Bright Lights Film Journal

Woody Allen, Misanthropy, and <em>Match Point</em>: Or How Death Got the Last Laugh

Welcome to the “nihilistic message movie”

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my works. I want to achieve it by not dying.” . . . “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” — Woody Allen

Woody Allen makes a lot of bad movies. In fact, bad movies seem to be what Woody does best these days. Usually, they are just kind of embarrassing and hard to watch, with the occasional moment of sweetness or humor to just about get us through the squirminess of seeing a once-gifted artist thrash about, trying to pull off some really bad material without losing face. But once in a while, Woody makes what I’d call an offensively bad movie. The last one was probably Deconstructing Harry, and the latest is Match Point. Match Point has more in common with another offensively bad Woody Allen movie, however, Crimes & Misdemeanors, which was a movie that some people considered a masterpiece, or at least a good movie. (The same was apparently true of this one.)

Like Crimes, Match Point is a moral fable whose moral is that morality is a delusion, and that crime pays if you can deal with the guilt. It has the same basic message as Crimes, namely, that it is not the fit but the morally vacuous who survive. Any movie that wraps itself around a message runs the risk of being offensive. A movie is not a fortune cookie, and messages are for postmen not for artists. But it’s understandable if we are more indulgent of sappy, life-affirming messages, no-brainer “do unto others” Christian-type ones, since, like Hallmark cards, we know these messages (and movies) aren’t really meant to be taken seriously as art. Any movie that offers audiences an overt “message” automatically forgoes its credentials as “art.”

Match Point, however, is a freak creation. It is what Woody does worst of all: a nihilistic message movie. The problem here is that the formula of message movies presupposes that life has meaning. Woe betide the message movie that attempts to provide a more sophisticated message, such as life is meaningless. To do so (to adopt the simple-minded formula of message movies) undermines and invalidates the very sophistication to which such a movie aspires. Morality fables have to be simple-minded in order to work. Amorality, on the other hand, stems from a certain intellectual sophistication, a conceit, that is obliged to scorn and reject all morality fables, along with morality in general. So what did the Woodman think he was doing?

If nothing else, Match Point proves that there is no such thing as nihilistic art, and that there never will be. Nihilism creates a void that no amount of artistry can fill. Put more plainly, the nihilistic sensibility is at odds with, and cancels out entirely, the creative one.

If Match Point had managed to be even dimly entertaining, its glum and cynical little “message” would have been tolerable. Movies like Blood Simple, To Die For, Silence of the Lambs, Sword Fish, and any number of hip, slick, violent Hollywood crime movies, celebrate moral emptiness and so give audiences a twisty kind of kick by letting it hobnob with “evil” and all its charms. Match Point wants to be Crime and Punishment redux, however, and (unlike Dostoyevsky) it’s not remotely entertaining, not for even a second. In fact, it’s sheer torture.

Woody Allen is not someone temperamentally disposed to celebrate amorality. He is a former artist who (for reasons known only to him) wishes to expose it, and in the process, to take an ironic moral stance upon it. His movie is a vignette, a fable. But the simple-mindedness demanded of vignettes does not mesh with his queasy commentary on “the moral emptiness of our times”; it’s like mixing cotton candy with caviar, and the result is perverse, self-indulgent, bitter, and, most unpardonably of all, smug.

There is a line in Match Point about how science is finally establishing that life is nothing but random chaos, devoid of all meaning. The line reveals the level at which Woody is now functioning, both personally and creatively. Fifty years ago, this line might have rung true. Today, in the light of thirty or forty years of scientific endeavor, what with Sheldrake, Dawkins, Bohm, quantum physics and Chaos theory, the line hangs inside the vacuum of its own inaccuracy. In fact, recent developments have seen science engaging in an uneasy tango with religion (or at least magic), and all this line does is to reveal Woody’s rank ignorance and/or pathological denial of “the nature of reality.”

As we all know by now, Woody has a horse to flog, even though a dead one. Life is meaningless; there is no God; there is no underlying pattern or moral order to the Universe, just random chaos and acts of despair that lead to the grave, to our final, total annihilation. What an inspiring (and original) message!

Woody’s terror of death used to be funny. It used to invigorate and provide depth and originality to his comedies. Now, as he edges over the hill of seventy, his fear of death has become all too real to him, and in consequence, to us. Now it hangs around his movies like a millstone around their necks, dragging them down into a swampy mire of the author’s misery and pessimism. Woody is so terrified of death that it is as if he doesn’t dare to laugh at it anymore. The result is, in his attempt to not “be there when it happens,” Woody has all but disappeared from his movies.

Woody makes a movie a year, every year. He is like a one-man factory, a machine, as reliable as clockwork. No doubt this is at least partially from compulsion. As his death creeps inexorably closer with every passing year, he continues to grind movies out as if unable to stop himself. Certainly, he no longer seems to care — or dare — to take the time to ask himself whether they are worth making. Maybe this is his way of keeping himself distracted, from dwelling on the Big Question and so invoking the Great Terror? As if his paltry little works might somehow appease the Grim Reaper, shielding him from the horror of that gaping Abyss, as it reaches out to swallow him up forever?

I have news for Woody: they won’t. If anything, they are going to be waiting for him on the other side to mock and torment him.

I have a theory, and it is this: Woody is literally shitting himself with terror at the realization that death is going to get him, one of these days soon. As a result, his movies, such as they are, have become like the turds he leaves behind him as he backs further and deeper into the catacomb of his denial.

Match Point is filled with the some of most thoroughly obnoxious and repulsive characters we have ever been obliged to fraternize with in a supposedly entertaining movie. I’m English, so I have a special “hard spot” for this kind of smug bunch of toffs and prigs mincing and prattling over inconsequentialities, lacking as they do a single redeeming feature between them. The movie had me yearning for a terrorist attack, for the sight of flying limbs and spurting blood and the sound of screaming. Was this deliberate on Woody’s part? Did he know how excruciating and wretched all of his creations were? Was this, perhaps, the point of his movie?

As I can see it, the only feasible reason to impose such a grotesque ragbag of shallow characters, inane dialogue, and torturously pointless scenes upon audiences was to leave them begging for some form of violent enactment to ease the agony of exposure to such dreary, soulless society. But then, when the killing begins, it is the American, and not any of the English prigs, who is targeted. Are we then to believe that Woody actually likes these characters, or at least enjoys their company? Awful as his depiction of English upper classes is, it is nothing compared to his attempts to present the inner workings of London policemen. Such scenes rank with Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as the most gob-smackingly awful to appear in any major motion picture by a once great artist.

Like Kubrick, Woody has gotten a lot of mileage (and audience/critic/studio indulgence) out of a few really fine movies which he made a long, long time ago. In the eyes of most people, I suppose, once a genius, always a genius. A lot of people (though I doubt many English-speaking ones) actually hailed Match Point as a “return to form” for Woody, even though I think it may be his worst movie to date. Perhaps the shallow, flailing motions he made towards depth and insight and “postmodernist irony” were all taken as the real thing — as an artist and philosophical thinker sharing his own special wisdom with us, rather than as the hopeless thrashings of a fallen artist, drowning in the quagmire of his own despair.

True, the film’s ending is ingenious, but so what, when it is shackled to a movie as dour and joyless as this one, and when its only purpose is to drive home the director’s misanthropic message. The message of Match Point is that life is shit and everyone is a bastard, that it’s all random chaos so you may as well just commit murder, live an empty shallow life, and enjoy your creature comforts, because you’re going to be just as dead in the end anyway. Apparently, this passes for wisdom among sophisticated folk. Really, it’s just cheap cynicism. And where some people saw the strokes of a master artist, all I saw were shit stains on the wall of Woody’s cave.

Shame on you, Woodman.