No trouble with "Harry."
By Noel Murray
JANUARY 26, 1998: Prior to Annie Hall, Woody Allen appeared in his films as a recurring character--the fumbling, nebbishy "Woody Allen" persona, who, like Chaplin's Tramp, stood in for the audience's weakness and secret grace. After Annie Hall, Woody Allen's performances in his films could be divided in two--quirky character parts, and a new nebbishy guy who didn't stand for the audience so much as for Allen himself. Through Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, and beyond, the line on Allen has been that, with the exception of bittersweet fantasias like Zelig or The Purple Rose of Cairo, his films have been variations on a single film ˆ clef.
Now comes Deconstructing Harry, Allen's response to those who would shelve his films under autobiography. The Harry of the title (played by Allen, of course) is a drunk, whoremonger, misogynist, bigot, profaner, and all-around jerk. He's also a writer who uses his life and the lives of his friends as fodder for his critically acclaimed comic novels. The scenario is as close to Allen's life as anything he has previously attempted, yet the lead character is so wildly unappealing that the viewer can reach one of two conclusions--Allen is in real life an incredibly foul person, or he's out to prove once and for all that he's never been just playing himself in his movies.
Deconstructing Harry is about what art reveals of its creator. The plot is driven by an honorary degree that Harry is to have bestowed upon him by his alma mater. He tries to find someone to go with him, but every friend or ex-girlfriend that he comes across has given up on him; they're all busy getting on with their lives. He ends up going with his son (whom he kidnaps) and a prostitute. On his way to an event praising him for his good-spirited body of work, Harry reflects on his mean-spirited life; he's aided by his own literary creations, which have come to life to taunt him.
The structure and the subject matter of Deconstructing Harry seem to have liberated Allen. Unlike many of his recent films, which revolve around one simple idea or gimmick, Harry rolls out a handful of funny sketches in the form of Harry's stories. The sketches are often quite raunchy--Harry himself swears in at least every sentence, and the jokes in the film are frequently crude. Thanks to the film's rapid editing--which fast-forwards Harry's inarticulate speech--and the whirl of filthy humor, Deconstructing Harry becomes Allen's loosest, least mannered work in over a decade.
It's also among the most pointed. There's a line in Annie Hall about how artists make everything work out OK in art, because it never does in life. Except that Annie Hall does not end perfectly for its characters; in fact, Allen's films rarely do. Even in Deconstructing Harry, in which Allen makes his character a novelist who writes the sort of surrealist social commentary that Allen himself used to crank out, he undercuts the self-serving fantasy by making the writer a miserable crank. Does this represent Allen's view of his life--that he can never be successful as both an artist and a human being?
Does it matter? The film describes what it describes. Perhaps it's time to stop examining Allen's films for insights into the director's life and start analyzing them on their own merits. Deconstructing Harry is a marvelously funny character study about a man who functions best as a creator, rather than a creature of God. It's a spiraling conundrum of a film, one that tears apart a man's life work and finds at the center a contradiction--a productive void.
Up with the shipJames Cameron's Titanic has now reached that rare sort of pop-culture frisson where it becomes its own self-sustaining publicity machine. No one needs to sell a potential moviegoer on Titanic now--if you want to understand what everyone at the office is talking about, what all the late-night comedy shows are referencing, or what music plays over the opening of every sports broadcast, then you'll just have to queue up and spend three-and-a-half hours watching the great ship go down. Right now, studio lackeys are staying up nights wondering how to replicate this phenomenon. The truth is, though, that such a phenomenon is rarely calculated; rather, it's a convergence of elements that happens to capture the popular imagination.
In the case of Titanic, the popular subject matter, as well as the buzz generated by the film's jaw-dropping $200 million-plus price tag, piqued the public curiosity before the movie even opened. Once they were seated, audiences were treated to remarkable effects coupled with an old-fashioned, romantic story. The romance in particular is bringing women back again and again. The success of the far more cerebral The English Patient should've been a tip-off that audiences were hungry for sweeping romance; heck, even William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet did respectable box office last year.
The other thing that Titanic and Romeo + Juliet have in common is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is fast reaching the status that Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise have occupied: the heartthrob who can do no wrong. I realized this last year, when there was a full house of teenage girls at a screening of the sober drama Marvin's Room, solely because the attractive, sly DiCaprio had a small role in the picture. Right now, the kid's gold. He's also a fine young actor.
The main reason Titanic keeps steaming ahead, though, is because it's a good movie. Cameron's attention to detail in the smaller, human moments makes the eye-popping visual effects work, and the performances of DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are affecting even when the pair is just running though water. The movie's not perfect, certainly. The romance is cornball, the dialogue is silly, and even the thrillingly staged sinking seems to take longer than it should to play out. Nor is Titanic good enough to deserve all the Oscars it's bound to win in a couple of months, though there have been worse juggernauts. Still, the only thing standing in the way of Titanic winning Best Picture is lingering resentment over Cameron's slave-driver methods and the film's frighteningly large budget.
The money means little, though, once people see how impressively it has been deployed. When Waterworld came out two years ago, accompanied by stories of cost overruns and on-set struggles, the film's producers tried to defray the negative press with a time-honored defense: consumer advocacy. "Ticket prices will be the same for our movie and for one that cost $10 million," the studio said. "People should be applauding us for putting up big stakes and giving the public more for their money." What they failed to understand was that people weren't upset that the filmmakers had spent $160 million. People were upset that they spent it on Waterworld.
That said, there are some concerns about the success of Titanic, given its staggering cost. What effect will it have on the Propaganda Films gang--the Michael Bayses and Simon Wests of the world, who are already used to blowing $100 million on star-driven, concept-heavy thrill rides like The Rock and Con Air? Do they now expend their energy trying to convince the studios that their $200 million dream project has the potential to be another Titanic?
Or do they take a different lesson from their spiritual forefather, James Cameron, and learn that movies need more than just delirious action to be truly successful? A decade from now, people will still be watching and talking about Titanic, while Con Air will be just another Saturday-afternoon Movie for Guys Who Like Movies. What's inspiring about Titanic is that it has a heart as big as its budget.
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