Friday, June 19, 2009

God and the Cinema Part XI: The "Crime" Films of Woody Allen

You could write a book about religion in Woody Allen’s movies, or at least, his aversion to it. Although Allen has often been cited as an agnostic, or sometimes atheist, director, his films are full of religion. His Jewish upbringing definitely had an effect on him, as did the films of his mentor, Ingmar Bergman. Allen’s film, when they deal with religion, seem to be all over the map. Like another Jewish director, Steven Spielberg, his films are often filled with Catholic and Christian imagery. In this piece, I am not going to try to cover all of Allen’s films – the man has made well over 40, and at a pace of one per year, he just keeps adding to his already impressive oeuvre. I am not one of those Allen fans who thinks that the master has lost it in recent years. Sure his masterpieces are fewer and farther between than before, and he has made more than his share of stinkers recently, but when Allen is on, he is still one of the best in the business.

For this piece, I am only going to concentrate of three of Allen’s films – one a confirmed masterpiece, and two more recent films. The first is Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors. The second is 2005’s Match Point. The third is the criminally underrated Cassandra’s Dream for 2008. The first two of those films share similar themes, and end results, but Cassandra’s Dream very interestingly flips it. I am sure I will come back to Allen at some point in this series (I am going to have to deal with his sexual obsession with younger women at some point here, aren’t I?), but for this piece we’re going to concentrate on Allen’s view of death and murder.

Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two interlocking stories, but I am only going to concentrate on one. It’s not that I do not love the story of Allen’s documentary filmmaker who falls in love with Mia Farrow, only to have her leave him for the shallow, superficial comedy star played by Alan Alda, just that it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of this piece.

The story that I am truly fascinated by in Crimes and Misdemeanors is that of Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal, a successful ophthalmologist approaching retirement age who is looking forward to an easier life with his . His problem is that he has been engaged in an affair with Dolores (Anjelica Huston) for a while, and promises have been made by him that he never intended to keep. Now she wants him to live up to those promises – leave his wife and marry her. When it becomes clear to her that he has no intentions of doing so, she threatens to tell his wife about the affair. She even writes a letter to his wife, that he is able to intercept, but she doesn’t stop there. She is committed to telling his wife, and ruining his life. She also threatens to reveal some shady business deals that Judah has been involved in.

In crisis, Judah turns to a patient of his – a rabbi (Sam Waterson) – who is blind (none too subtle that one). He encourages Judah to be open and honest with his wife, saying that a marriage cannot work when there are lies. But Judah does not want to do this, and risk his marriage. Instead he turns to his brother (Jerry Orbach), a small time gangster for advice. He suggests that Judah hire a hit man to kill Dolores. The dead cannot say anything. Judah listens to his brother, and not the Rabbi.

At first, Judah is torn apart by guilt. Like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and any number of film noirs, he finds he cannot live with the guilt of having become a murderer. But as time passes, it gets easier for Judah. He gets his life back the way he wanted it. The murder was blamed on a drifter. Judah now has everything he wanted. With time, any crises will pass for Judah. God does not see what you do (hence the blind Rabbi) and does not punish you for your crimes. There are no limits to what you can do, as long as you find a way to live with yourself.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of the key films in Allen’s body of work, and also one of the very best (I would put it just behind Manhattan and Annie Hall). It is the film that everyone points to when they call Allen an atheist director. After all, Judah commits a heinous crime, and skates away completely unpunished, by the law or by God, and even by his own conscience. He had a few sleepless nights, but then he’s able to move on with his life. It doesn’t affect him that he has taken another human’s life, and destroyed someone else’s (the drifter, who has a criminal record, but nevertheless is innocent of this crime). Life goes on, and everything is fine.

Match Point tells a similar story, except it transplants the action to England, adds a class element to the mix, and makes the characters much younger. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, was once a professional tennis player, but he did not have the talent to become a huge star. Now, he works as tennis pro at a ritzy country club where he meets and eventually marries Chloe (Emily Mortimer). By marrying Chloe, Chris has everything he ever wanted. A big house, lots of money, and job that will get him even more. He has jumped classes by marrying Chloe, and Allen pokes fun at the upper classes in England throughout the movie (notice the great Ralph Lauren reference for an example of this). In short, Chris is happy with his new life, and if he isn’t head over heels in love with Chloe, like she is with him, she is at least an attractive, nice girl who he likes.

His relationship with Chloe is threatened however when he has an affair with American Nola (Scarlett Johansson, for once actually the perfect choice for the role in Woody Allen film). She is an American actress, of no fame or money, who arrives in his new family as the girlfriend of Chloe’s brother Tom (Matthew Goode). In each other they see an almost uncomfortable reflection of themselves. Both are trying to “marry up”, but Chris is more successful then Nola. Although he is Irish, he is accepted by Chloe’s family, while they patently reject Nola. But these two outsiders, and lower class citizens, are drawn to each other anyway. An affair starts, but when Nola makes similar demands on Chris that Dolores did on Judah in Crimes and Misdemeanors, things go wrong. All of a sudden, Chris is threatened to have everything in his life that he loves taken away from him. Like Judah, he determines the only thing he can do to save his life, is to kill Nola. Unlike Judah however, he has no gangster brother to turn to. Chris does the deed himself.

Match Point ends similarly to Crimes and Misdemeanors, in that Chris gets away with the murder unpunished, as someone else is charged with the crime. Chris, like Judah, finds that he can live with what he has done, and goes about his merry way. Once again, there are no consequences to Chris’s actions – not from the law, not from God, not from anyone. He got himself into a messy situation, and he got himself back out again. The only person he answers to is himself, and he is satisfied.

Crimes and Misdemeanors tell similar stories, but in different in unique ways. Both deal with the idea that a person can do anything they want, as long as they can live with themselves after the deed is done. There is no God coming to punish the wicked – at least not yet.

And that is what makes Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream such an interesting film. Dismissed by critics, ignored by audiences, I actually think that Cassandra’s Dream is one of the best of Allen’s recent films (I would put it below Match Point, but above his Oscar winning Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Like the other two films, Cassandra’s Dream focuses on the lead up and aftermath of a murder, although the motivating factors, and the fallout is extremely different. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play brothers, both in need of a lot of money and fast. McGregor has some can’t miss business deals he needs money for, and his new girlfriend (Haley Atwell) is used to dating rich guys, and he wants to keep her in the style that she is accustomed to. Farrell, already married, owes a lot of money to some bad guys for a gambling debt, and has also committed to buying a house he cannot afford. Their parents are working class (there’s that class thing again, rearing its head in Allen’s British work) and have no money, but they do have a very rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson). Wilkinson has had some shady business deals, and stands to be ruined if one of his employees follows through on his threat to testify at an upcoming trial. Wilkinson will give them the money they need, if they kill this man for them.

After an uneasy start to the film (the first 20 minutes or so are rather clunky as Allen struggles with the tone of the film), the film settles in nicely. It is rather humorous in the early going, as McGregor and Farrell, two guys who are far from professional criminals, try to plan this murder, then accidently bump into their intended victim, and find out that he seems like a really nice guy. Farrell gets cold feet, but McGregor convinces him to go through with it, which they eventually do. It’s the aftermath which is the real killer though.

Like Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point and Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors, McGregor and Wilkinson seem to be able to deal with their guilt over what they did. The man represented an obstacle in their way of living the life that they both wanted to live, and now that he is out of the way, there is nothing left to prevent them. They are able to put their guilt aside, as no police come after them, and God seems to not be interested in punishing them either.

Farrell is the wildcard here. Unlike McGregor and Wilkinson, he is torn apart by guilt over his crime. He wants to confess to the murder, and even offers to leave McGregor and Wilkinson’s names out of his confession, but they know that they cannot trust Farrell to do that. That any confession will lead to questions they do not want to answer. But Farrell cannot eat, cannot sleep, cannot do anything but think about what he has done. In short, he cannot live with it.

The climax of the movie happens on the boat that McGregor and Farrell own together, called of course Cassandra’s Dream. The brothers argue, and a fight breaks out, where once again Farrell becomes a murderer – this time by accident. Knowing that the guilt of killing his brother will be too much for him, Farrell kills himself as well.

This marks a definite contrast to both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. In those films, the murderers were able to move on with their lives, and face no consequences for their actions. The police and God turned a blind eye to them. In Cassandra’s Dream, the result is different. Although the police are still ignorant, God it seems is not, and it drives Farrell to do what he does.

But it is really all that different? After all, Wilkinson and McGregor are able to live with what they have done, and had it not been for Farrell, they would have. In fact, Wilkinson, the primary benefactor of the murder, will most likely be able to put it behind him and live his life anyway. He obviously didn’t love his nephews all that much if he would ask them to murder for him (and quilting them into it, by using the old “we’re family” routine when they at first resist). Like Rhys Meyers in Match Point, he is not someone who was born rich, but has become rich, and climbed the class ladder in England – the whole time knowing a scandal would devastate him.

And after all, perhaps it is not God that punishes Farrell with his guilt, but Farrell himself. All three films looks at the difference between deontology (a philosophical theory that it is the action itself and not the consequences that determine right and wrong) and consequentialism (the exact opposite). In ordinary terms, Rhys Meyers and Landau, along with Wilkinson and McGregor, can live with what they have done because there are no consequences to them, while Farrell cannot, because the action itself, and not the consequences, are what is causing him remorse.

Cassandra’s Dream is the most troublesome film of the three. Allen doesn’t quite nail it, and as a result while it remains a very good film, it is not quite the masterpiece that either Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point were. Still however, it is a fascinating film, and an interesting look at Allen’s still evolving moral outlook.

Woody Allen is one of the few American directors working today that can rightly be called a master filmmaker. His career has spanned more than 40 years, with even more films, and there are not that many truly bad films in the bunch. This piece looks at just three of his films, but there are countless others I would like to look again in the future. Stay tuned. I’ll get back to Allen one day.

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