There’s a moment in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (photographed by Sven Nyqvist, ASC) in which his character, Cliff Stern, visits his aging parents at their apartment in Brooklyn. In the midst of an existential crisis, Cliff asks his off-camera father a simple but perplexing question: “Why were there Nazis?” The elder Stern’s reply from the next room always strikes me as hilarious. “I don’t know how this can opener works, and he wants to know why there were Nazis?” This’s not just funny, it’s clever. Besides the obvious intent, Allen is making a point that’s worth a closer look.
Who can’t help but feel that we’re living in a world turned upside down? Despite humanity’s amazing advancements, it seems we can never figure out how to deal with one another. We have so much in common yet we’re so divided. Political lines have never been more polarized, discourse never so bitter. True and lasting peace is a tenuous concept, and though we’d like to believe our elected officials are doing their best on our behalf, that’s rarely the case. I’m not defending them, but how can they? In order to function in their arena, morality must be malleable, its application tailored to the situation they’re facing. Does virtuous behavior always draw its meaning from the same source, or does it merely reflect what someone says it does in order to suit the moment? The willingness to make this distinction marks the dividing line between good and bad character.
Clearly, the motion-picture industry is not a meritocracy. The cream does not always rise to the top. It’s filled with instances of good people who did their jobs well and faithfully only to find themselves chewed up by bad political situations or the greed, incompetence or madness of those they worked for. There’s no shortage of examples that would lead one to believe it’s not a magnet for sociopaths and egomaniacal lunatics. Nonetheless, we’re also privileged to work among some brilliant and talented professionals whose decency, humility and gratitude somehow shines through in even the worst of situations.
It’s those individuals – those people of good character – whom everyone needs to recognize and pay more attention to. By concentrating on what makes them tick rather than giving in to the dark side, there might be a way to turn the ship away from the rocks. And in the process we might for once attain that elusive state that I suspect Woody Allen’s Cliff Stern was after while badgering his parents in their low-rent railroad flat: peace of mind.