Saturday, January 21, 2006

#36: “On MATCH POINT: In a 1950’s State of Mind” * 1/19/2006 * Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT, which opens in Syracuse tomorrow, transports his typical chance-afflicted, contemporary New Yorkers to London. Now, beware – what happens follows here. If you don’t want to know what happens in advance, stop right here – but go see this movie! Otherwise, stay with me, because this is a rich & thoughtful work, & I think Allen’s in a 1950’s state of mind. Okay – London. We have Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an Irish tennis pro who’s quit the tournament circuit to give lessons to the rich. His client Tom Hewitt soon invites him to the opera. Diffident & attentive, Chris ingratiates himself, especially with Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Marriage ensues & a rising spot in the family business. Early on, during an aspiring American actress’ short engagement to Tom, Chris has also hooked up with the sultry, unstable Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Once pregnant, Nola demands Chris leave Chloe (also pregnant), & he murders her. Although one cop figures it out, when Chris pleads impending fatherhood & family position, they back off. But, given that he’s killed off the one person who understood him, Chris is more truly alone at the top than “free.” We could see MATCH POINT as a refined, modern-day riff on classic bandit romances like 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE or Terence Malick’s 1973 film, BADLANDS, in which an outlaw couple find solace in one another even as they dispense & meet with violence. After all, Allen has rather undemocratically depicted Chris & Nola as social bandits in their aspirations. She astutely tells him, just before they first have sex in a ran-soaked field just beyond the Hewitts’ manicured gardens, “You’ll do very well for yourself if you don’t blow it by making a pass at me.” These two, who’ve both been outsiders for a long time, intuitively know one another to the bone, & that strikes some hot sparks. * But I think MATCH POINT is something more too, something rather retro – about the twin bedevilments of seeing ourselves & our ages as both unique & universal & the kind of emotional McCarthyism that flows from that. Allen’s done history effectively before. One of my favorites is his 1990 film, SWEET & LOW DOWN. Set in the 1930’s, this departure from quintessential modern life in the Big Apple starred Sean Penn as itinerant guitarist Emmet Ray & Samantha Morton as his long-suffering poor girlfriend Hattie. A rich socialite (played by Uma Thurman) turned our protagonist’s head in that movie too, & Allen uses jazz in the earlier film is ways similar to his use of opera in MATCH POINT. * Film critic David Denby wrote recently about MATCH POINT that “the poor boy from the provinces who storms the city & . . . then gets in trouble has been fiction’s bedrock for two centuries.” He notes that MATCH POINT “resembles” Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY – itself based on actual 1906 events in near-by Cortland. But try watching the DVD of director George Stevens’ 1951 film adaptation of the novel, A PLACE IN THE SUN. No one has yet said that MATCH POINT is a re-make of A PLACE IN THE SUN yet, but it could be, with Montgomery Clift as young striver George Eastman, Elizabeth Taylor as socialite Angela Vickers, & Shelley Winters as ill-fated factory girl Alice Tripp. * Allen’s plot follows the 1951 film quite closely in many respects. And whether it’s 1951 or 2005, it’s striking that a woman demanding what she assumes is her rightful place gets killed, & a young man achieving a toehold in a world with leisure promptly uses the toys of that leisure (whether Adirondack resort boating or British grouse-shooting) as his murder weapon. * But in some significant ways, MATCH POINT’s plot departs from the Stevens film, suggesting just how dark & cautionary his version is. * For example, reversing George’s 1951 besotted obsession with his socialite, Chris cares for Chloe but actually loves his working girl. Driving home the point that promising relationships are her real day job, Nola tells him that “no one’s ever wanted their money back” after being involved with her. And in MATCH POINT, it’s the woman who has breeched the walls of privilege first. Given the outcome, so much for social democracy’s promise. For example, unlike Shelley Winters’ gullible 1951 factory girl, Nola seems to know the score. So much for consciousness-raising. * For example, in the 1951 film (actually in all previous versions of this story), the would-be killer’s nerve fails at the last minute & murder crumbles into bungling accidental death. But Chris Wilton, though his nerves are a mess, kills twice. * In 1951, director George Stevens used camera angles masterfully to heighten point-of-view & ironic contradiction in PLACE. Consider Angela’s visit to George as he awaits execution, shot entirely over Montgomery Clift’s shoulder so that we never see his face. And consider the shot where the Vickers’ motor boat passes the dock where a radio blares bulletins of the unfolding murder investigation. * Woody Allen has clearly paid attention. In a prime example, we pointedly never see Nola during Nola’s murder – not her flash of recognition of her fate, her death, her body. Visually, she is amputated, disappeared, tossed away. * And MATCH POINT’s killer gets away – no cleansing ritual of trial & execution here. Whatever ghosts linger for Chris will visit him privately. Loving opera’s elegant public enactment, these characters find a tawdry end to tawdry lives. * Why set a 1950’s story in today’s London? Partly because that decade occupies a kind of limbo, a curious blind spot in our cultural memory. It’s too close to be historical in the same way that World War II is, yet hard to identify with if one’s not old enough to recall that era. We seem to be grappling with that lately. As it happens, there’s a new opera by Tobias Picker based on Dreiser’s novel at the Met right now. Surely part of GOOD NIGHT & GOOD LUCK’s power resides in the shock that its politics are so timely – as if they somehow wouldn’t be. While in New York earlier this month I also saw the play LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. For many twenty-somethings, this 1950’s story – based on a novel & earlier film – simply doesn’t connect. But with all that architecture, all those centuries-old lawns, London provides the past – a contrast for characters who might otherwise simply fade into the background in Manhattan – than can parallel what today’s characters might experience in the 50’s. And you know that old saw about the past repeating itself. * (1,094)