Friday, April 19, 2013

Deconstructing Harry (1997): A Calm Man Gets Angry

Woody Allen of course has made many films that pay homage to his favourite director, Ingmar Bergman. Interiors is like one of Bergman’s ultra-serious chamber pieces of the 70’s, Cries and Whispers or Face to Face. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy pays tribute to Smiles of A Summer Night, and so on. Deconstructing Harry has obvious similarities to Wild Strawberries: it’s centred on a road trip with a motley bunch of people accompanying an old man to receive an academic honour. The countryside they drive through could easily be Swedish countryside and at one point novelist Harry Block (Allen) even hunches over the steering wheel with a haggard look that may remind you of Victor Sjostrom in the earlier film.

Deconstructing Harry is a very autumnal movie - not only in its weather and temporal setting, but in its interior design and costuming: dark reds and oranges and browns and beiges. We start off with Judy Davis who, as she seems to have done in so many other Allen films, plays a woman coming apart at the seams, betrayed and badly used by his character. In the main narrative there’s a surprising sudden death from natural causes, a kidnapping of sorts and a resulting arrest, and Allen and Billy Crystal fighting over Elisabeth Shue. There’s a great scene where Kirstie Alley as Harry’s one-time psychiatrist wife discovers his infidelity: a patient arrives at that moment and she tries to treat him, but she can’t concentrate, so he sits alone on the couch and listens in fright as she keeps on going outside to scream obscenities at her contemptible husband. And there’s Hazelle Goodman’s striking Amazonian figure in pink hot pants clashing with the whitebread world of Harry’s sister (Eric Borgosian is that sister’s gnarly, ultra-orthodox Jewish husband) and the Ivy League college they end up at. Goodman plays Cookie, a prostitute Harry hires the night before the trip and who ends up along for the ride; she steals the show from the many other more well-known actors (who also include Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Demi Moore and Robin Williams).

The main narrative is interspersed with vignettes from Harry’s books which focus on characters who are him in earlier life, or thinly disguised versions of him (played by Richard Benjamin, Tobey Maguire and Stanley Tucci). In one of them Maguire spends a night with an Oriental hooker who blows his mind, but he has to pay a hilariously heavy price for his ‘sin’ due to a case of mistaken identity. There’s a brilliant scene when Robin Williams starts suffering from being out of focus (and it’s funny when the same thing affects Harry himself later on) and another where a couple have furtive sex standing up in a parlour while having a conversation with a blind, oblivious old woman.

Things get mixed up and sometimes you may forget what’s reality, what’s from the books, and what’s pure fantasy. Eventually Block starts meeting some of the characters he’s created, conversing with them, learning from them. At one point Demi Moore, playing the novelised version of the Kirstie Alley character, takes Block to observe his sister and what she really says about him when he’s not there: the two of them stand in the same room but somehow they’re ‘invisible’, in the same way characters in Annie Hall (and Wild Strawberries) were. There is also a wonderful sequence when an old woman discovers a terrible and ridiculous secret about her husband of 30 years, plus a funny trip through hell (with great production design/art direction courtesy of Santo Loquasto and Tom Warren ) set to Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. And there's sharp humour throughout the film (Harry’s sister: “You have no values...your whole's nihilism, it's cynicism, it's sarcasm and orgasm.”/ Harry: “You know in France I could run on that slogan and win.”)

This film sees Allen angrier than usual, and cruder too: there’s a lot of swearing in it. He seems like a misanthropic old man at the start, a nasty misogynistic old man even. Celebrity (1998), a companion piece to Deconstructing Harry, also had elements like this: scenes that seemed to express violent feelings towards women, which were only partially defused by humour. A while ago I wrote a review of Seven Psychopaths in which I said the film’s tone seemed ‘off’ because it did things like refer to women as ‘c**ts’, and Deconstructing Harry also does that once or twice. But to me I could accept it more here exactly because it wasn’t done casually, as a throwaway joke; it was pointing up how frustrated this old man has become with the world, that he has to use such violent language to express himself.

The film’s tone is a strange mixture. It’s intensely critical of Harry yet determined to explain and humanise him too. That creates a tension that keeps the audience on its toes. We’re constantly told: jeez, this guy is a terrible, terrible human being, he’s so selfish and unreliable, he cheats on every woman he’s with…but hey the world is such a fucked-up, unfair, crazy place and he’s doing his best, it’s not exactly easy for him either. (From another director we care less about, this line of reasoning wouldn’t work, but because it’s Woody, some of us at least are liable to sympathise). The film is close to the bone in suggesting similarities between Harry Block and Allen himself - or rather the reputation Allen had after the Soon Yi Previn scandal. And Harry's an angry character, but there's also real anger underlying the film, coming from the creator. I think it's anger at the way he was vilified in the press for that relationship with Soon-Yi. So he created this nasty womaniser partly in a huff, saying 'well you all think I'm a monster anyway, I may as well be one on screen'. And partly it's as if he's saying 'This is what a real misogynist looks like and do you really think that I'm the same? Are you really that dim?'

This was Allen’s best film since Hannah and Her Sisters and stands amongst his very best works ever, alongside Play It Again, Sam, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Match Point, and a few others. It’s spiky and full of energy. There are a lot of jump-cuts in some sections of the film, to give it a punchy feel: the director seems riled at the world. But Allen keeps hitting you with one great scene after another as if he were determined to make art replace anger. He succeeds wonderfully and makes most other films look drab by comparison. Deconstructing Harry works so well because after the sour opening scenes, the other parts of the film show us a great humanist, and suggest that Harry/Woody doesn’t want to be angry, is in fact trying to escape the anger life has foisted upon him. Famous for his self-obsessive characters, he is in fact too interested in telling stories about other people - this film has about ten great examples - to be really misanthropic or nasty. And after years of Allen being criticised for focusing on a rich white elite, the role Hazelle Goodman plays in the film is fascinating I think, a great riposte to those critics. Some may still complain because his one black character is a prostitute, but I think the honest sympathetic relationship Block has with her, and the matter-of-fact way he takes her into his white world, and the role she plays in humanising and calming him, more than make up for that. In the end all that matters is making connections and bringing people together.

For 88 screenshots from the film, click here

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