Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sketches: Matchpoint v. Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors was one of my favorite Allen movies from the first time I saw it. But I didn't realize until watching Crimes again how much of Matchpoint was lifted nearly directly from it: the love affair, the murder (set to classical music in both, no less: in Matchpoint opera, in Crimes Schubert), the killer overcoming and ultimately forgetting his guilt. Allen wrote the same movie twice.

It's a hard call which is the superior film. Crimes clumsily smashes its viewers over the head with its message early on: a discussion between the Rabbi and the atheistic protagonist over the existence of God and good in the universe. This obvious stroke spoils the subtler symbolism of the same Rabbi eventually going blind (though this isn't exactly deep--thus it certainly requires no highlighting). But Matchpoint isn't exactly subdued in its message either--the opening monologue by the protagonist brings the "Life is luck" message to the fore. Soon thereafter we see him reading Dostoevsky.

We get it.

Still, it's somewhat more forgivable in Matchpoint, since the philosophical question of crime and punishment seems somewhat intrinsic to Chris's character, whereas Judah never really convinces us he's the nihilist he pretends to be. We sense the deep unease of Chris--if not over the wrong he's done, over the tragedy of him getting away with it.

But Crimes has comedy where Matchpoint doesn't, and a truly sublime conclusion as the two protagonists facing their own unjust plots happen upon one another's stories, uniting for the first time. We almost forgive it its foibles for this masterstroke. Still, ultimately, Matchpoint is the better film--more mature, more stylish, less fluff. More Johansson.

But finishing both, we have to wonder: just what do you want from the universe, Woody?

Allen counters Dostoevsky and the religious: the universe is unjust no matter what they say, and so he gives us blatant thieves and murderers--and let's them win. He tantalizes us with the possibility of all coming right, and then yanks it from us.

Real life is like this. It's not Hollywood, as Judah points out.

But, I always conclude, so what? There is no cosmic justice--the scales will not balance at the end of the day. Bad men escape, good men go blind, nice guys finish last.

What is the alternative? What does Allen want?

He wishes God to reach down, and with the force of a miracle, see that justice is done. And the atheist frequently questions why a good God allows so much pain. Nothing but karma will satisfy Allen.

But it needn't be so--indeed, it shouldn't be. It is only the possibility of failure that gives us any worth whatsoever in this world. If the guilty were always to be hanged, if God would do it when we failed to, then there's nothing left for us to do, no import to our actions. We are absolved of responsibility if the universe will guaranty our debts. Without pain, why bother?

No. We need not rue the imperfection of life, of justice: rather, we should be grateful for the chance we get to do justice, to bring about the better outcome, to make a difference. To sense wrong and be distressed by its existence. If I punish a murderer, the action is a good and just one, and it is to my credit--if some cosmic miracle would inevitably have punished him if I did not, then my action would be for naught.

Fear drives us to this. It infects us so deeply that we're willing to dream up some perfect arbiter, someone who will fix the world if we can't. If we can't be happy in this life, then we dream up the falsehood that it doesn't matter--for after death, bliss is waiting. We would let our cowardice negate our only chance for value.

(Do the religious believe such a thing? Perhaps not. God will judge the quick and the dead--not everyone enters Heaven. Still, the infinity of God's ability to forgive leaves us with very little that we may claim as morally important. Of what harm is sin if absolution is so easy to obtain?)

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