Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Match Point: How Woody Allen Shits Himself and Gets It Called Art

“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

I just saw Match Point, Woody Allen’s latest movie, though at the rate the Woodman churns them out, I imagine he will have another to inflict upon us before long. Match Point has to rate as the most excruciating movie ordeal since Nicole Kidman clipped her hair and fell in love with a ten-year-old in (the Stanley Kubrick-wanna-be fiasco) Birth. I see a lot of movies and a lot of them aren’t very good, in fact they are just plain bad. Once in a while I turn a movie off just because it insults my intelligence or else fails to hold my attention, or both. But it’s rare to see a movie that I just plain loathe, that makes me want to foam at the mouth and come up with as many vitriolic jibes as I can hurl at it. Like Birth (which I meant to incinerate at this blog but never did), Match Point attains this honored status.

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 movie, however, one called 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 foregoes 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 is not someone who is 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 is 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 Allen 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 searing inaccuracy. In fact, recent developments have seen science entering into an uneasy tango with religion (or at least magic), and all this line does is to reveal Woody Allen’s rank ignorance and/or pathological denial as to “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 Allen 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, Woody 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 Allen 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 ones) actually hailed Match Point as a “return to form” for Allen, 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.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind the Curtain
Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling’s Sleight of Hand

What is left to be said or done about the Harry Potter phenomenon?

First off, I must confess to never having read any of J.K. Rowling’s books, nor indeed to having any great desire to do so (a few pages has proved sufficient). Maybe some day I will get around to it and be pleasantly surprised, although I suspect that my bias against all things Potter is by now too strong and too firmly established for this to happen. Chances are I would be focusing on finding things to complain about—and doubtless be more than satisfied in my quest—to let myself be swept along by the story.

The movies are another matter. As a film surgeon and movie addict, and as a researcher of all things mythological in our predominantly movie-shaped culture, I have had little choice about seeing the Harry Potter movies. Nor, for the last couple anyway, has this been any great chore. (Actually, I never saw the second movie. Since the first was so unsurpassibly awful, and since the two films shared the same director, I steered well clear of it.)

Because the J.K. Rowling/Harry Potter phenomenon is so pervasive and formidable unto itself, however, it has proved all but impossible for me to watch and enjoy these movies purely on their own merits, or to resist the urge to place them within the context of their own flabbergastingly inflated success. The success of “Harry Potter’—inseparable from the money he has made—comes down to the degree to which the books and movies have colonized the consciousness of Western culture, in the process becoming a veritable meme (psycho-social franchise) unto themselves.

Of course, this is not really the case, because Harry Potter is actually part of a greater meme—that of teenage empowerment through magic—a meme that has been growing and mutating for decades. Needless to say, Harry Potter is not Jesus Christ, and J.K. Rowling is not St. Paul. Yet Harry Potterism has some (if not all) of the earmarks of a 21st century cult, even a religion, primarily I suspect because sorcery is a meme whose time has come. If so, Rowling and her fictional creation are the leading avatars of our day. So why do I feel such disdain, even contempt, for those who bow down at the trash altar of Harry Potter’s magic?

The third movie, from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, was imaginative, lively, and entertaining. The most recent, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire from director Mike Newell (all the films have been scripted by Steve Kloves, the unhailed auteur behind Flesh and Bone and The Fabulous Baker Boys), was less imaginative or lively, and considerably longer, but it possessed a new level of morbid intensity and visual flare, and managed to be mildly entertaining. It was also undoubtedly aimed at more mature audiences than the previous films.

Yet even these films left me thinking more about what they (and the source material) lacked, than contemplating whatever small virtues they do possess. When you get down to it, the Harry Potter franchise possesses one single major virtue—its subject matter. Leaving aside the question of literary merit (since I haven’t read the books), and judging solely by the movie adaptations, there is next to nothing (so far) in Rowling’s deft presentations of witchcraft and demonology to young audiences that can be called either original or inspired.

In ten years or so, Harry Potter has attained the kind of cult status—the fanatical following, mainstream popularity, and cultural clout—that it took Lord of the Rings half a century to achieve. And although Tolkien’s work could also be called a pastiche, a reworking of old (timeless) myths and fantasy elements, it did so with a full understanding of the archetypes it plundered, and of the reasons for their lasting appeal. As such, the books aspired to (and maybe attained) a mythic dimension all their own.

The Harry Potter series doesn’t aspire to, and consequently doesn’t attain, anything like mythic dimensions. Eschewing any interest in archetypal resonance, it is content to trade in stereotypes instead. In fact, besides the Dementors (which might have been inspired directly by Carlos Castaneda’s “Flyers”), I can’t think of a single lasting contribution that Rowling has made to the field of fantasy fiction. On the other hand, I could come up with an almost endless list of things that she has failed (or been too complacent and lazy) to do. But who has the time?

When the movie The Matrix came out, it satisfied and even surpassed the fantasies, dreams, and expectations of millions of teenage sci-fi heads, appealing to their sense of alienation and strangeness. Using familiar archetypes relating to heroic quests, the search for wisdom and transformation, it answered a need in young people to find their own means of empowerment and inspiration. The brilliance of the movie was in presenting sorcery as something that pertained to our daily lives, something that could lead us to a new interpretation of reality and of ourselves. And this is precisely what sorcery is: a new interpretation.

As some of you already know, I wrote a whole book (Matrix Warrior) that attempted to organize and interpret the movie’s ideas with the exact same end: that of providing empowerment and inspiration to the young and dispossessed. I doubt that I could write, to the same end, even a convincing couple of pages on the Harry Potter series, however. So little of it can be applied to our daily lives that there is little to say about it. Even more damningly, not much of it pertains to any existing traditions of sorcery.

To give the most immediate example, there are no sorcery schools to be found in occult history. If such schools existed (back in ancient Egypt, for example, or Atlantis, or even perhaps in the present day, hidden away in secret compounds beneath or orbiting the Earth), it is pretty hard to imagine they would in any way resemble Rowling’s Hogwort, a place where kids learn sorcery in a classrooms, sitting at desks, making fun of each other like regular school kids. Hogwort is a place where witches don’t even make their broomsticks and wands with their own hands, but instead buy them in a magic store. Where there are flying football matches and sorcery tournaments, and where fledgling sorcerers learn to fly before they learn to heal a common head cold. In a word, where sorcery is really just an additional commodity, within an otherwise conventional social milieu.

It may be countered that J.K. Rowling is writing for children, and can hardly be expected to show any great regard, or even respect, for the magical traditions which inspired her work. After all, it may be argued, children are not ready for a deeper understanding of magic anyway. But that is just presumption. How do we know what children are ready for?

J.K. Rowling has no qualms about depicting the intricacies of dark magic, complete with sadistic bloodletting, the summoning of dark lords via ectoplasm, and all the grisly and macabre intensity that such scenarios entail. Why then does she flinch from exploring with equivalent depth and intensity the sorcery of Harry and the other Hogwort students? Where, for example, is lucid dreaming? Why is astral projection given little or no play in her scenarios, a total no-brainer for enriching magical stories and something that both children and adults can easily understand and relate to?

Instead, we get endless tournaments, contests, trophies, much pomp and little circumstance, all of which anchor the fantasy world within the dreary confines of the public school system, and illustrate the sort of competitive narrow-mindedness that oppresses children everywhere, and which the idea of personal empowerment via sorcery is surely the very antithesis of. Besides the dubious effects of this on Harry Potter readers and viewers (that of strengthening the social doctrine of achievement based on competition and reward), it makes for pretty dull entertainment.

Any work that draws upon the Gnostic tenet of individual illumination is bound to bring about mixed, even conflicting, results. The Matrix—a true Gnostic work that inspired hundreds of viewers to seek out a deeper understanding of themselves and of “reality”—also led to two execrable sequels, not to mention everything from popsicles to coffee mugs. In the process it helped countless millions of “fans” to sink deeper into the socially-imposed stupor of our technological age, reducing the some of the brightest ideas to mere commodities, and assimilating and inverting its own message.

To give a less frivolous example: for the hundreds of Gnostics inspired by the example of Jesus to seek out their own illumination, countless millions are content to abide in sheeplike subjugation to Paul’s Christ and the Jews’ Jehovah. A genuine message of self-empowerment can lead (will lead) to the precise opposite result for the vast majority, by definition unable to grok such a message. Yet, in the exact same manner, false and shallow imitations of magical truths—works like Harry Potter whose message is really one of conformity—may also serve to guide a select and discerning few, beyond the imitation, to the real thing.

To give a well-known example, cheesy horoscopes on the back page of moronic tabloids, while serving to debase the ancient and noble art of astrology, may also provide enough of a taste for certain readers to seek out genuine knowledge from more worthwhile sources. Astrology is powerful enough, not only to survive such debasement, but to use it to its own ends.

Ditto sorcery.

No matter how poorly J.K. Rowling’s franchise may serve to propagate novel ideas relating to magic, alternate realities, and the hidden potential of human beings (especially adolescents!), it is still getting the basic ideas out there. It is probably pointless to lament the series’ lack of originality or vision, since it is just such humdrum, pedestrian qualities that have allowed the books and movies their enormous popular appeal, and hence influence, in the first place.

And for the millions upon millions being slowly stupefied by Rowling’s and Hollywood’s unimaginative, superficial, and stereotypical presentations of magic, there will always be a canny few wise enough to take the books and movies for what they are: crass commercialization of the oldest wisdom of all that nonetheless offers up its pleasures, while serving to pique children’s curiosity and stir the sorcerer within. Such readers and viewers will have little choice—if they are to appease that stirring—save to seek out deeper and more satisfying sources of inspiration. They may even, if so guided, wind up at play in the fields of Castaneda and the true sorcerers and magicians of the world, both ancient and modern. At which point, Hogwort will become just a memory, and Harry Potter will be cast aside along with all the other outgrown toys. Like training wheels that have served their purpose and become a hindrance and an embarrassment, such childish things are stashed away in the attic, when we are ready to ride.


For those seeking a genuinely magical (Gnostic) experience at the movies, I can’t recommend highly enough this recent film by Dave McKean and Neal Gaiman, easily the most inspired, creative, original, and visionary fantasy movie since The Matrix. According to Neal Gaiman (interviewed on the DVD), one Sony executive working on the film described it as “Like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. On acid. For kids.” I think that’s a fair description, except for the fact that Mirrormask is definitely suitable for adults too.

The most richly conceived and imaginative use of CGI to date, Mirrormask takes place mostly in dreamtime, where McKean and Gaiman can flex their enormous creative muscles. That said, the prologue and epilogue, which occur in “real time,” are impressive too. McKean has a director’s eye and a flare for fantasy visuals to make the late, great Terry Gilliam green with envy. (Poor Terry, whose most recent film, The Brothers Grimm, saw him lost in Disney slums, must have suffered the torments of the deposed when he saw Mirrormask.)

McKean is a graphic artist, and he has no trouble translating his unique visuals to the cinematic medium. On the contrary, even while it is focused on the real world, the film is possessed of terrific vitality and has the visual confidence and flair of the best graphic novels. Once McKean and Gaiman take us into the dream world, however, all bets are off. When was the last time you saw a movie that kept you in a state of constant wonder and anticipation about what was going to happen next? In Mirrormask, every scene unfolds triumphantly to meet and surpass our hopes. The film overflows with visual delights, creativity, audacity, humor, and a suitably dark sense of the irrational. Any fantasy film worth its salt is going to aspire to the surreal, but it’s precious few that attain it. McKean and Gaiman join Méliès, Cocteau, the Quay brothers, and vintage Gilliam in achieving the ultimate goal of Surrealism, combining dream and reality to create a new interpretation of both.

Mirrormask is a very nearly blissful movie experience, an almost perfect blend of children’s’ fantasy (with the corresponding lightness and spontaneity) with the more disturbing subtexts of angst, despair, and schizophrenia that characterize the world of adults. For McKean and Gaiman, dream and nightmare aren’t at opposite poles. They meet comfortably in the middle, so you are never sure which way things are going to go. The same applies for “dream” and “reality”: there’s no easy way to say which is which in Mirrormask, because both partake of the same ingredients.

The common thread that runs through all the realms is sorcery. Mirrormask is everything that the Harry Potter films (even at their best) fail to be. It’s a movie that opens doors onto the hidden realms of the psyche, and invites us in to play. If you are going to make a movie about magic, you better know how to cast a spell. Harry Potter is passable stage magic. Gaiman and McKean are real magicians, and Mirrormask is their sorcery at work, and at play.