Thursday, August 23, 2007

Vanity, Vanity

Woody Allen's career has been subject to comment in the five years millinerd has been up and running. An early post (back when my writing style was unforgivably bloggish), posited the connections between Manhattan and Lost in Translation. And it should not go unremarked that Manhattan (bedding a teenager) has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in Allen's life. Yet, it was a necessary film, because Woody, while venerating the town with his black-and-white reverence, sees straight through Manhattan intelligentsia and cuts it perfectly to pieces.

However, Manhattan does not qualify as a pole of Woody's career. The poles are better located between Crimes and Misdemeanors, which brilliantly posits the question of meaning; and Match Point, a remake of the same film which definitively answers the question in the negative. (I suppose one needs there to be no meaning to justify sleeping with one's stepdaughter.)

Aside from some unconvincing acting from Scarlett Johansson, Match Point is one of Woody's finest films, as is it one of the finest atheist films imaginable. Not that I agree with the verdict of meaninglessness, but it's so perfectly expressed. If only Woody had swerved God-ward, what might he have done? Perhaps he still will. But in the meantime, screenings of Match Point might as well accompany Christopher Hitchens' book tour, while verdicts of meaning will depend upon lesser (but not awful) films such as M. Night Shyamalan's Signs.

Woody never had to preach in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Never, in that film, did he invoke the supernatural without a trace of humor. But in Match Point, for the first time in his career (correct me if I'm wrong), he introduces the supernatural with unmistakable seriousness, only to just as seriously dismiss it. This time, for the first time, Woody preaches. One senses in these deus ex machina tactics a fear that he might be wrong on the meaning question, which he is.

In Match Point Allen creates a vacuum-sealed, impenetrable universe with no possibility for meaning. Similar to the film's plot is the novel Crime and Punishment, which makes a brief appearance. But perhaps Allen should read it again, as Dostoevsky's novel and Allen's film come to completely opposite conclusions regarding redemption. Who knows? At the end of the age, Dostoevsky might arise and judge Woody Allen for daring to let Crime and Punishment into his film.

Consider a dinnertime dialog near the beginning of Match Point: "I think despair is the path of least resistance," someone chimes, only to be corrected by the main protaganist who calmly insists, "I think faith is the path of least resistance." But it is at the end of the film when [spoiler alert] the question raised so beautifully by Crimes and Misdeameanors is answered: "It would be fitting if I were apprehended," the perpetrator suggests. "At least there would be some small sign of justice. Some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning." But no apprehension, no meaning. It's all pure chance. We're left with the sentiment that it's better for a newborn child to be lucky than to be good.

The tragedy is that Woody, at the peak of his powers, is half right; and one does not have to give up on meaning to agree with him. Contained within the canon of Holy Scripture is the same idea:
"the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all."
Indeed Solomon wrestled with the theme of Match Point already, but knew that such pockets of meaninglessness did not lead to the same overall verdict. Instead, meaninglessness is being slowly conquered by meaning, otherwise known as the Kingdom of God. Ecclesiastes submits Match Point moments to a God who brings meaning still, not to mention fitting apprehension.

Ahh... the Bible. Where one gets all the insights of atheism without having to subscribe to false premises. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?