Deconstructing Harry

wri./dir. woody allen
st. woody allen, judy davis, elizabeth shue, billy crystal, robin williams, julia louis-dreyfus, demi moore, kirstie alley, mariel hemingway
rated M15+, 95mins

"Harry Block has written a bestseller about his best friends. He revealed their deepest secrets and darkest moments. And they're not pleased." - promotional blurb

I just watched Deconstructing Harry on video, and was surprised to find it much more enjoyable than when I saw it in the cinema. Perhaps the small screen intimacy of television framed the drama more appropriately than the larger stage of the cinema. Perhaps my expectations and state of mind were more attuned to the filmmakers' intentions this time around, watching a rental copy with my parents at home, procrastinating on updating toto, rather than rushing to a crowded inner-city cinema to catch the late session like I did when the film was first released. Certainly the rather flat reactions of my parents and their friends to the lewder sections of the script made me more conscious of my own gleeful appreciation. Perhaps my glee was in part a rebellious response to their awkward silence in the presence of a gushingly amoral, antagonistic filmmaker.

Deconstructing Harry is not Woody at his best. It is however, more personal, confrontingly bleak and scathing than his other works. It's a film about the despair of the deviant, about self-pity and self-loathing, one man's frustration that he has not been able to wring more happiness out of his life, sex and art. In the fallout from his scandalous elopement with Soon-Yi, adopted daughter of his then wife, Mia Farrow, Deconstructing Harry was too close to the truth for many cinema-goers. The critics labelled it tired, conceited, unrepentant, misogynist. And at the time, I agreed. But now, a year later, on second viewing, I am inspired by its rawness and rough edges, its anger and bitterness, its essential humanity. As a filmmaker, I admire Woody's brazenness, his spirited struggle to find himself whilst entertaining a mass market, and his unflinching portrayal of complex relationships, violent emotions, politics and personal traumas. Harry Block is Woody Allen, not even thinly disguised. And Harry, speaking for Woody, explains the film's purpose is to confronts his demons, to find a way out of the living hell he finds himself in - an alienated existence of writer's block, estranged ex's, sexual frustration and self-pity.

Woody deliberately fragments or 'deconstructs' Harry's life into provocative vignettes - bittersweet slices of memory, fantasy and reality - fractured on a second level by jumpcuts and repetitions. The result is a confused soul-searching whole, documenting Woody's own struggle to come to terms with the hurt he has caused others, and the hurt they have caused him. It's a beautiful film because it works with the brutal truth - key moments lifted from Woody's private life and amplified by his imaginative story-telling techniques. With exceptional cameos by Kirstie Alley, Elizabeth Shue and Billy Crystal, Deconstructing Harry is the visceral journey of an artist seeking solace through his craft.

The script is so dark and uncompromising it tears at itself with insults of "Cunt! Motherfucker! Deviant! Jew!" Woody's stuttering torn-up dialogue, splintered scenes, imploding plot, and incestuous characters weed out from his public life a thin, bitterly black logic, the face behind the mask, the boy behind the vain intellectual, the human being behind the self-loathing exhibitionist, the sincerity and self-respect behind all the sarcasm and self flagellation. The finished film is a self-inflicted wound, each scene a laceration - stinging with humility, shame and hope.

Woody Allen is a great filmmaker who's lust for life has become public spectacle, an open book. His success can be attributed to his biting wit and optimism - his enduring talent to find comedy in life's more tragic and pathetic moments. Having reached a new nadir in life, it is unsurprising Deconstructing Harry is Allen's most bleak and nasty film to date, with less laughs and more lashing out than is his usual. Yet it is strangely courageous, cathartic and convincing - both a therapeutic act and a plea for understanding in a time of utter depression and vulnerability.

It is pleasing because by the end of the film Harry/Woody realises his art has brought happiness to a lot of people, and that in some small way makes up for his spectacular betrayals and failures. At the same time, he manages to convey a sense of remorse and dismay, for the lovers he cheated on, the parents he failed to forgive, the happiness he never achieved except in writing. There is a poignancy of a man in his autumn years, dissatisfied with life and himself. It's a poignancy that extends beyond the minutiae of Woody's sordid sex life, beyond the ugly details of his selfish, self-pitying neurotic existence. Deconstructing Harry is poignant because it's personal, because it's filmmaking with friends, because it creatively captures human vulnerability on celluloid.

With its portrayal of Hell, and repeated escape into fantasy, flashback and dream, Allen's Deconstructing Harry is reminiscent of Fellini's 8 and Milan Kundera's novels, where the author's writers block initiates the story, the author is a character in the narrative, talks with his creations, creating a fluid pastiche of fantastic moments and metaphors - an imaginative search for spirituality, understanding, escape. In a time of personal crisis, having lost faith in himself, Woody made Deconstructing Harry to confront his personal demons - regret, guilt, grief - to find new hope and inspiration.

eugene chew
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