Woody Allen and the Abandonment of Guilt
- Monday, February 20, 2006
The theme of "Match Point" is hammered into the audience over and over again – the world runs on luck. From Chris' tennis career, to his marriage to a rich and beautiful woman and into a paternalistic and helpful family, to plot twists involving incriminating evidence, everything just falls his way at crucial moments. And while some characters continue to extol the virtues of hard work and perseverance, Chris recognizes and, in the end, vocalizes that the best attribute to possess is good fortune. There is no justice; there is only the slim divide between being caught and getting away with it. No one is smart enough to cover all the bases, so in the end much of it comes down to luck. Chris has it; his victim did not.
Unlike "Crimes and Misdemeanors," no great struggle over guilt and sin is played out on the screen. The only scene that looks remotely like remorse occurs right after the act. Beyond that, Chris merely lies to those he knows and stonewalls the police. He is like the boy who kills his parents and then begs the judge for leniency because he is an orphan
– only in this case, he gets off.
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" could be rationalized as a depiction of one side of the sin debate – that sometimes the wicked prosper. The struggle for Judah's soul is represented by his brothers: the mafia-connected Jack and Judah's rabbi brother Ben. In this case, Ben loses, but there is, haunting the background, the idea that it could be otherwise. No such spiritual subtext exists in "Match Point." Audience members can only get out of the film what they bring to it – it is a case brought before us for judgment.. Those who believe in a just God will find Chris to be a calculating killer who rightly needs to be punished. For those who enter the film believing that humans are merely animals seeking to satisfy drives with no true spiritual component; who believe that guilt only exists if you get caught; who believe (whether they know the source or not) that Nietzsche was right when he said that the hallmark of human existence is the will to power – Chris is a kind of hero. He got everything he wanted, succeeded in destroying those who stood in his way, and emerged unscathed because he was favored by a series of uncalculated quirks in the universe. No objection to such assessment is placed in anyone's way.
The Weaving of Cultural Threads
Thomas Frentz, noted rhetorical critic, argues that by comparing products of our culture over time, we can begin to discern emerging moral patterns. Cultures, Frentz claims, are always moving toward, or away from, some optimal moral end state. If Frentz is right, then looking at these two similar films from Woody Allen can tell us a little about the state of moral struggle. I do not know whether Allen's film intends to move us, or if it is merely a reflection of the culture as he sees it. Either way, what Allen appears to be saying is that we have moved beyond morals and simply must deal with what is. In his earlier film, Allen asserts that there is no objective moral lens through which to view the world – ignore morality and it will go away. Now he is saying that if you happen to share the world with people who still hold to the "myth" of morality, "hope you are lucky and then you can get away with it."
But there is yet a ray of hope.
Anyone watching "Match Point" will come to the conclusion that Chris "got away with it." The concept of "getting away with something" could not exist in a truly amoral world, because the term itself presupposes punishment. If no punishment is objectively due, then there is nothing from which to "get away." The concept of escape only exists in a world in which something is pursuing. Even conventional laws implicate an overarching moral sensibility of right and wrong. My fear is not that Allen is predicting some evolutionary leap in moral thinking where all codes are abandoned, but that he is rightly illustrating a growing trend – the searing of the western conscience.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of MovieMinistry.com – an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
© 2006 AgapePress. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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