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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Get your Woody on. 

Saw Match Point last week, and after heavy recommendation sat myself down with a Netflixed copy of Crimes & Misdemeanors to see the previous "last great Woody Allen movie." Certainly most reviews cite C&M as such, though I find it odd that these same critics neglect to mention the many... shall we say, stylistic similarities... between the two films. I felt much the same after seeing Blood Simple for the first time a few years after the Coen Brothers' "return to form" in Fargo, the latter of which seemed to me to be a cover song rendition of the former. The dialogue, the camera angles, the questions asked and ruminated upon in both sets of films are much the same, so that I think it's a mistake to consider them anything but companion pieces from the same artist (or artists) at different points in their lives.

C&M is an altogether more optimistic film, though in both films the guilty party "gets away" with the crime he's committed. I say this because the differences between the protagonists in these movies -- remorseful and stupidly selfish Landau versus callously calculating Rhys Meyers -- are instructive. Meyers is young, aware, and carries a reservation in his demeanor that only reveals passion when engaged in an illicit affair. With Landau, we only see the tragic, bitter end of his extramarital affair: the inconvenient phone calls, the fights, the desperate kicking and screaming, even a grossly inappropriate confession to a nonetheless sympathetic patient. With Meyers, it's quite a different show: Heedless lust and sensuality enjoyed with a bombshell that has the air of the tawdry about her, quickly turned to annoyance, inconvenience, and finally desperation as his dalliances threaten his very comfortable and completely unearned existence. When Landau finally takes the immoral route -- choosing to silence the mistress permanently rather than confessing to his wife before she can -- he does so through proxies, and never once dirties his own hands. (Though it's important that he does force himself to witness her dead body, previous to its discovery by the police.) Meyers, though obviously moved by passionate desperation, concocts and pulls off the murder of his own devising completely by himself. Both succeed, but only one of them ever felt the need to reach out to anyone else, to cast about before solutions before acting.

Or, perhaps, Landau simply wanted to hear justifications to convince himself there was no other way to act. Regardless, Meyers saw no need to confide in anyone but himself. He is his own God, and it never occurs to him that any judge outside of himself might have an opinion worthy of consideration. Landau feels true remorse. Meyers only hopes not to be caught.

In the universe of both movies, there is an absence of objective morality -- or, at the very least, an absence of immediate retaliation by God or karma immediately after a grave crime is committed in order to cover up a longer-term sin. But in Match Point, luck itself takes central stage in the story, arbitrarily ruling in favor of this or that character with all the unpredictably of, well, chance. Roger Ebert is accurate in saying that the cops looking for the truth in MP are "too smart and logical to figure this one out." True enough. Allen's universe is one devoid of anything but action, reaction, and chance. At least, as far as the characters can see.

In C&M, there exists two threads of story tenuously connected by Landau's profession. Woody Allen's character and circumstances plays the (at first) comedic counterpoint to the tragedy of Landau's end-of-affair, though Allen's situation becomes progressively less funny and more and more pathetic and hopeless. (Comedy is tragedy plus time, the obnoxious Alan Alda character repeats throughout the movie. I was immediately reminded of this TCJ cover.) No such comfort of counterpoint exists in MP -- no blind rabbi with an optimistic disposition, no reasonable and articulated voice for objective morality, no lighter counterpart to suggest that even in the face of hardship one can soldier on without giving in to despair or villainy.

Perhaps it's the upbringing of the two characters. In C&M, we are treated to multiple flashbacks of Landau's rabbinic father -- in one stunning scene, Landau is even allowed to address the family of his youth as an adult, quietly pleading for some kind of final ruling that sounds convincing to him. Meyers' past is much more piecemeal, only spoken by the man himself, alluding to an upbringing devoid of anything but social climbing and personal social darwinism. I'm tempted to say this belies Allen's view of the new breed of young professionals, but I don't know enough of Allen the man. I couldn't say for sure.

Throughout C&M, the primary leads (Allen and Landau) never meet until the movie's epilogue "four months later." I found myself completely floored by a perfect meta moment -- Landau confronting the literal God of his existence, the writer and director of his every action -- to give his first confession since the murderous act was committed. Woody Allen, Landau's god, suggests that the 'perfect murderer' realize that if God will not punish him, he must become his own God and punish himself by turning himself in. Landau balks and walks away, scot free. It's been four months, after all, and there's no sign that Landau will ever be caught or punished for what he's done. He seems at ease now, all this time later: A man who's swallowed what he's done and is ready to move on with his life. No longer does he feel the nagging need to do the "right" thing.

Also instructive is the age divide between the two protagonists. Perhaps Allen means to imply that only a young man, someone not weighed down by decades of action and consequence, could pull off such a monstrous action because of his relative unawareness of the horror of his actions. Landau, as an older doctor who's spent much of his life helping people, and much more of it ruminating on his father's religious instruction. Meyers is devoid of any such upbringing -- or, at least, if he had any, saw no use for any of it.

Which is worse? The man who struggles and kicks and fights and finally settles into his comfortable villainy, or the man who never thinks to fight in the first place?

Anyone who's seen the movies and knows more about thematic trends in Allen movies, please chime in. I'm no expert and I'd like to hear more.

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