Woody Allen and the Abandonment of Guilt
- Monday, February 20, 2006
In considering filmmaking as a pure visual art form, Woody Allen would have to be considered a master of the medium. From his humble beginnings as a comedy writer and filmmaker, he has emerged as a major influential force in Hollywood. Actors flock to his projects just to have a chance to work with him. He is funny, creative, and philosophical in his musings about love, life, and death.
Woody Allen is an Oscar award-winning director and screenwriter. His latest film, "Match Point," has garnered another screenwriting nomination for Allen from the Academy. And while industry buzz is growing behind "Crash" screenwriters Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco to win, Allen's nomination is not a courtesy nod to an aging dinosaur. Most critics have hailed "Match Point" as Allen's comeback film – a movie that demonstrates that Allen is still performing at the height of his powers. "Match Point" most closely resembles another of Allen's Oscar-nominated films – 1990's "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Comparing these two critically-acclaimed films shines a light not only on Woody Allen's dark and cynical writer's journey, but also on a culture that consistently chooses to honor his work.
Crimes and Misdemeanors – Sin and Struggle
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is an odd morality tale. Judah Rosenthal is an ophthalmologist who has been carrying on an affair for over two years. When his mistress threatens to call his wife, he contracts to have her killed. Throughout the film, characters attempt to make sense of their moral universe. Judah struggles with his guilt and at one point seems so driven by his belief that he must be punished for his sin that he nearly decides to call the police to turn himself in. He is dissuaded by a veiled threat from his mob-connected brother Jack (who arranged the murder at Judah's request). As time goes by, Judah finds that he is not punished – not by the secular authorities or by God. After a while, even the guilty feelings fade away. He decides that the idea that evil is always punished is only true in the movies. In real life, people get away with it. Judah pushes aside his guilt, returns to his privileged life and walks off, with his wife, into the sunset.
Allen comes down on the wrong side of the moral equation in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" because he is unwilling, or unable, to take into account the judgment of God in the world to come. His materialist-informed worldview discounts or denies that the reality of eternity is more significant than what happens in this life. What made the film noteworthy was its depiction of the moral struggle that people go through when they sin. What made the film chilling is the knowledge that the rationalism engaged in by Judah in the movie represents more than fiction. Psalms and Proverbs are full of pleas from weary saints who complain to God about the prosperous wicked. We cannot know the mind of God. Some sins are punished swiftly; others apparently are not punished at all in this life. But God declares that one day everything done is darkness will be revealed in the light (1 Corinthians 4-5).
Match Point – No Sin, Just Luck
Fifteen years later, Allen gives audiences "Match Point," the story of Chris Wilton, a British social-climbing tennis pro who marries for money and prestige, but continues to lust after a poor American actress, Nola Rice, who is dating his future brother-in-law. The affair with Nola begins and ends before Chris' marriage, but picks up again when Nola returns to England. What begins as animal attraction turns complicated as Nola begins pressuring Chris to leave his wife. Chris is torn between his feelings for Nola and the wealth, power, and privilege that he enjoys by being married to his wife, Chloe. Ultimately he determines that he must be rid of one of them. How best to do it while risking the least for himself? Kill one – but make it look like someone else did it. The audience is left guessing whether he will kill Nola, thereby covering his tracks and keeping his wife, or kill Chloe, inheriting her wealth and gaining the sympathy of her family, and then take up again with Nola. Once the deed is done, there is the crying and terror over the prospect of being found out and punished that must accompany any such act. But when word of the homicide appears in the paper, and the fictional motives that Chris hoped to plant are printed as if they are fact, Chris discovers that he has gotten away with it.
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