Zeitgeist

Morality Tales

August 21, 2008

Multiple Pages
Morality Tales

Suggesting that movie director Woody Allen, who has abandoned the Big Apple and is residing in Europe now, has been transformed from a New York Liberal into a Continental Conservative would certainly sound like a stretch. But after watching his 2005 Match Point, in which the main character is a professional tennis player by the name of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who cheats and murders his way to the top of British High Society, I did consider the possibility that the aging Allen may have become a Social Darwinist of sorts late in his life (in fact, one of that movie’s producers was someone named Lucy Darwin).
But then, if you follow the last scenes of that movie very closely, you have to conclude (at least I did) that Chris the adulterer and the murderer is actually a loser. His violations of society’s main moral (and religious codes) turn him into a man haunted by nightmares who exhibits all the characteristic of a self-destructive personality. We are left with the impression that even if he won’t get caught eventually by the police and get punished for his crime, like in Crime and Punishment, he would be perceived by the rest of us as a wretched human being who for all practical purposes had signed a pact with the Devil.

My guess is that the aging Allen has been reading a lot of books about Evolutionary Psychology, which has become a faith dressed as a science for many secular conservatives, and in particular for libertarians, who despite their sense of determinism about the depressing future of the human condition, have embraced the notion that we are programmed by our genes to act in accordance with certain principles that we call “moral” but that actually help us to survive through our interaction with others. At the end of the day, the nice guy does come in first, if you will.

In his new Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the evolutionary psychological themes have become more apparent (at least for this reviewer). Two young American women, Vicky (the very attractive Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson; not so great in this role) spend an amorous summer in beautiful and romantic Barcelona (a city that looks as inviting as a glass of Sangria in the film, and believe me. I’ve been there. And it is).

Vicky (Irony? That was the name of Queen Victoria’s daughter) is the reserved and responsible type who is loyal to early 21st-Century’s bourgeois values. Studying “Catalan cultural identity” in Spain, she is engaged to a young and successful New York investment banker and is preparing to spend the rest of her life in America’s prosperous and secure Yuppie-Land.

Cristina (Irony? Religious connotations) is the one who doesn’t know what she wants in her life and in a relationship and is willing to “experiment” with a lot sex and drugs. She detests America’s “materialistic” middle-class values and is attracted to the libertine intellectual and artistic milieu of post-Christian Europe where old Churches are nothing more than tourist attractions.
To make a not-very-long story even shorter, Vicky and Cristina encounter “artist” Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem; the “Fredo” character with the bad hair-cut from No Country for Old Men) a romantic and charismatic who exudes sexual magnetism à la Antonio Banderas, you know, the kind of Latin/Mediterranean male that sexually-frustrated Nordic females tired of their asexual husbands are supposed to be attracted to—only to discover later that their object of desire is gay…

Cristina is (of course!) attracted to Juan and decides to spend the rest of the … Summer? Month? Week? …  in his villa and con mucha wine, food, and sex. But then, Cristina finds out that in addition to being a phony and pretentious Miro Wannabe, her Juan remains under the spell of his psychotic ex-wife (Penélope Cruz; fantastic in this role) who out of the Spanish blue shows up at the villa, and before you say “where is my condom?” it’s a manage-a-trois. But, hey, you guys out there, before you start fantasizing about an orgy with Hall and Johansson (or if you’re gay, with Bardem), all of this gets kind of ugly. Even the adventurer Cristina is repulsed and decides that the time has come to leave Juan and abandon Old Europe and return to the New World where she could end-up as—who knows?—the mistress of a promising presidential candidate?

Unlike Cristina, Vicky is initially repulsed by Juan (who proposes sleeping with both of them). But then, well, she is aware that this is the last summer before moving with the boring-and-only-talks-about-money hubby to the house-in-Connecticut and the summers-in-the-Hamptons, and Juan is so different, and so sexy. Well, after too much wine and she ends up in bed with the Bad Boy while her fiancée decides to visit her and finds out how her research on Catalan identity is going on.

But before she ends up making the wrong choice, Juan’s “ex” tries to kill her and forces her to make the right one. It’s going to be marriage and the upper-middle-class American Dream for her. She is probably not in love with her husband. And there is probably not a lot of romance and sex at the end of the Holland Tunnel. But Woody’s film suggests that unlike Cristina who’ll continue to jump from one bed to another, and Juan and his “ex” who’ll destroy each other, Vicky and her future husband, subscribing to more traditional codes of conduct, will survive as the fittest—and the boring—after this summer in Barcelona.

In Transsiberian, the new terrific Hitchcock-style thriller (I loved it!) produced by Brad Anderson, where we join the Trans-Siberian train journey from China to Moscow. The weather is much colder than it is in Barcelona, and the stakes are also much higher, and involve life and death. But once again we encounter two American women with strong libidos, a charming but destructive Spaniard, a straight all-American husband, and the kind of relationships and the struggle for survival that raise painful moral dilemmas.

Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) seem to be the perfect American couple that belongs to a Christian NGO, and after spending a few months helping orphans in China, they are traveling from Beijing to Moscow on the legendary Trans-Siberian express train. The two befriend another couple, an enigmatic Spaniard, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his young girl-friend, Abby (Kate Mara) who introduce themselves as to them “English teachers” who supposedly work in schools in the Third World.

But not all what it seems to be on the Trans-Siberian. We learn that before she had married Roy and found Jesus, Jessie was traveling with bad company, with prostitutes, drug dealers and other criminals. That explains why she is attracted to, and at the same time repulsed by Carlos, who is apparently (no much surprise here) a drug dealer. Carols tries to seduce Jessie in the remnants of a Russian-Orthodox Church during a stop in a town in Siberia. But just when Jesse seems to be responding to his advances, one of the stone crosses in the church collapses (Heavenly Intervention?). That provides Jesse with a window of opportunity to demonstrate her fidelity to her husband. But then that makes Carlos really, really angry, and Jesse unfortunately ends up violating another of the Ted Commandments: Thus shall not kill. And a nightmarish Siberian chase commences, involving members of the Russian Mafia, police detectives (including an ex-KGB detective Grinko (played by the wonderful Ben Kingsley), and many other interesting contemporary Russian characters.

Although Jesse and Roy turn out to be very complex characters—forget the perfect American couple!—the moral message here is less subtle than in Match Point. The criminal will not escape the punishment. But like in Barcelona, we are left with the understanding that even the Good Guys have no choice but to operate against their own moral principles if they hope to survive.

Which is exactly what Avery Ludlow (depicted by Brian Cox) finds out at the end of another new cinematic morality tale, Red. Avery is a Korean War vet with a tragic past, who lives alone in a small town somewhere in the USA, where he runs the local hardware store. Avery’s only companion is an old ginger-haired dog named Red, given to him by his late wife.

One day when Avery and Red are enjoying a day of fishing, three teenagers come along and steal Avery’s money and kill Red. Determined to find out who the boys are and why they did it, Avery goes on the hunt. He’s helped by a local reporter, but the authorities generally ignore him. One of the boy’s parents, a rich businessman with political connections (Tom Sizemore), actually tries to ruin him. But Avery single-mindedly presses for justice—even when this means Wild West, vigilante justice. Avery wins at the end of the movie while, at the same time, he expresses doubts over the course of his retribution. Red is a simple and moving and very American movie, perhaps the first Western-style film in which the hero is willing to kill and get killed in the name of defending the honor of a dead and helpless dog.

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