Monday, October 21, 2013

Crimes, Misdemeaners and the Genius of Woody Allen


Woody Allen is one of the great film makers of our generation. From the opening titles, the white letters on black background with New York jazz playing underneath, I am in. What I find rewarding in Allen's films is the manner in which he weaves the deepest issues of philosophy into an entertaining narrative. He doesn't moralize. He creates characters and tells stories.

Last week I watched Hannah and Her Sisters again and over the weekend watched Crimes and Misdemeanors. Each is fast paced with vividly drawn characters. In both there are affairs and the subsequent struggles with guilt and emotional confusion. But in the latter, the high profile Jonah Rosenthal deals with the situation in a very different manner, moving Crimes into a different class of film.

Publicly, ophthalmologist Jonah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a distinguished and generous gentleman in his community. Privately ha has been having an affair that goes especially bad when Dolores (Anjelica Huston) begins to interfere with his public life, threatening to expose him if he doesn’t marry her. Judah’s brother Jack is connected to the shadier side of life and helps his brother by eliminating his “problem.” Near the end of the film Jonah meets film maker Clifford Stern (Woody Allen) at some fancy occasion and they sit together in a shadowed space away from the party.

It's no accident that Crimes and Misdemeanors has a similar title to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. In each the man justifies his murder beforehand making it seem an absolute necessity, but afterwards the unexpected fear (of being caught0 and the guilt at having committed the horror tears him up inside.

The film is dense with sub-themes and mini-stories. One of these is Clifford's love of movies, a theme that carries through many Woody Allen films. The story of Clifford making a film about his wife's brother Lester in order to fund the project he really wants -- a documentary on philosopher Louis Levy -- strikes a chord with anyone who has worked a career to support another passion, such as photography or music.

But the central story here is Jonah's struggle to save his good name, and the lengths he's willing to go in order to do so. All throughout the film, though, we see flashbacks to a scene from Jonah's childhood, a large dining room scene with kids, teens, aunts, uncles and elders, debating morality and ethics, right and wrong. In one of the last flashbacks, Jonah the successful ophthalmologist who seems to have gotten away with murder is standing in the door listening to this ethics debate and finally enters the scene itself to ask a question. It's surprising, and silly and can't be, but it happens and it works. It's the kind of deftness in story telling that Woody Allen uses to keep the weight of Jonah's tale from becoming a burden for all of us.

So near the end of the film Jonah meets Clifford  at some fancy occasion and as they sit together in the shadows Jonah introduces himself.

Jonah: That’s what Ben told me. He said you make films.

Clifford: Yeah, but not that kind.

Jonah: I have a great murder story. … My murder story has a very strange twist.

Clifford: Yeah

Jonah: Let’s say there’s this man who is very successful. He has everything…. and after the awful deed is done he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one. And he’s violated it. Now he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse. An inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then, one morning he awakens. The sun is shining and his family is around him and mysteriously the crisis is lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass he finds that he is not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person, a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit. So what the hell, one more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scot-free. His life is completely back to normal, back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

Clifford: Yes, but can he really ever go back?

Jonah (clearly justifying himself to the viewer, though Clifford doesn’t see it): Well, people carry sins around with them. Oh maybe once in a while he has a bad moment, but it passes. And with time it all fades.

Clifford: So then his worst beliefs are realized.

Jonah: Well, I said it was a chilling story didn’t I?

Clifford: I don’t know. I think it would be tough for somebody to live with that. Very few guys could actually live with something like that on their conscience.

Jonah: People carry awful deeds around with them. What do you expect him to do? Turn himself in? I mean, this is reality. In reality we rationalize. We deny, or we couldn’t go on living.

Clifford: Here’s what I would do. I would have him turn himself in, because then you would see, your story assumes tragic proportions because in the absence of a God or something he is forced to assume responsibility for himself. Then you have tragedy.

Jonah: But that’s fiction. That’s movies. You see too many movies. I’m talking about reality. (laughs) If you want a happy ending you should go see a Hollywood movie.

Getting away with murder is a theme Woody Allen returns to years later in less comic fashion in Match Point. With nuance, eros and drama.

What I like about Woody Allen's films, though, is the seamless manner in which he places rich pearls like this one into the story: “We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of all our choices.”

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