December 11, 1997
Woody Allen, Elizabeth Shue and Billy Crystal.
Film: Deconstructing Woody
By Sally Ogle Davis
Remember when Woody Allen, following the Soon Yi scandal, wasasked by the "60 Minutes" reporter how he could sleep with hisstepdaughter? He didn't seem to understand the question. Hisinterviewer and he, it appeared, lived in two different moraluniverses. And all over America, people were asking, "What's wrongwith this guy?"
In his latest movie, "Deconstructing Harry," Woody answers thequestion. The poster boy for primary narcissism, Allen has alwaysdone work that's about himself. It was clever, it was funny, and weloved him, I suspect, as much for his weaknesses -- many of which werecognized in ourselves -- as for his humor. We never promised thatlove would be unconditional, however, and Woody may finally haveimposed on our reservoir of affection once too often.
Never before has he painted such a complete self-portrait, wartsand all. It's the corner flasher opening the grubby raincoat. And itis not a pretty sight.
"I'm spiritually bankrupt," his writer character, Harry, wails atone point. "I'm empty; I've got no soul." To which, on the evidencehe presents here, one can only say..."Guilty as charged." This ismasochism and masturbation at one and the same time. The effect ischilling and, despite the plethora of funny lines, no longer all thatamusing.
Allen with Judy Davis.
Harry Block (as in blocked, emotionally) is a New York writer whodecimates friends, his several wives and his family by putting themin his stories, not bothering to disguise them and then actingtotally cavalier about the effect. (The film's device is to have twocasts -- the real wives and family, and the people who play them inhis books.)
Harry's relationship to his writing is the only functioning onehe's ever really had. When his old university decides to honor him,he can't find a single friend to accompany him to the ceremony. So hehires a prostitute companion and kidnaps his young son, over whosecustody he and his ex are engaged in a battle to the death (shades ofAllen's real-life battles with Mia Farrow).
For Harry, other people's feelings don't count. When one of hiswives, a therapist who works out of their home, attacks him forsleeping with one of her patients, Harry is offended. Cooped up allday in their apartment, writing, who else does she expect him to meetbut her patients? All the accusations hurled at the filmmaker/nebbishover the years are laid out here. Allen, it appears, agrees with allof them: that he is a man who hasn't grown up emotionally ("I'm tooold for her," he says of a woman he is pursuing, "but because of myimmaturity, I have a boyish quality that works"); that he ishopelessly attracted to neurotic women; that he's a hypochondriac,obsessed with dying ("The most beautiful words in the Englishlanguage are not I love you," he says, recycling one of his old gags."They're it's benign"); that he is incapable of empathy, unable tosee how his actions affect others (in a running gag, Robin Williamsplays an actor who's permanently out of focus. "You expect the worldto adjust to the distortion you have become," says his wife. Later,Harry himself goes out of focus, too, just in case you missed thepoint).
We've heard it before, but this time he's ratcheted it up severalnotches. Allen's saving grace used to be subtlety, particularly inmatters sexual. Well, forget that. "Deconstructing Harry" is full ofraunchy sex, the language is gratuitously graphic, and the insultsmore in your face (nowhere more so than when he tackles his favoritewhipping boy -- his Jewishness).
"You're a self-hating Jew, and look at how you talk about us inyour stories," his sister says, whereupon we switch to one of thosestories set at a bar mitzvah, where his mother learns that herhusband, his father, murdered a former wife and a mistress and atethem.
"Some folks bury, some drown " he says nonchalantly, "I eat."
Jewish parents as emotional cannibals. It's hardly a new idea, buttrust Allen to make it literal. Thin-skinned Jews have often takenoffense at Allen's gibes. This time, even if you have a hide like apachyderm, you're going to wince. "Not only do I know we lost 6million," he says in answer to his brother-in-law's criticism, "butrecords are made to be broken."
In discussing his own overactive libido, Allen's Harry says: "TakeRaoul Wallenberg. Did he want to bang every cocktail waitress inEurope?"
His shrink wife transposed into one of his stories gets religionand makes a bracha before performing a particular sexual service on adelighted Harry. His observant sister loves him and makes excuses forhim, even as he pillories her in his stories as "too Jewish,professionally Jewish," and depicts her in her kitchen, chewing on akosher pickle and slathering schmaltz on a turkey sandwich. But evenshe finds her tolerance strained.
"You've caricatured my religious dedication," she says. "It'salways enraged you that I've returned to my roots."
Harry accuses her, and by extension all Jews, of needing theconcept of 'the other,' "so you know who you should hate."
"Your whole life," his sister counters, more in sorrow than inanger, "is nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm."
"In France," quips Harry, in one of the film's funniest lines, "Icould run on that slogan."
Interestingly, for the first time, Allen gives us a clue as to thesource of his hostility to his Jewish background. "Tradition," Harrytells his sister, "is the illusion of permanence." So Judaism, likethe pursuit of happiness, has failed him because it cannot grant himimmortality. The Almighty and Thomas Jefferson are equally damned.
This is Woody Allen at his most defiant. Sure, I'm all the thingsyou accuse me of being, he seems to be saying, but I'm an artist. Youmust judge me by my art, not by my failings.
"I'm no good at life," Harry says at one point. "I'm good atwriting. All I have is my ability to bring pleasure to other people,and even that is drying up."
In the end, when he finally goes back to his alma mater, only thecharacters in his books are gathered to honor him and deliver themessage of the movie: "Know yourself, stop kidding yourself...acceptyour limitations and get on with your life."
What Allen has taken from the recent attacks on his morals, orlack of them, then is the feel-good message of the me generation:Accept yourself, love yourself. Accepting himself means acceptingthat he's a miserable failure as a human being, but, boy, can hewrite.
Harry immediately starts work on a new story about a writer calledRifkin, who led "a fragmented and disjointed existence," but whosewriting "had, in more ways than one, saved his life." Rifkin knows afew things that Harry/Woody is trying to learn: "Our lives consist ofhow we choose to distort them." Our art, not our lives, is whatmatters, says Harry, and that's how we should be judged.
Do we buy the argument? Picasso is still the seminal artist of the20th century, even though we know of his cruelty to his women; we canmaybe even appreciate the glories of "Tannhauser" without everforgetting Wagner's vicious anti-Semitism. But Woody's art is allabout Woody. And I don't know about you, but it's getting harder andharder for me to laugh at Woody Allen the filmmaker, the more I knowabout Woody Allen the man.
Sally Ogle Davis writes about entertainment from Ventura.
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