Woody Allen and the Abandonment of Guilt
- 2006 20 Feb
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.
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.