| Dir: Woody Allen
“You think getting a blowjob from a big bosomed 26 year old is a pleasurable thing for me?”
Some of Allen’s favourite writers are the great explorers of existentialism; Nietzsche and Camus in particular. His own works like Annie Hall, Shadows and Fog, Zelig, Stardust Memories and Love and Death tackle this crisis as a major theme. But none does so in such a dark and pessimistic tone than Deconstructing Harry, where the title couldn’t be more self-explanatory to the film’s action.
Harry Block (Allen) is an author whose meaning in life we deconstruct, dissect and dissemble from his work. What a physiological minefield it is: homicidal, cannibalistic Jews; anti-Semitism; debauchery; self-destruction; adultery; and kidnapping, to name but a few of his fine attributes. Harry is too neurotic to function in reality and can only operate through his art; a distorted, manipulated one at that. Harry puts his life into his novels, with thinly veiled attempts at disguising the facts.
This is something which Woody is notorious for doing in his own works of art. As he states in Annie Hall: “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” The irresistible story of Alvie and Annie’s courtship and fated demise is inspired by the real-life relationship of Allen and Diane Keaton; there is even a play written by Alvie in the film which romanticises their relationship and fabricates a positive ending. Manhattan is rumoured to be based on real life relationship with 17 year old Stacey Nelkin in the years prior (Isaac’s ex-wife Carol also writes a book about their relationship in the film). Stardust Memories was altogether a curlish response to his fanbase rejecting his newfound widespread popularity. Radio Days is a loving portrait of his childhood. Husbands and Wives transcends fiction and fact at a time of Allen and Farrow’s separation. Allen’s art bluntly “mediates between the need for illusion and the need to reach some accommodation with the real”. It all turns unbearably meta here when a dream (an illusion) influences Harry to write a novel (his art, another illusion) about a character who is effectively Harry Block, who is essentially Woody Allen, who is writing this entire thing (an illusion).
As appropriate as the title of the film is, the working title of The Worst Man in the World would still prove to have been accurate. Block is a shallow, superficial, deluded, narcissistic, exploitative, deceitful and sex obsessed man with little redeeming qualities. He justifies adultery as a disguised plea at more closeness with his wife, he demeans his wives as playing their part in a “nice, solid, tranquil, routine marriage” and he even proves to be a bigger sinner than The Devil (Billy Crystal) – “I do terrible things. I’ve cheated on all my wives and none of them deserved it, I sleep with whores, I drink too much, I’m vain, I’m cowardly and I’m prone to violence.” He expects people to adjust to the distortion that he’s become, which in a way reflects Allen’s passivity towards his domestic controversy in that everyone should accept his moral misgivings with Soon-Yi Previn. Block is a fundamentally poor and thoroughly unlikable human, to the film’s significant detriment. But he is a brilliant creative mind and harnesses his odds against the world mentality – his inability to “transform reality to his desires” – into great art. In the end, writing saves his life.
Allen frames this exploration around a weak plot line of Harry traveling to a ceremony at his old college where he is being honoured, alluding to the story of Bergman’s Wild Strawberry’s. With this format of storytelling, the structure presents the opportunity to meet a myriad of characters from Blocks art and his reality. Allen facilitates this with one of the most topically star-studded Allen casts for its era – Crystal, Kirstie Alley, Judy Davis, Julie Kavner, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Elisabeth Shue and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. As is common in Allen’s sphere, the ladies shine the brightest with big comic performances that mask the narrative shortcomings. Alley’s inappropriate and unwavering outburst at Harry, while attempting to maintain decorum in the middle of seeing one of her patients, is fantastic. And Judy Davis returns after a spellbinding performance Husbands and Wives; her delivery of the word “sewer” has never been done better, while her transition from struggling to hide her giddiness at being chosen by Harry to a turn of shock at realising she’s actually been passed over by Harry (shaky legs, dry open mouth, uncontrollable spasms, heavy breathing, fainting) is fantastically farcical.
While this mid-90s period is regarded by some as the beginning of an artistic slump for Allen that would largely run until 2005’s Match Point, there are plenty of creative ideas on show here. Mel being out of focus, the Death elevator scene updated from an unused Annie Hall pitch, real life characters meeting their fictionalised counterparts and magical time travel are particularly memorable. It also features one of Allen’s most famous comic lines:
“You have no values. Your life is nihilism, cynicism, it’s sarcasm and orgasm.” “Y’know in France, I could run on that slogan and win.”
On the surface, Deconstructing Harry seems in many ways the perfect conceptualisation of a Woody Allen film with many of his tropes on full volume. Yet it also plays like a b-side; a messy amalgamation of recycled ideas from a still talented artist lacking the energy and refinement to meet his peak standards. One could be much more satisfied with everything the film attempts to do from viewing a combination of his past works; Husbands and Wives for the erratic handheld cinematography, Manhattan and Annie Hall for the deconstruction of a flawed man, Hannah and Her Sisters for the rich and complex interplay between an ensemble. As Block says to his wife towards the films conclusion about one of his draft novels, the script lacks energy. It’s as if Allen is once again using his art to reflect his own life.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Second viewing.