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2012/12/16

Deconstructing Harry

by Dave Gourdoux

Woody Allen in "Deconstructing Harry"
When an artist spends his whole career carefully constructing an image of himself, and when that image becomes accepted and adored by critics and the public, and then scandal occurs, what happens to that image and how the artist reacts is nothing short of fascinating.

It’s been twenty years since the Soon-Yi scandal changed our perception of the cultural icon that was Woody Allen.  The famous neurosis that was at the center of his persona instantly transformed from quirky and funny to strange and self absorbed.  The author of so many witty one-liners who was once perceived as having remarkable insight into our culture was suddenly out of touch and aloof.
Debate raged whether the scandal was cause or effect of his diminishing artistic output.  Having become inarguably one of the world’s greatest directors in the 1980s, with films like “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, “Hannah and Her Sisters”,  “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, and the film that was in production when the scandal hit, “Husbands and Wives”, Allen’s immediate post-scandal output was weak, with uninspired films like “Manhattan Murder Mystery”, “Everyone Says I Love You”, and “Small Time Crooks”

Allen seemed lost, clinging to the old, established image he had worked so carefully to create.  He didn’t seem to understand that the scandal had not only changed the public’s perception of that icon, but that it had exposed the dark underbelly of conceit and narcissism that was always just beneath its surface.
All of that would change in 1997, with the release of “Deconstructing Harry.”  The film is the funniest since his early comedies, but  it’s painful to watch, even as we laugh, especially as we laugh, because we’re watching the cultural archetype Allen spent his entire career creating be ripped apart and destroyed.  Only Clint Eastwood, in his 1992 film “Unforgiven,” has similarly destroyed a myth he helped create, but that pales in comparison, because it is a western, a period piece, and there’s a distance between actor and character.  In “Deconstructing Harry”, Allen is Harry and Harry is Allen, and we are watching Allen destroying Allen, what was left of him after the scandal.  

Stand up comedian
It’s difficult to overstate the impact that the character created by Allen, first as a stand up comic in the 1960s and later as the star in his own films, has had on our culture.  Before Allen, comics were primarily joke tellers and clowns who rarely wrote their own material.  Usually the warm up act for a singer or musical act, they aimed at the lowest common denominator.  Allen, along with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, changed all of that, making stand up intelligent and personal.  He created a character, neurotic and inept, obsessed with hypochondria and sex, the victim of bullies and criminals, but intelligent and edgy, that perfectly matched his physicality: short and slight, pale and redheaded.  You couldn’t help but root for him, not only because you saw your own imperfections in him, but because you got his jokes, and you knew on some level that like him, you were smarter than those who didn’t.  And these weren’t the old “take my wife, please” jokes.  These were sophisticated and clever, oftentimes surreal, and the more you thought about them, the funnier they became.

Allen wrote and directed a series of movies putting this character into unlikely situations.  “Take the Money and Run”, “Bananas”, and “Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask” were sloppily made exercises where he was learning filmmaking craft; they were also the funniest movies to come out of Hollywood since the Marx Brothers.  These were followed by the more competently made variations on the same formula: “Sleeper” and “Love and Death.”
Then, in 1977, Allen released his masterpiece, “Annie Hall”, and things started to change.  A truly great film, it showed remarkable artistic maturation, as Allen was able to insert the character he’d created into a semi-serious romance.  In doing so, he exposed the pain and isolation implicit in the neurosis of the character.  The film’s working title was “Anhedonia,” or the inability to experience pleasure.  Between the laughs, we got glimpses, for the first time, of the very real difficulties such a neurotic character had in dealing with life.

"Manhattan"
“Annie Hall” was an enormous critical success, winning Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director Oscars.  Always adored by critics, Allen was now universally praised as a genius.   This praise only heightened the egotism inherent in the neurosis of his character; it rose to the forefront in his next two movies, only the critics were too blinded by his “genius” to see it.
First, there was his first “serious” film, 1978’s “Interiors.”  A tribute to his hero, Ingmar Bergman, “Interiors” is a terrible movie.  Pretentious and stiff, it barely moves, with characters so unlikeable and self-centered that you couldn't care less about the themes that Allen tries to explore.  It comes across as what it was – an amateurish attempt by a comic to make a big and important drama.  Most disturbing is, with barely a joke to be found in it, how little respect Allen had for his own previous work.

This was followed by “Manhattan", in 1979, one of the most visually stunning films ever made, cementing Allen's status as a serious artist.  However, beneath the incredible black and white cinematography by the incomparable Gordon Willis, Allen’s narcissism is at its own disturbing zenith.  Set aside for a moment his character’s romance with a seventeen year old high school girl (made all the more disturbing in the wake of the scandal) and focus on the relationships between Allen and all the other characters - Allen's character is the only one who has a moral compass.  He remains true to his art, while his friends betray themselves and each other with shallow love affairs and materialistic pursuits.  In the movie’s climax, we listen to Allen self indulgently explain what makes life worth living, and then he literally runs to the young girl.  Only Allen can see the unsullied innocence and perfection of the girl.  It is the only film I can think of where a middle aged man’s fixation on a young girl is portrayed as romantic and heroic.

Enamored as they were with the now heroic character Allen had created, critics lauded both “Interiors” and “Manhattan” as masterpieces.   They seemed blind to the serious flaws that were present in both works.  That changed with his next film.

In the 1980 release “Stardust Memories”, Allen portrays filmmaker Sandy Bates, who has graduated from making “early, funny films” to being a successful and serious director (Sound familiar?  In interviews, Allen has always maintained that the film isn’t autobiographical, but he’s not very convincing).   The film shows Bates, at a weekend retrospective of his films, dealing with his fans, and it’s not a pretty sight.  Shooting them in tight close ups that conjure up Diane Arbus photographs, Allen seems to view his audience with a mixture of disdain, fear and disgust.  Glimpses into his private life aren’t any prettier.  At first glance,  “Stardust Memories” comes across as a successful artist trying to convince his audience how rotten his life is.  But upon closer examination, it becomes, for me, Allen’s first attempt at a more complete and honest exploration of the character he’d created.  We see some imperfections, and (almost) gone is the narcissistic romanticism of his previous two movies. 
Critical reaction to “Stardust Memories” was, for the first time in Allen’s career, largely negative. The unflattering portrayal of his fans and the critical look at the flaws in his character wasn’t what they were expecting.  This lead to what I call the apology phase of Allen’s career, with slight but earnest attempts to win back the critics like “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” and “Broadway Danny Rose”.

This period was followed by Allen’s renaissance, his greatest period, the mid eighties to early nineties, where he seemed to find his stride.  He found a balance between the romantic and the flawed views of his character, and used it to create deeper and more nuanced explorations of a wider range of themes.
Then the scandal hit, and the fall from grace was hard and sudden.  The self-centered shallowness that was always implied in his character was now exposed.  His work was seen in a new light, and he seemed out of touch and isolated.  Allen didn’t seem to understand this until 1997, when he released “Deconstructing Harry."

In "Deconstructing Harry”, Allen not only acknowledges the self absorption and misogyny of his character, he heightens and exaggerates it to devastatingly funny effect. “Deconstructing Harry” is painfully funny, and you can’t help but wince while you laugh. In “Deconstructing Harry,”Allen is essentially burying the character he created.  In the process, Allen also explores the relationships between art and artist and between art and life.  What makes it a great film is that Allen doesn't flinch from any of this.  For the first time, he is uncompromising in showing the depths of his neurosis, warts and all.  In "Annie Hall" and other films he presented the anhedonic as a misunderstood and sympathetic outsider; in "Deconstructing Harry" the anhedonic is still alone and outcast, but gone is all of the romanticism, and all that is left is the miserable unhappiness at his core, and the pain and suffering inflicted upon those who try to get close to him.

Allen plays the part of Harry Block, a writer who draws upon people and events in his own life as thinly veiled inspiration for his work, and remains oblivious to the anguish he causes as intimate details of real lives become fodder for his books.  The central plot line of the film has Harry being presented with an honorary degree at the college he was thrown out of years ago; on the way to the ceremony, he is accompanied by the only people he can get to go with him:  a prostitute, a casual acquaintance, and his own young son, who he has to kidnap from his ex-wife.                  

The film begins with a woman named Lucy (Judy Davis) showing up at Harry’s home, gun in hand, intent on killing Harry.  The book Harry has just published details an affair that everyone will know was based on a real affair between Lucy and Harry that occurred while Harry was married to Lucy’s sister. Lucy is suicidal and murderous at the embarrassment and shame Harry’s book will cause.  Harry talks his way out of the situation by telling Lucy a story he is working on, an autobiographical story of a young man obsessed with sex who is mistakenly claimed by death.  The story calms Lucy down, and Harry lives.  His imagination, his art, has saved him from a situation that his art put him in.  This is the central conflict in the move – art vs. life, and how for Harry, and for Woody and the character he created, the two become indistinguishable from the other.  The movie is about what happens when one becomes his own art.

Allen tells the stories in extremely funny and star studded vignettes.  For example, the fictional counterparts to Lucy and Harry are expertly played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Richard Benjamin, and the young man in the death story is played by Tobey Maguire.  There are appearances by Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Mariel Hemmingway and others.  The vignettes recall the sketchy quality of Allen’s early films with one notable exception:  the use, to great comedic effect, of vulgarity and sexually explicit language, which Allen had always avoided.  This is important in not only delivering laughs, but also in stripping away another layer of the icon.  To see and hear Woody Allen delivering f-bombs with the same precise comic timing he'd always delivered his famous one-liners is jarring.  It's as if he's saying what he'd always been thinking, and in the process revealing a layer of ugliness that laid just beneath the surface of the myth.

Woody Allen, Billy Crystal and Elisabeth Shue in "Deconstructing Harry"
There are some of the funniest moments in any Allen film, including a visit to Hell and a sick and twisted conversation with the devil (Billy Crystal) about which one of them is more sick and twisted.  My favorite scene is with Allen and his psychotherapist wife (Kirstie Alley) in which she discovers he’s been having an affair with one of her patients; the two play off of each other perfectly as Harry reveals the extent of his misogyny to a disbelieving Alley, all while her patient, a Mr. Farber, waits patiently within earshot on the couch in her office.
At the end, stripped clean of any romantic ideals, Harry is arrested at the ceremony for kidnapping his son and having Lucy’s gun in his car and possession of drugs (that belonged to the prostitute). Harry is subsequently bailed out of jail.  Alone, he returns to writing.  He can only exist in his art; he is incapable of the caring and decency that happiness in real life requires.  Thus, the myth Allen spent his entire career creating and nurturing is laid to rest and exposed as only a myth.  The truth is that the exaggerated neurosis at the core of Allen's character is symptomatic of an overstated sense of self, and while on the surface it may be amusing and quirky, dig into it a little deeper and you'll find an isolated and tortured soul that has difficulty functioning in the world.  It is little wonder, then, that in "real life", Allen cannot see the moral transgressions implicit in falling in love with his wife's grown adopted daughter.  His only response was the famous quote "the heart wants what it wants," and that pretty much sums up the selfishness at the heart of the character.  Never mind the pain and suffering that will be inflicted upon those close to him; the heart wants what it wants. It's no different than attending a Knicks game or practicing his clarinet or any of the other neurotic rituals he mindlessly obeys.  

At the end, what "Deconstructing Harry" seems to be saying is that one cannot live entirely within and for one's self.   The neurosis that Allen fed and cultivated his entire career drove him deeper into isolated self absorption, and rendered him incapable of being a part of anything like a society or a culture or a family.   In the end, Harry/Woody is alone with his art, but it's not the romantic notion of an artist suffering for his art; rather, it's the sad sight of a man trying to hang on to the only thing he has left.  This is an extraordinary and painful thing to see; it's a tribute to Allen's genius that he can pull this off.  One wonders what would have happened if, back in 1980, he'd approached "Stardust Memories" with the same objective eye to all of his flaws.  
Allen has repeatedly claimed that Harry is not autobiographical, but I don’t know how anyone with the slightest familiarity with his career or the scandal could believe that.  The question that remains for me is, is “Deconstructing Harry” an honest self assessment by Allen of himself and the icon he created, or is it his reaction to the fall from grace he experienced as a result of the scandal?  Either way, despite the fact he has continued to make movies, “Deconstructing Harry” remains for me the last Woody Allen film.  It’s a necessary ending in that it completes the myth he began in the 60s, and reconciles the icon and the fallen idol.

For more information, visit Woody Allen's IMDb: www.imdb.com/name/nm0000095

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