Saturday, October 29, 2005

Woody Allen: New and Old

Woody Allen's newest film, Match Point, is quite possibly his most successful "serious" film to date. It bears hints of many of his past works - particularly Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and her Sisters, and Mighty Aphrodite - but this film is far, far more than the kind of antiseptic, backcatalogue poachery exhibited by Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this past summer. Match Point, although distinctly an Allen film, stands entirely on its own, untethered by the canon that came before it. Perhaps because Allen does not act in the film, perhaps because it doesn't take place in New York City, or perhaps because it simply has no trace of the all-too-familiar Woody Allen brand of comedy, but - whatever the case may be - this film defies comparison with its predecessors.

The movie follows the story of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of Bend it Like Beckham fame), an Irish tennis player who quits the professional circuit, becomes an instructor at a posh health club in London, quickly befriends one of his pupils, and begins a startling ascent into London high society. The pupil, Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode), comes from a wealthy family who has a box at the Opera and, as chance would have it, "someone can't make it" for that evening's performance and, since Chris has mentioned an interest in opera over a post-lesson drink, Tom invites him to come along. Once there, Chris makes the acquaintance of the whole Hewitt family, including Tom's sister Chloë (Emily Mortimer). With a few more happy accidents here and there, Chris quickly elevates himself to a much higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

The film - and all of the publicity surrounding it - famously asserts that, more than anything, life is a game of chance, that it is more important to be lucky than to be talented and Chris's experience certainly does assert the significance of happenstance. After all, the entirety of his success is reliant on a series of coincidences starting with the open seat in the private box of the wealthy tennis student he meets that day. Nonetheless, there's more to Chris's life than luck, even if he doesn't want to believe it.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is fantastic as Chris, portraying a fish out of water who has willed his fins into the shape of arms and legs and forced his gills to breathe air. His performance - the character's, not the actor's - as an erudite, cultured young man who defies his low birth to rise to the level that his intellect demands somehow doesn't ring true. Like the film's scratchy, unmastered opera soundtrack that sounds more like an old record player than the actual aria it's playing, Chris comes off as not the real thing, but a very well-studied copy. Look for his reading material. Listen for the accent that would seem apparent from all of the times that Tom addresses him as "Irish," but simply isn't there. There is something else at play here other than luck, something over which both Chris and the film itself cast a veil of obscurity: trained and focused ambition, not hard work, but the actual overwhelming desire to achieve success, no matter the obstacles encountered.

Scarlett Johansson also stars as Tom's fiancée Nola Rice, a sexy American actress trying to work her way into the London theatre circle. She, unlike Chris, has bad luck, loses her cool at every audition, and can never seem to earn a role. The way these two characters interact with each other show just how potently both luck and ambition figure as the two dominant factors in a person's path in life. Is it good or bad luck that these two meet one another? In the end, the only thing that matters is how they deal with the outcome.

Allen has written and directed a very interesting and intelligent new movie. It is a film unlike any other that he's ever been involved in before, bearing a dark subtlety and layered complexity that goes almost entirely unsupported by the lightness of humor that Allen has made his name on. There have, of course, been serious and somber Allen films before, most notably his tragic Interiors, but that was more of a transposition of Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata from Sweden to New York than a film of Allen's own making. With Match Point, Woody Allen has found a new and powerful voice, one that might finally convince critics and viewers alike to stop holding every new film up to the thirty year-old gold standard he set with Annie Hall and just appreciate his work in its own contemporary context. He will never again make Annie Hall, but he just might make something better.


Shortly before seeing Match Point, I went to a repertory screening of Manhattan. The two films, rivals in quality, are polar opposites when it comes to style and genre. Set in New York, shot in black and white, equally comedic and dramatic, Manhattan bears not the slightest resemblance to its newest younger cousin. Instead of lust, it focuses upon love. In the place of luck, the value it sets atop the highest of pedestals is purity.

Woody Allen plays Isaac Davis, a twice-divorced TV comedy writer dating a 17 year-old high school girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, in a stunning performance she has yet to match in the almost thirty years since). His friends are Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne), who think of Isaac as their child just as much as they think of him as their friend. Diane Keaton plays Mary, a neurotic and brilliant Radcliffe graduate who first has an affair with Yale (making for kind of an odd-match, intercollegiate sports rivalries being as they are) and then with Isaac.

In every one of these relationships - romantic and otherwise - each party is obsessed by the other's potential. Yale thinks Isaac is wasting his life writing TV comedy drivel. Isaac doesn't want Tracy to ruin her bright future by falling in love with him. Isaac and Emily worry that Yale is never going to finish his book. Mary marvels at the genius of everyone surrounding her, falling for men whose intellects stimulate, but also belittle her own. Accordingly, Isaac chides her for wasting her literary talents on writing film novelizations when she's perfectly capable of writing her own novels.

Set against this story is Gordon Willis's stunning black and white view of Manhattan and a sublime George Gershwin soundtrack. The city - a mix of fantastic architecture, pulsing energy, and what Isaac considers to be a declining culture - becomes a metaphor for every relationship in the film. Isaac and Willis's camera see the city for all the potential that it has and are saddened by its failure to live up to that potential.

Manhattan is the story of a quest for purity, carried out by the impure in an impure setting and, whenever they find what they're looking for, their contact with it immediately renders it impure in their eyes. In the end, much like a person's relationship with a city, all of the relationships in this movie turn out to be one-sided; they're more about each person's conception of the other, rather than the person him/herself, as is brilliantly illustrated with Willis's focus on negative space, visually isolating all of the characters from one another, even when they're the only two people in a room.

What separates Manhattan from Match Point is idealism. Isaac and Tracy have it, but Chris does not. Both movies have fairly bleak world views, but Manhattan's is tempered by idealistic, albeit disappointed, characters. Neither film is more or less real than the other - they both present themselves through the eyes of their respective protagonist - but the reality offered by Match Point is much harsher and less romantic than that of Manhattan. Neither won is better than the other; they're too different to compare. Whereas Manhattan represents a past era of Woody Allen's career focused on love and a mature sort of idealism, Match Point represents a watershed moment of transition in which Allen has successfully carved the beginnings of a new path for himself as a writer/director. Ironically, by abandoning his trademark balance of pessimism and romance in favor of sheer pessimism, Allen has made his future as a writer/director look all the more optimistic.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Safety Last!

Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, liked to say that if cinema hadn't been born mute, there never would have been such a thing as cinematic art. I just learned that little piece of trivia today and, having seen Safety Last! (1923) yesterday, I know that he was right.

The story is simple, the cinematography is for the most part unremarkable, and the intertitled dialogue is almost nonexistant, but somehow the three combine to form a movie far funnier and more compelling than I ever thought a silent movie could be. In a story that is basically just a long set-up for the main gag of having Harold Lloyd climb the façade of a 12-story building, I frequently found myself losing myself in the affairs of the characters, in spite of the fact that I never even heard the sound of their voices.

Although there are intertitles supplying some key dialogue, the story is driven mostly by pantomime. Normally, the physical humor of the brand used by most silent films can seem - by no fault of their own - a little worn. After all, Looney Tunes made a living plundering all of those jokes and selling them to me when I was still wearing short pants; just because these old black and white movies are the real deal doesn't stop the humor from coming off a bit stale. Nonetheless, Lloyd's crazy antics inspired real laughter. He's simply such a superb comic actor that none of his performance seemed anything short of real and his work still feels very fresh and original. Even the ridiculous third act in which he climbs to the roof of his department store was incredibly evocative, inspiring gasps and squirming discomfort with every single brush with death.

It's easy to tell a story with spoken words. The sound takes the focus off the events on-screen; it takes pressure off of the visual aspect of the film, because the spectator can look away and still be fairly sure of what he/she will find when he/she looks back. With only the musical score that accompanied all silent film screenings - thus making the term "silent film" something of a misnomer - the spectator had to keep his/her eyes on the screen, or, rather, the director and the actors had to work much harder to keep the audience's interest. Most contemporary comedic actors could not achieve today in sound cinema the kind of emotional investment and interest in the characters that Harold Lloyd accomplished without a line of single spoken dialogue. Those that can, owe their skills to Lloyd - and contemporaries such as Charlie Chaplin - who fashioned film performance into an art before sound could come along and encourage everyone to give their eyes a rest and let their ears take the wheel.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Senses of Cinema

The newest issue of my favorite Australian film journal is out and, judging by its table of contents (articles on Network, Taxi Driver, Shampoo, Jacques Tati, The Leopard, and reviews of a bunch of interesting-looking books), it's pretty damn good.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Side Project!

David Quimby and I have joined forces to create a new blog. One of wider scope, deeper insights, and more back and forth bickering. The only rule is that there are no rules. Except for the rule that he his spiel on politics and media stays on Quimby and my obsession with movies and film criticism stays in Cin City.

So, now for something completely different:
Two Jews and a Microphone

Saturday, October 15, 2005

La Cinémathèque Française

Today, for the first time ever, I am going to the Cinémathèque Française. I'm just going to catch an old Billy Wilder film called Stalag 17, but I'm sure I'll somehow get involved with an attractive, quasi-incestuous brother and sister pair with whom I'll have all sorts of adventures!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Still Chicago, but a little bit more indie.

I've just recently started reading Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons by Jonathan Rosenbaum and, well, I'm impressed. Mr. Rosenbaum has, with a stroke of his pen, dethroned Roger Ebert and taken his place as my favorite film critic. I don't always agree with him (compare his review of Nashville with mine), but he has an attention to detail that I feel Ebert lacks. Specifically, he confronts not just the narrative elements of film, but the audiovisual aspects, as well.

Like Ebert, Rosenbaum is a Chicago-based critic, but he writes for the the more alternative paper The Chicago Reader, while Ebert writes for the decidedly mainstream Chicago Sun-Times. I'm far from being an indie snob, so I don't hold Ebert's mainstream character against him, but it does say a bit about the audience he writes for. Meanwhile, Rosenbaum has more of an academic bent to his writing; he approaches film as an art, rather than just as a hobby.

I apologize if this post is less than articulate. I haven't eaten anything all day (3 guesses as to my religion!).

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


In the past two and a half weeks, in spite of all the complications and headaches one generally encounters when moving to a new city (let alone to a new country) as well as a brief trip to Spain, I’ve managed to go to the movies five times. Since my arrival, I’ve seen The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Roman Holiday, A Streetcar Named Desire, All About Eve, and the previously reviewed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I saw each of them on film, projected onto a big screen in movie theaters unlike most you’d find in America. The seats were large, soft, and comfortable, I didn’t have to watch a half hour of commercials before each feature, and, even with the exchange rate working against me, my tickets cost me far less than they would have in the States.

Although I liked some more than others – I loved Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (as my faithful readers already know) and Roman Holiday, really liked The Beat That My Heart Skipped, but didn’t enjoy Streetcar and Eve as much as I had hoped – I always found the experience incredible. Not only did I find the magic of cinema – all but hacked to pieces by American movie theater giants like Loews, Clearview, and Sony – entirely restored, but, to my delight, I found I wasn’t alone. Back at home, if a movie theater was screening a black and white classic like Roman Holiday, attendance would be dismal; I would find myself with a handful of people at most: a mix of elderly loners nostalgic for the movies of their youth, maybe one young couple on what they thought was a novel idea for a date, and a few cinema nerds such as myself. Here, however, even when I went in the middle of the day – as I did yesterday when I saw All About Eve – there was a line outside and, although the theater was by no means full (people do have to work, after all), there was a very impressive showing.

The question, then, is are there so many great movie theaters in Paris because there are so many interested moviegoers or are there so many moviegoers because there are so many great movie theaters? Movie theaters here receive some financial support from the government, allowing them to keep ticket prices fairly low, so I can’t say that it’s only demand that allows for so many repertory theaters (and there are a lot of them, especially in the Latin Quarter where there’s such a tight concentration that you can often find two or three on the same block), but that certainly factors into it, or else they wouldn’t survive. Maybe growing up in such a cinema-heavy environment just breeds a movie-going urge into the populace, or maybe the whole industry relies upon film nerd transplants like me. Either way – at the risk of sounding schmaltzy – even though I don’t speak the language as well or know as many people as I would like, I can’t help but feel somewhat at home.

This afternoon, before attending the first meeting of my Asian cinema class, I’m going to the movies again. I’ll be watching Luis Buñuel’s Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, a favorite of mine from film class last year. Unlike the other movies I’ve seen here thus far, I’ve seen Le Charme Discret a number of times, but I’m excited to see it in this new context: the environment that created, encouraged, and ultimately brought it to me across the Atlantic Ocean. In a way, it’s as if an old friend is taking me to his hometown to show me where he grew up.