Saturday, July 22, 2006


Rent. I saw this thing when it came out on Broadway, and it annoyed the crap out of me: the squatters were idealized beyond recognition, and made shitty art besides, which fatally trivialized their beef with The Man and made them look like the kids from Fame but in an alternate, distressed wardrobe, and with less reliably pleasing tunes (and numbing recitative passages like "What are you DO-ing with this YUP-pie SCUM?"). That left AIDS as the only real antagonist, and I was repulsed by the dramatic shortcut: you mean I paid all this money for a musical version of Spirochette? But what annoyed me most was that I wound up being moved by the thing. It was a mess, but some embers of real feeling burned in it.

My Rent movie experience was similar. The things that had been bad about the stage version are even worse in the film -- the East Village locale is even more slicked-up (which makes the kids' gripes even harder to figure: you live in this sweet loft for free and you're complaining?), the "art" is even more of a joke, and most of the good songs are very badly served by their updated stylings: first, they make them sound like overproduced contemporary pop, which comparison flatters neither party; second, while the stage setting gave the players license to just belt many of the tunes, Chris Columbus is always fussing and it seldom helps. On stage, my favorite song, "Santa Fe," was just sung and enjoyed; here the characters try to find new ways to be goofy in a subway car, which made me wish I was watching The Warriors instead.

And yet. Rent isn't much of a story, but some of the characters are facing an implacable enemy, and their friends try to help them. Jonathan Larson was evidently not prepared to achieve the grand thing he was going for (and never got another chance), but he was able to get some of that situation up and moving. And I find it especially poignant that it was able to poke through all the feeble razzmatazz. That "One Song Glory" Roger is always talking about didn't amount to much, but something did.

Match Point. The movie's virtues are basic: it has a crackling story, it's extremely well-acted, and the directing is as solid as one might expect from someone who's been making a film a year since the mid-Seventies. The ponderous visual strategies of earlier Woody Allen movies like Interiors and Stardust Memories -- cameras lingering on vacated spaces, self-conscious groupings -- have all burned away now; Match Point has only one willful coup de cinema -- parallel shots of an object striking a barrier -- and it's very well done.

The conveyance is fine; what it's conveying is a little dicey. The plot gives us a young tennis pro named Chris who comes to London and happens into great success -- a fortunate marriage and a leg up in big business. But he has an affair which threatens to destroy all he's gained.

As anyone who's read three sentences about Match Point knows, the film is full of references to luck. It starts with them and ends with them and they're peppered throughout. But though chance puts Chris in several pivotal situations, luck has no more, and often a good deal less, to do with his choices and how they work out than does his character. We learn early on that Chris is intelligent and methodical; he knows what he wants and uses considerable skill, and even deception, to obtain it. (We see immediately, for instance, that he isn't interested in the woman who will become his wife but for the opportunity she represents.) Not everyone would play things the way he does, and the pleasure of the film is watching how he, specifically, turns a great setup into a threat to himself, and how he then endeavors to get out of it.

The one stroke of fate that does turn a key plot development is the subject of one of the bravura shots mentioned above, but that only connects it to the other bravura shot -- a moment of serendipity that's pleasing, but doesn't add up to anything except more guff about luck (and, unfortunately, fresh guff about Sophocles).

Woody Allen has cleaned up his mise en scene but he's still got an annoying pretentious streak. Still, it's reassuring that it takes up so little of the screen time, and that he's moving in the right direction. And he's probably got several more movies ahead of him. Any serious artist in that situation is worth sticking with.

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