Raznor's Rants

Costarring Raznor's reality-based friends!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Posted by Ross

I posted a version of this on my Writers Board, so it’s not as much a review as a response to the film. There are SPOILERS aplenty, so be warned.

The Bekka and I saw “Matchpoint” last month and it featured a Q&A afterwards with Woody Allen.

First of all, I really liked the movie. It started so slow and meditative, almost leisurely-paced. But you really get an impression, right from the beginning, what a sociopath Chris, the tennis pro played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, in fact, is. I saw a lot of similarities between his character and someone like the Talented Mr. Ripley.

Why did he want to be a tennis pro at such an elite club? Why did he tell Tom (his millionaire chum played by Matthew Goode) how much he loves opera? Why did he tell Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) he wishes he had more clients? They were all means to an end, which ultimately get him permanently enmeshed with a family that can make all his (material) dreams come true.

He tells Chloe, right before they start dating, “I’d like to make a contribution.” And you assume he means he wants to contribute something good and right and inspiring, because language can be tricky like that. And yet very little, if anything at all, that is good, right or inspiring, comes out of Chris’ subsequent actions.

I think it was Chris who said, “All existence is here by blind chance.” At the Q&A, Allen said, “This picture is about the terrible role luck plays in our lives.”… sort of the anti-deus ex machina.

One of the things Allen said when someone mentioned how similar this movie was to “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (this guy also had the cojones to tell Woody that “Crimes” was a superior film, which was so brazen, I just had to laugh), and amongst the reasons Allen cited as differences between the two films was that in “Crimes” he let his own voice, his own ideas, take over, made the movie (in his mind) too heavy-handed and didactic, whereas in “Match Point” he let the characters have a more free-reign, so that the final product is less judgmental.

And in this way, Allen as creator takes a step back from the material, lets it blow in the wind, the pieces landing wherever they may. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful Sirens of Titan, which also puts into question the certainty of the notion of the Great Granddad in the Sky.

The main character in Sirens is a brainless playboy named Malachi Constant, whose father was quite possibly the luckiest man on the face of the earth. One day, Malachi’s father holed up in a rundown motel room, picked up the Bible, took the first two letters of the first word of the Bible (“In”), then opened up the stock pages and invested all his money in the corresponding company. And when he reaped an acceptable profit from this company, he would sell and then invest in the next two letters, “Th” and on and on until he had amassed a mind-boggling fortune. And the reason Malachi Constant’s father was so unbelievably successful: luck. Because that’s what happens when you roll the dice a few billion times.

At some point, when the playing field is completely level, when both parties are playing for keeps and there’s no room for second place, that’s when luck determines the outcome. People who enjoy immersing themselves in the world of baseball Sabermetrics, which is explored in Michael Lewis’ delightful best-seller Moneyball, also preach the gospel of luck.

Chris is a sociopath. Whatever he wants he gets. He’s incredibly reckless too, and he’s so beautiful, no one seems to notice, or maybe they just look the other way. He has so many opportunities to come clean to Chloe about his extra-marital affair. There’s no telling if the sky would indeed even fall if he told her the truth. Chloe, like Chris, is in this because she wants something from him. She latches onto Chris with laser-focus in a very similar way to how Chris latches onto Nola (Scarlett Johansson). The minute they’re married, and not a moment before, Chloe says to him, I want to have three kids.

The two of them never talk, never have any sort of intimate connection; Chloe is simply content to view Chris through the idealized lenses that the rest of her family also sees him through, just as Chris is content to view Nola through similar lenses.

The Bekka is currently working on her doctorate in Psychology. It’s great for me because I always get so many ideas when she shares what she learns. Writing is really so much about psychology. One of my favorite concepts she brought back recently is this idea of “fundamental attribution error,” which is when you attribute someone’s behavior to something planned, premeditated, and sometimes dangerous. When, in actual fact, people are such a composite of their experiences, many of which are so ingrained into the subconscious, we have little-to-no control over how we occur to others.

You hardly get any glimpse into any significant information of Chris’ past, other than he comes from a working class Irish family that he seems to be somewhat embarrassed of, and that he was a tennis pro that almost made it. In this way, Nola is strikingly similar. They’re both so removed from their original element, as they try to make a new, better life for themselves, forsaking their past, their identity, trusting in luck to see them through.

And Nola just happens to be extremely unlucky.

And for Chris, cutting off his past is almost second-nature by this point, as we witness first hand by how willing he is, unpleasant though it may be, to live the rest of his life knowing he's a murderer. I kept wondering what kinds of skeletons Alec, the patriarch played by Brian Cox, had rolling around in his closet. Or, for that matter, any other members of the Hewitt clan.

Nola says to Chris, “You’re gonna do well for yourself if you don’t blow it.” But Chris doesn’t care. He is used to getting what he wants, and he wants Nola. And the fact that he can’t, under proper social circumstances, have her, only further fuels his enormous competitive spirit. And though we don’t know a whole helluva lot about what kind of person he used to be, we do get hints of what kind of tennis player he used to be: cool under pressure and creative. Chris loves to live on the edge, loves to corner himself until -- like being in a vicious match with Andre Agassi -- in order to stand triumphant, all that he has are his instincts, his guts and luck.

I noticed for Chris and Chloe’s wedding, in the establishing shot, the church is on a precipitous slope, and I wondered if it was facing uphill or downhill.

The Hewitt family, like so many in the ruling class, are utterly isolated from the outside world. Practically their own community, like medieval land owners. Alec happens to also be a decent man, but I just found the whole lifestyle a bit unnerving. Many of the scenes at Chris and Chloe’s beautiful apartment, and at the Hewitt compound, are shot in wide angles, and you really feel, in this enormity, an immense amount of space for lots of things to be happening simultaneously. There are so many of these incredible single-shots where you’re with the family and then the camera delicately pans over to the other room and there’s Chris talking to Nola on the phone about his illicit affair, essentially conspiring against the very family that has given him the keys to their privileged lifestyle.

On the other side, when we are in Chris’ first flat, or Nola’s, everything is shot a lot closer. Things are more intimate. There’s less room to squirm and be secretive. And somehow you're also very exposed. There’s this one shot in Nola’s apartment that starts on the window watching the snow cascade down, then pans over to the two illicit lovers, then back over to the window, and you’re just like, who’s watching? Who’s gonna find them out? And you realize, the only ones watching are us. And we have as much control over the outcome of this messy melodrama as… well… God.

Because, like God (or the lack thereof), we may be able to watch, but we certainly cannot intervene.

A line that got a big laugh, and that I thought was quite revealing of some of the creepy underbelly of the culturally elite Hewitt family was when Chloe says to Chris, “You know it gives papa great pleasure to help.” As if, even in the privacy and intimacy of their own bedroom, they will never be able to escape the patriarch’s expansive grasp.

There’s another scene where Chloe is asked about the prospect of adoption, and she responds, “I want my own children.” She’s as singular-minded as Chris, in that she believes only a baby will make her whole, just as Chris believes only by possessing Nola will he be made whole.

Like tennis, it’s all just a game to Chris. And it’s so much fun. And addictive. And intoxicating.

Time and again, throughout the film, a ring, wedding or otherwise, is the focal point in a shot. We need not go into an extended deconstruction of the significance of ring imagery in literature and culture to know that it is as age-old as… well… literature and culture.

I was aware that tragic Mrs. Eastby’s ring looked so similar to my own wedding ring. Mine is the One Ring. The Bekka actually bought it off a website that sells ‘em. Not with the Elvish writing on the front, just a plain gold band. And the inscription on the inside of the ring is the first part of George Harrison’s refrain from “What is Life,” which elicited an immediate, “That’s my new favorite song” when I put it on the first mixed tape I gave to her. The inscription on my ring reads, “What is my life without your love?” And the one on hers: “Who am I without you by my side?”

And I’m thinking this about our rings every time I see one on screen, which is absolutely all the time. And that’s something I learned about Woody Allen at the Q&A, which is that his writing is not all that precious to him.

“I’m extremely un-protective of my work,” he said, adding that he will always allow the actors to have a say in sculpting the dialogue and ad-libbing as necessary. Like Robert Altman, Allen isn’t afraid of scenes with overlapping dialogue, adding another layer to the labyrinthine complexities and paradoxes the characters so naturally find themselves gravitating toward.

Allen’s confidence about who he is as an artist and a person, as well, obviously, as already being the author of a mind-boggling oeuvre that will be relished and studied for as long as human society (as we know it) continues to exist, allows him to put trust and confidence in the diversity of artists one must invariably surround himself with in order to create a piece of art as complex and intricate as a motion picture.

In the same way, Allen entrusts his audience with provocative ideas, trusting them to find their own center, their own reality within the contexts of the one that he presents, but does not comment upon, for surely a ring, wedding or otherwise, is going to have a similarly long-winded and hyper-personal significance for everybody else as it does for me. And this informs how we react to the unfolding story.

What I realized later is the ring -- not unlike a certain well-known three-picture big-budget epic that ended up merchandising the very wedding band that currently rests on my left ring finger -- is the maguffin, and ultimately becomes the magical trinket that leads to Chris’ salvation… though with the catch -- again, not unlike what happened to the likes of Gollum -- of being at the expense of his very soul.

There’s a reason Chris is so secretive. It’s a key indicator of his anti-social disposition. At the end of the day, this is a man who trusts no one except himself. And this is why he fits in so well with the Hewitt clan.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are diffierent from you and me,” was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line from “The Rich Boy.” “Yes, they have more money,” was Ernest Hemingway’s equally-famous retort from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

The rich are afraid, because they know they have what the overwhelming billions of souls on this planet do not. Just like we Americans are afraid of Muslim Extremists thousands upon thousands of miles away (or next door). The ruling class, therefore, has an inherent anti-social element already built in, which is why when they see someone like Chris, they recognize one of their own, even though he may barely have a penny to his name.

And they ostracize the likes of Nola, because she has the audacity to imply that she might be doing this more for the lifestyle than… oh, something noble like… Chris. Who never tells anyone what he really wants. Even though, by the end it’s abundantly clear: anything he feels like having.

The Bekka thought of an amusing alternative title for the movie: Get Rich or Kill Trying.

At the end of the movie “In Cold Blood”, as Dick and Perry one-by-one are led off to the gallows, one of the FBI agents mutters in disbelief, “How can a completely sane man commit a completely crazy act?” Greed, arrogance, hubris, entitlement, naiveté, delusion, the adjectives go on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that so many poorly-socialized people will go into careers in politics and big business, places where the potential personal payoff is the absolute greatest (I might, by the way, add that this is probably also the reason so many poorly-socialized people find themselves in Hollywood). Because they (we?) need the thrill. As if regular life isn’t exciting enough.

In fact, Allen all but said this is the reason he finds himself spending essentially half his life creating works of fiction, where he can be both creator and destroyer. And teacher.

I find it equally heartening, from a personal standpoint, how many of the themes I’ve been thinking about and discussing in my own writing appeared either in this film or the subsequent Q&A.


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