FILMS WE LIKE
Films that receive commercial success automatically gain some cultural value, but as we all know from the debate over Titanic and the LA Times, there are other measures - and critical appreciation has always been a much desired standard for a film to achieve. There are regular polls of 'critically approved' films and this has helped create a cannon of films which stand the test because of their contribution to our cultural life and to film history.
Often when critics are asked to make their lists these 'big' values are
foremost in their minds - we make judgements for posterity.
But there are also films we simply like. For whatever reason.
Films which do not necessarily fit into the new cannon - or maybe they do - but we want to write about them because we like them.
An appreciation of Woody Allen's DECONSTRUCTING HARRY
By Hunter Cordaiy - just because he likes the film (and Woody's work)
… AN UNLIKELY HERO
Woody Allen is an insightful writer, a perceptive director of actors, but
most of all Woody Allen is an unlikely hero who neurotically charms his way
into our hearts. The secret has been that he shouldn't really be a hero -
he's the wrong size, is a coward, overtly intellectual, and probably not
very good in bed.
Neurosis is not a central ingredient in the traditional hero rather
bravery, insight, personal strength, and handsomeness make the grade. We
have built a 100 years of movie heroes around these qualities for the most
part, yet audiences have always adopted the weakling - Charlie Chaplin,
Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis are good examples - vulnerable in a cruel
world which seems designed specifically to frustrate all their best
So it is with Woody. I am sympathetic to the characters he plays and
identify with him in the sense that his phobias are understandable, - I
would not be brave enough to break into an apartment across the hallway to
solve a murder mystery- and perhaps I secretly resent the bravery of those
heroes who would!
In Deconstructing Harry, Allen plays Harry Block, a writer whose last novel
too thinly disguised his family and ex-lovers. Drawn from life might be a
good title for both the book and the film - Allen as a writer (or teacher)
has always appealed to me - remember the opening scene of Manhattan where
he lies on a couch dictating the first chapter of his novel about New York
- his opening lines were too angry, too intellectual, too corny, and
eventually the film becomes the notes for the story which he starts again
in the final scene.
In the new film the process has been completed and Harry Block has to live
with the consequences of his art - this is an enormous change from the
Annie Hall /Manhattan period of Allen's work - more in line with Hannah and
Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanours, where the results of actions are
important in the moral universe of the characters.
So he makes his new hero one who has created but cannot see the way
through the obstacles of the next project, an artist haunted - literally-
by his past and his fictions. In this sense, Deconstructing Harry is a film
about the absurd side of creative responsibility, where the creator is the
accused by the creatures to whom he has given life.
… INDEPENDENT AUTHOR
Woody Allen has made the transition from slapstick to arthouse, a history
which started with What's New Pussycat in 1963 and crossed
the line into serious film-making in 1977 with Annie Hall.
I have to admit to being fan of the second period of his work - I never
much cared for slapstick but have devotedly followed his career since he
became what I can unashamedly call, an author of the cinema.
Authorship is intimately connected to the terms of independence a
film-maker can achieve, and whilst Allen has appeared in other director's
films, it is as a writer/director/actor in his own productions that he has
created a unique oeuvre.
That trilogy - writer/director/actor - is the expression of creative power
and control which others in Hollywood would kill for. And that's the point
- Allen isn't in Hollywood but in New York and operates by other, perhaps more
cultural rules. The New York sensibility and the city itself has become his
only subject which means that Allen has a double focus for his work in
this film - authorship is inside and outside the film, in character and in
The film industry is notoriously nervous and reluctant about giving away
control - it's the biggest cause of conflict in most film histories - and
Allen has maintained an independence over his work which means he has the
freedom to explore particular themes and subjects year after year. The
result is a well orchestrated career and an authorship which is enviable.
Everybody wants to be in a Woody Allen film and Deconstructing Harry is no
exception. There are superb performances from Kirstie Alley and Judy Davis,
and Mariel Hemingway and I particularly like the quirky presence of Robin
Williams as the out of focus actor complimenting the writer with a block.
(We all have our creative stresses, the cycles of a career, and the fears
of failure or simple decline).
Increasingly, Allen's films, and Deconstructing Harry is no exception here,
are about families - his own or others. The greatest of these is Hannah and
Her Sisters, and Deconstructing Harry which is about an even larger and
vibrant family - characters real and created. So there is a family of
actors, a family of characters and indeed a family of films (36 at last
Deconstructing Harry combines the two most potent of these groups and
attempts to plot the intersecting possibilities from characters in the
present and in the past. The theme of transference is not there by accident
- the transference of dependence from patient to psychiatrist which occurs
several times in the film, is also a metaphor for the changing allegiances
of the characters who slip in and out of fiction.
The relationship between creator and character is mercurial, often dangerously incestuous. In Deconstructing Harry, this places Harry at the centre of a feuding family, and we have dramatic conflict of Shakespearian complexity - kidnapped children, dead bodies, religious dissent, sexual betrayal, and the journey from earthly paradise to hell.
The family is Allen's greatest source of inspiration, yet he hardly ever
has a family life on screen. More often he has relationships and friends,
narrative descriptions of city living for his generation, but his strongest
films are about families and their incredible dynamic capacity for
storytelling. Thus, Deconstructing Harry begins with a serene comfortable
family cooking on the lawns of a large house whilst upstairs there is
desperate sex by the small window overlooking the garden. This could be a
1990's version of the opening scene from Chekhov, a complacent bourgeois
scene destroyed by lust.
The film uses the family as the starting point for the deconstruction of
Harry Block. We know that Harry has used everyone for his own purposes,
that he is incapable of doing other than drawing from life. The film ends
with Harry, having broken through his block, beginning to write again..
There is sense of triumph here, of catharsis that might at any moment
bring Harry to burst into song but instead, the cast of characters real and
fictional, applauds him - it is the reassurance he needs, the clapping of
hands being the greatest love Harry can feel because it is beyond the messy
stuff of living and belongs instead to the appreciation of the artist by
his (even imaginary) peers.
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"I am sympathetic to the characters he plays and
identify with him in the sense that his phobias are understandable, - I would not be brave enough to break into an apartment across the hallway to solve a murder mystery- and perhaps I secretly resent the bravery of those heroes who would!"
- Hunter Cordaiy