Monday, July 17, 2017

Woody Allen’s Match Point: A Meditation on Chance and Luck

Opening scene from the movie Match Point
The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Match Point sums up not only a crucial point about the game of tennis but serves also as a metaphor for life’s (seeming) coincidences. The tennis ball balances on the edge of the net and there are two potential options: either the ball falls back into the player’s court and the match is lost or it will creep over to the opponent’s court and mark a win. A whole match could be decided in the blink of a moment and at that point, expertise or experience take a backseat because it is all in the invisible hands of the tennis gods.

This may seem haphazard but as an avid watcher of tennis matches in my youth I can vouch for the importance of the balancing act of the net. There are more than a handful of games that were decided by it. One of the most memorable ones was an early round series of the US Open between the unseeded but terrific Derrick Rostagno going up against the seasoned tennis champion Boris Becker. An upset was on the lips of commentators and spectators as the champ was facing a couple of match points against himself.

As I recall it, Rostagno was about to hit the winning volley to end the game but, lo and behold, the ball clipped the net and flew higher than expected. In the heat of the moment, Rostagno’s reflex was to quickly hit the ball and it ended out of bounds. This tilted what would have been a sure win for the newcomer to a heart-breaking loss.

In fact, Boris Becker won also another match, the ATP final against Ivan Lendl where the rally in the tie-breaker seemed to go on forever until the German was lucky once again; this blond tennis-god favored superstar won the championship as a result.

So Woody Allen indeed hits a raw nerve of any tennis player, professional or amateur. The net becomes the blind line of chance, a random stroke of luck. In the movie, the main character, the occasional tennis instructor Chris Wilton makes an important personal contact at a tennis lesson; he meets Tom Hewett. By chance, he gets invited to the opera during which this ambitious young man meets Tom’s sister Chloe who, as luck will have it, happens to fall in love with him, head over heels.

Suddenly, Chris has the golden opportunity to gain access to sudden wealth; through his relationship with her, he manages to land a job that comes with a personal chauffeur as an enticing perk, and thereafter, marriage formally secures and binds him to a life of continuous wealth. 

Yet then there is the curveball in the curvy shapes of Tom’s fiancée, the sexy Nola Rice. Against all odds and reason, he is immediately taken by her and indeed lusts for her. His desire is so strong that he throws caution to the wind and his persistence finally pays off: He manages to make love to her on a stormy day. 

But that seems not enough, so he continues to pursue her while she is giving him mixed messages. When his friend Tom breaks off the engagement, Chris happens to run into her again and seizes once more and even more tempestuously this new situation and opportunity with Nola.

It is all a matter of luck to him. It was a coincidence that he ran into her after her break-up, so he wastes no time. She gives in to him after a while and he has his way. Yet as she is both unstable and penniless, a struggling actress who simply does not seem to land any gigs, he has no intention of leaving his wife Chloe for her. As he explains to a friend, he has gotten so used to the life of luxurious comfort that he cannot imagine himself being without it anymore.

The irony of it all, fate always has the last laugh, is that his mistress Nola becomes pregnant. It is ironical because he and his wife Chloe have been trying very hard for a child, mostly on the latter’s insistence and his lover gets impregnated during a single misstep. That only time Nola was not protected leads to this - in his eyes - inconvenient pregnancy. Chris even calls it an immense moment of bad luck.

And he puts his fate into the hands of luck. If there is morality, then immoral deeds ought to be punished. Yet if he is not punished, then there is no moral authority or guidance and the world runs on sheer and random coincidence. He puts this to the test by meticulously planning a murder. This is similar to Raskolnikov’s belief that he is morally superior to other beings and that he should get away with anything, including murder. Incidentally, in an early scene of the movie, we see Chris read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

And then there is the culminating point of irony: Blind chance is indeed on his side. In a brilliant sequence, we see how a piece of jewelry gets caught up on the ledge of the river and falls back on the pavement and this shall serve as an important piece of evidence that will not come to haunt but rather serves him well to escape punishment. 

Although his illicit extramarital relationship with Nola comes to light via an unexpected (and rather unlucky) item, namely the diary kept by the victim, it is not enough to incriminate him and that piece of jewelry absolves him completely and puts the blame of the murder on another person completely.

This movie is rather bleak in its message but it is quite brilliant in its ruminations on luck. What if the protagonist is right and we are simply driven by luck and happenstance? How many of our outcomes do not depend on chance? The meeting of one’s beloved? The landing of a job? An accident? A fatal illness?

And if that is so, how can we escape it or turn it into good luck? Are superstitions helpful? Or should we pray to a supernatural being to win over favors? We often think or assume we are in charge, and in some situations, we may be, but it is like the tip of the iceberg: There is so much brooding beneath it all and it might just come down to a stroke of luck after all.

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