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DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997)

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3 star | 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.

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HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992)

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5star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I’ve always had this pension for what I call kamikaze women. I call them kamikaze’s because they crash their plane, they’re self-destructive, but they crash it into you and you die along with them.”

What is the secret to a successful relationship? “Whatever works” suggests Sydney Pollack’s Jack at the end of Allen’s candid exploration of the marital disintegration of two upper class New York couples. Ever the pessimist, Allen’s suggested answer to the question to us (and himself) is to not expect too much out of life. The separation of Jack and Sally (Judy Davis) provides the catalyst for their close friends Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) to confront their own gradual failures, and Allen to examine why we sabotage our satisfaction in his most painfully truthful piece of work on the realities of the human condition. It’s his ode to Bergman’s Scene’s from a Marriage; an intimate eavesdrop into real people experiencing real emotions and living in real exchanges.

These couples, and all others, are different. They require different tactics to sustain them based on the individuals, the circumstances, the histories, the way we develop as humans during them. You have make it work in different ways, maybe as “a buffer against loneliness”. or you don’t. It’s a theme Allen would revisit in 2009 in the very literally titled Whatever Works. Ironically that film did not work and the messages are articulated much more astutely here. These explorations of the same question come in different forms, different genres but also different perspectives. At this time Allen was in the final stages of his own strained relationship with Mia Farrow, which perhaps explains the violent and volatile depictions of these profiles than the comparative pleasantries of similar New Yorkers in Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters or Another Woman. In fact, Mia found the famous erotic polaroids of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in Allen’s apartment in the final days of principal photography, so re-shoots and editing were done during the tumultuous breakup. Thus it’s not surprising to see the film and their relationship on screen reflect the turmoil off it. TriStar capitalised on the media fervor to record Allen’s biggest ever opening weekend of $3.5 million.

Despite it supposedly being written two years prior to filming, there’s still all the unmistakable and uncoincidental resemblances to real life details clouded by a subjective lens. Farrow’s performance is heightened because of the raw personal circumstances surrounding it and the close proximity of the on screen fiction to the real life fact. The unforgettable scene with Allen and Farrow towards the end was actually re-shot after their split. “It’s over and we both know it” she says to Gabe, or Allen, such is the difficulty separating life and art. “Art doesn’t imitate life, it imitates bad television” after all. Farrow took days of convincing to return by producer Robert Greenhut and knowing these circumstances as a viewer darkly enhances the scene.

Her archetypal performance in the 12 Allen films she starred in didn’t vary much outside of the more comical Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days – tender, mellow, mousey and affecting. Here she again lives within these characteristics but brings an enjoyable fierce quality. She provided Allen, and us, with some lovely performances over 12 years; the wild caricature Tina in Broadway Danny Rose, the eternal optimist Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the heartfelt titular Alice, the traumatized recluse Lane in September and her troubled Judy here are standouts. It’s remarkable that she was so consistently great as his muse yet so consistently snubbed by the Oscars to not receive a single nomination from such a strong catalogue of work.

Farrow cannot claim all the on screen plaudits in her final foray with Allen, however. Judy Davis is extraordinary with such compelling passion, ferocity and frustration. It’s easy to play these actions in their obvious manner, but how sincere she is with them in Allen’s magnificent situational writing (such as arguing over the phone with her ex on a first date, in his apartment, over multiple phone calls while suggesting they should “cut his fucking balls off!”) brings such a blackly comic quality. She’s dynamite here and was dutifully nominated for the Academy Award. A young Juliette Lewis is equally outstanding as the manipulative seductress Rain. She and Allen slowly develop a connection beyond their teacher-student relationship as Rain becomes an artistic confidant that Judy cannot be for him. The scene in the cab where they discuss the draft of his new novel is utterly breathtaking cinema. The psychological examination it gives us of both people in this social minefield is gripping, enhanced by how Allen is kept off screen entirely as we focus exclusively on Rain as she progressively reveals her true feelings about his artistic treatment of women and him as as a writer.

Allen’s most affecting moment as a performer comes in Broadway Danny Rose, but it’s a rare and welcome sight to see him play such intimate and complex choices – and do them so skillfully. Another wonderful exchange with Rain, as she finally makes a tipsy move on him at her 21st birthday party in her kitchen, is his finest work in front of the camera. It subverts expectations from Allen in both performance and writing, as he rejects her approach and does so in such a genuine and sweet manner. It’s surprising from a man who for once isn’t “using sex to express every emotion except love”, despite how equally manipulative he could be at this point. In fact, this developing relationship with the teenager and younger women in general is selfishly expressed as “some kind of symbol of lost youth or faded dreams”, which brings profound shades with the revelations that came out with teenager Soon-Yi.

While the mockumentary Zelig was a painstakingly detailed two year process to complete, this has an air of effortlessness and stripped back simplicity to it. Allen focused purely on the content and the action rather than the prettiness of the craft around it, cleverly framing the action within the context of a raw documentary. He wasn’t “tied into conversation tonal shooting…I cut when I wanted to cut (often mid sentence and at the emotional peak of arguments) and stuck on anything I wanted. I didn’t care about the niceties of it…I wanted to make a picture with no relation to beauty or any rules”. The jagged, dissonant and disturbed editing style actually compliments the psyches of the characters. Despite this purposely rough camera work, cinematographer Carlo di Palma has clearly choreographed and orchestrated things superbly with some stellar lengthy one take scenes. It was cheaper and faster to shoot than any of his previous films – I’d argue that it’s better than them all too.

Simply, this is Allen’s most human and pulsating work. There’s life in every syllable spoken and withheld. Dark humour, tragedy and thrills combine with a frightening level of familiarity to the past and present thoughts, actions and dilemmas that we dare not bring to our conscious. These characters have longings, impulses, compulsions, fantasies and daydreams that we hide behind in our daily outward personas. That it is styled and structured as a documentary explains things literally, but it also gives Allen some leverage to play into these conceits and explore unfamiliar worlds sides to the kind of people who populate his work. And how hilarious it is too – “Dostoevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ”, “Was the notion of ever-deepening romance a myth we had grown up on, along with simultaneous orgasm? The only time Rifkin and his wife experienced the simultaneous orgasm was when the judge handed them their divorce”. It’s brilliantly romantic, heartbreaking, visceral, bitter, unsympathetic and truly one of my favourite films.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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