I pride myself on being a very non-judgmental person. It’s a total lie, but I pride myself on it anyway. In my fantasy version of myself, I have a very open live-and-let-live way of looking at the world. I may have a well developed values system for my own behavior, but I don’t expect others to conform to my beliefs and I would never pass moral judgment on a friend, family member, or stranger. I don’t know where I picked up this New Age twaddle but it’s a good thing it only exists in my head since such an outlook isn't always the best approach (should I not judge Hitler for his actions?). The sad truth is that I’m one of the most opinionated people I know. I just can’t help it—present me with a situation, any situation, and I can usually muster up a fairly strong opinion about it. I will say, however, that as I mature, at least I’m more willing to change that opinion once I get more information or once my knee-jerk judgments start to fade.
In Kendall’s family, loyalty was a key factor in determining how the entire clan felt about certain people. If someone dissed one of her father’s plays or treated a member of the family badly, that person could go from trusted confidant to lifelong opponent overnight. Once someone made it to her father’s Enemy List, no matter how large or small the infraction, all of the Haileys were expected to follow suit and write that person out of their lives. It worked in reverse, too. If someone was a close friend, they could do no wrong, and their work was revered. Their play was pure brilliance, their book outstanding, their performance stellar. I’m not saying that the Haileys were insincere in their praise—it was just that their love for people colored the way they perceived the actions, behavior, or creative output of these individuals. Even though I used to mock this dynamic, there was always something I admired and envied about it. The Hailey Way has softened quite a bit since Kendall’s father died in 1993, but to this day you couldn’t wish for a more devoted friend, a more focused listener, or a more appreciative audience than anyone in Kendall’s family. They are a unique breed and rightfully beloved by their large circle of friends. But watch out if you happen to get on their bad side—they can disappear you faster than the Argentine Junta. I felt that undertow myself many years ago at the end of one of Kendall and my early attempts at a relationship. She later admitted that it was only her late grandmother, Hallie May Hailey, who committed the treasonous act of questioning Kendall’s decision to dump me, daring to ask in her heavy Texas accent, “Why is Kendall bein' so mean to Danny?”
I grew up very differently from the Haileys. The more someone was condemned at the hands of my loved ones, the more I felt I had to defend that person or urge my family members to try to understand the offender’s point of view. Equilibrium had to be maintained at all costs. I am still guilty of this reflex and it has infuriated Kendall on many occasions. If she’s having an issue with a family member, friend, or even a nasty sales clerk, my instinct is to jump to that person’s defense and try to make Kendall see the situation differently. It is only when Kendall is singing someone’s praises that I suddenly find myself offering up critical comments, as if I have to constantly balance out any reaction on her part with an opposite reaction. Why do I do that? Am I playing Devil’s Advocate…or just Devil?
I started thinking about the nature of my judgment last night as Kendall and I were watching Woody Allen's latest film. “Match Point” is Allen’s first film shot entirely in England, and, except for “Interiors,” his 1978 attempt at “serious drama,” it is his most goyishe film to date. While some of the themes in the film are very familiar (sexual obsession, infidelity, the lengths outsiders will go to fit in with the established upper class), the film lacks the usual stand-in for Woody’s Jewish angst-ridden psyche (even in “Interiors” we had Maureen Stapleton’s colorful Pearl, who, while not Jewish, represented that kind of vibrant persona that’s an oil-and-water mix with the elitist Gentile families Allen loves to write about—“She’s a vulgarian!” shouted Mary Beth Hurt about Stapleton’s character). There is also a noticeable lack of humor in “Match Point.” Although some laughs can be had from Penelope Wilton’s biting portrayal of the Hewett family’s upper crust Mama Bear, and from Matthew Goode as Wilton’s affable son who in the end wants to please his mommy, the film’s main stars, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson, are about as comical as broken glass. Not that they’re supposed to be funny. I hope I don’t sound like one of those nudniks Allen skewers in the wonderful “Stardust Memories” who keep telling the director how much they prefer his earlier funny films. Still, after two hours of tortured Gentile machinations I wanted to stand up in the theatre and shout, “Dear God, somebody get me a Jew!”
It’s impossible to follow the plot of “Match Point” without remembering Allen’s own troubles. Who can forget when Mia Farrow unleashed her wrath at her longtime companion after finding out he was having an affair with her daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Allen then held a press conference where he uttered his famous line, “The heart wants what it wants” to explain his behavior. I was disgusted by the media bandwagon that had turned against Allen during this time but hearing him utter that line made me join their ranks, at least temporarily. I remember getting into arguments about Allen’s situation with my ex-wife and other defenders. The heart may want what it wants, I posited, but that doesn’t mean you have to act on it when doing so will lay waste to the lives of the people you care about. My feelings about Allen never extended to a boycott of his films—I eagerly saw them all, but it took a viewing of the documentary “Wild Man Blues” for me to release my judgment of his personal life. The film provided a telling glimpse into Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, and I had to admit that they seemed perfect for each other. Who the hell was I to judge them anyway?
Watching “Match Point” last night made me wonder whether I really did let go of that judgment. Rhys-Meyers, though light years away from the classic Allen character in looks and ethnic background, is definitely a student of the “heart wants what it wants” school of moral decision-making. I enjoy movies that explore characters with questionable motives who do all sorts of things in their quest to get what they want. I never watch these films and think about the personal ethics or beliefs of the screenwriter or director. But last night as the film played out (and incidentally, I do agree that it’s Allen’s best film in years), I couldn’t get Woody the Man out of my head, or more accurately my past judgments of Woody the Man. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the writer/director was somehow condoning Rhys-Meyers’ reprehensible actions by the way he was presenting them and that the film somehow revealed Allen’s own twisted view of women and relationships.
Kendall thought the film seemed like a thematic retread of Allen’s own “Crimes and Misdemeanors” but it reminded me more of the 1951 film “A Place in the Sun.” In both films we empathize with the protagonist’s desire for a better life and thus are initially torn when he engages in activities that are terribly out of character for a leading man. The difference in “Match Point” is that Scarlett Johansson is no boorish Shelley Winters. Rhys-Meyers goes after her with a vengeance until his obsession turns her into something else entirely, something that no longer has any appeal. The heart wants what it wants until it doesn’t want it anymore.
I’m trying hard not to give any of the major plot points away. Let’s just say the ending of the film is a shocker and never would have passed muster with the 1951 censors who made sure Montgomery Clift paid for his sins in “A Place in the Sun.” I also couldn’t help noticing how my perceptions of certain character types keep changing as I get older. I know there was a time when I would have been rooting for Rhys-Meyers’ obsessive interest in mystery girl Johansson and I would have thought his wife Chloe (played by the excellent Emily Mortimer) was a boring character. Today, Johansson’s Nola Rice sent up red flags from the minute she appeared on screen. Trouble with a capital T, I thought. Emily Mortimer seemed a much more appealing match, why would Rhys-Meyers possibly want to stray? Oh yeah, the heart wants what it wants, I keep forgetting.
I enjoyed seeing this film but by the time it was over I felt an uneasy creepiness that made me want to go home and take a shower or watch a few MGM musicals to get the sour taste out of my mouth. “What kind of mind would write a story like this?” I asked Kendall, my old judgments of Woody Allen’s personal life filling my consciousness. I then went into my usual self-reproach: What the hell do I know about what makes Woody Allen tick? I’ve never met the man and even if I had, why do I assume that the plotlines of his films are direct windows into his subconscious thoughts?
Suddenly I was overtaken by the screaming cacophony of judgment that lives in my head all the time—harsh opinions about the real-life celebrities I was watching, the other patrons in the movie theatre, the people selling refreshments, anyone within eye- or earshot. In the end, I reserved my harshest judgment for myself: Who died and made you king of the universe? Where do you get off with your holier-than-thou attitude? Why don’t you just focus on your own dysfunction before setting your sights on the foibles of the rest of the planet? By the time we got home I vowed I would not write about “Match Point” on my blog. I didn’t want to risk unleashing this tirade and exposing myself for the judgmental lunatic that I am. So what am I doing? Damn. With these thoughts still swirling in my head, I just couldn’t make myself write about anything else.
The blog wants what it wants.