these people again.

Everything about killing this judge turned me on.

The idea of killing to rid the world of the kind of vermin that makes the world a hell for all of us.

I was intrigued by the challenge of pulling off the perfect murder.

It was a high stakes risk, but the risk made me feel alive.

I’d be rooting for him to have a heart attach, as awful as that sounds.

Lucas:Some people die, and because of their death, the world becomes a slightly better place.

Jill: He could be a terrible judge, but a loving father.

Lucas: Even if he was a good family man, that’s like those mafia bosses who do horrible things and we are supposed to cut them slack because they are wonderful to their wives and children?

You have to resist the temptation to overthink a very clear cut issue.

A judge is not impartial as he ought to be, 

I know it’s ugly to say it, he’s a roach and he needs to be stamped out.

Lucas: I embraced my freedom to chose action.

I was racing with ideas, plans to kill judge Spangler.

Thanks to a serendipitous encounter with a woman, my life finally had purpose.

When I finally did fall asleep, I slept the sleep of the just.

I made a big decision last night. To take control of my own life.

The trick is to not examine things too closely, not to debate every issue, but to go with your gut feeling. Choose action. To do, rather to observe and get lost in some cliques.

To be drunk with air. Not to have to rely on single malt scotch.

Jill: You know I’m in love with you.

Lucas: What you are is being in love with the romantic concept of being i love with your college professor.

Lucas: In the first time in so long, I felt free. A limitless freedom.

My zest for life had returned, and the driving force of this is my rock solid determination to save a mother of two and rid the world of this judge.

Back to his college class.

Continental philosophy is so much more personal.

It’s not just what does it mean. But what does it mean for me.

Luck rules the universe. We are all at the mercy of chance.

Lucas: You don’t want to get involved in an extremist like me.

Jill: I can be just as risk-taking as you.

But the reality, at least in the movie, is that she can't take as many risks with human life as Lucas will.


"Irrational man" and an irrational gorilla (2)

Big Brother Holtschneider (Rolf) keeps students (Liesl) safe from the dangerous world of Milo