You don't have to like Woody the man to like his movies. And his latest, `Deconstructing Harry', is a mighty feat of film-making. It's just a pity that Allen has to star in it as well
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"WHAT DO YOU all expect of me?" Woody Allen's Harry Block seems to be asking throughout Deconstructing Harry. And he brings a load of whiney lament to the line and its attitude. Even if he isn't an actor so much as a block, a feeling-blocker, he shapes the climate in which he's always ready to make a last effort to meet anyone's (cockamamie) ideas. It's part of his dogged, weary calm - never losing control, never eating the scenery - no matter that the women who brush up against him are, sooner or later, made into crimson harpies of wrath, helpless incoherence and torrential other-ness. It's the credo that lets him think of himself as an endlessly patient, tolerant man, ready to talk about everything intelligently - especially the things that are most hurtful and irrational; and it's the mainstay of his self-pity, the way in which - whatever happens, whatever charges or bullets are hurled at him, whatever tirades slip like water from his sloped shoulders and elfin head - he's ready to be the sucker, the one who sits there and takes it, the victim. And this works well enough until, at last, you get a chance to look at him straight on and you see the bleakest eyes on today's screen, the certainty that it's all about him, and the passive resistance that knows that if he keeps on asking in his listless, plaintive way, "What do you expect of me?" he won't have to deal with the question himself. But what does Woody want or expect?

I must admit a few things straightaway. I don't like to look at Woody Allen; I don't like to listen to him; but I think he's getting better all the time at that thing called film-making. And by now I'm getting used to the realisation that it's hard to like film-makers - as opposed to their work. By which I mean that while Woody Allen doesn't just like himself, but can hardly see anything else with the same intensity or respect, there is an extraordinary tension rising in me between hostility and fondness. Is there another American film-maker worth wrestling with in the same way?

AFTER ALL, what do we want from Woody? Last Christmas, just about every critic observed in his or her annual round-up that nearly every movie - the good, the bad and the fatuous - was going on too long, and slowing down to accommodate that length. But Deconstructing Harry came in at 95 minutes, with 20 or so significant characters and four or five storylines, with characters appearing as their real selves and as they figured in Harry's chronic fictions, and everything is clear and workable - the set-pieces and the segues, the funniest lines and situations of the season - with self-loathing as sharp as fresh anchovy. There was time to look at Elisabeth Shue and see her odd, Novakian shyness, while seeing yet again that Billy Crystal (electric and beguiling on the Oscars or in Ken Burns's Baseball) is a terminally empty actor (does Woody see it in others? You bet he does), and time for that riveting 30 seconds of sprung rhythm and bravura editing from Susan Morse, when Judy Davis gets out of her car, as if to say - "Did you ever think that movies could look like this?" - so that your eye wakes up again. (I was reminded of David Hockney's observation that he gave up on movies because he knew what shot was coming next.) And there's now an urge in Woody as there once was in Godard to find a new way of seeing.

In short, whether you think it is funny or touching or not, was there a movie last year that had more going on, such assurance, such fucking facility, so that a little while into the picture you eased back into its serene momentum, knowing that it knew where it was going? Which is nowhere near the same as liking it or not.

Last year, I noticed that several critics liked My Best Friend's Wedding. I was pleasantly surprised by it too, but in the broad area of romantic comedy can anyone honestly claim that it rivalled the knowledge of people, the speed, the deftness, the formal daring or the Parker-like (Charlie, not Alan) shifts of tone and voice in Deconstructing Harry? I mean, don't we need to admit some very basic facts of dramatic skill - like Husbands and Wives, 107 minutes; Manhattan Murder Mystery, 108; Bullets Over Broadway, 99; Mighty Aphrodite, 93 ... or Radio Days, 85; The Purple Rose of Cairo, 82?

And when I say dramatic skill, I'm really referring to the subtle movements of different lines and impulses that go to make a sweet, harmonious whole. If you wonder any further what that means, I challenge you, here and now, to write down a halfway adequate synopsis of The Purple Rose of Cairo, say, or Radio Days, or Deconstructing Harry. You won't be able to, because, all of a sudden, you'll realise how rich and tricky these pictures are, and how much of what happens depends on how you're seeing it. Whereas, synopsise Casino, say, and you have to marvel that the thing itself got to be 182 minutes. Pure cinema for 182 minutes, of course. None of which, necessarily, gets close to whether we like Casino more or less than Radio Days.

But it does start you thinking, and swept along on that unruly river, you'll soon find yourself adding up some more numbers. And then you discover that, so far, Allen has directed 26.333 films - that third being his share of New York Stories. One does not automatically esteem a director because of productivity - Edward L Cahn made over 60 between 1931 and 1963, and, as yet, few festivals have made a fuss of him as our forgotten man. But maybe festival fever does overlook fecundity sometimes; it can be its own smoke-screen. So a Kubrick, only seven years older than Woody, is deemed grand just because he's in the process of evacuating his 13th film. Would some of us feel inclined to take Woody more seriously if he worked less often - if he was more measured, more blocked? But then think of Sydney Pollack, at 63 a year older than Allen, and the director of 16 films. (True, he has done more; he has produced and enabled and he has acted - wasn't he that grave, vain idiot in Husbands and Wives? Why do people act in Allen's films?) And The Firm was 154 minutes; Out of Africa, 161.

Still, if we ever again honour the notion that directing is an art or a craft or a trick that benefits from practice, we may regret that so many of our better directors work so sparingly (because they grow weary, or because they need too much time to make their deals first?). No one would argue that Allen has driven himself into poverty by disregarding his own deals. Still, he has done that thing most critics and teachers advise - just kept working - and has never ended one project without having the next one lined up. And whether you like the stuff or not - doesn't that steady application show? I mean: isn't he better than he was?

AFTER ALL, no one gets all there is into Deconstructing Harry without having learnt how quickly and lucidly you can show things. And just as Woody Allen went from being a kind of amateurish slapstick film-maker (Bananas, Love and Death, Sleeper) to a sad impresario of the bitter comedy of emotional hope (Stardust Memories, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), and just as he discovered the advantage and the film language in having Carlo Di Palma and Santo Loquasto as his regular collaborators, so the "visual" in his movies has relied increasingly on talking heads and the very complex spatial relationships in shifting group shots. The films have become much more engrossing as something to see. Minus the elan of camera movements - exhilaration is all on the soundtracks in Woody's films, in talk and music - he has come to look like the Renoir of the late 1930s. Not that you have to take the films that seriously, if the comparison throws you. But why not look again?

It's not just that Allen keeps working away, as if only that regimen could keep him alive or fight back the depressions that prey on ease or inactivity. He goes so much further to meet the model of a modern film director as drawn up by the most liberal and humane film critics. He never yields to the great gambles of Titanic or The Postman; he would hardly know what to do with the creatures and the hardware in Alien: Resurrection or Starship Troopers. Zelig aside - a rather large aside, let us say, years ahead of the rest of Hollywood in putting nonentities hand-in- hand with the great - you will not find special effects in his movies. Rather, he insists that movie-making is a matter of real places and natural light, with no drama more uplifting and no effect more special than the turmoil in a human face - Judy Davis struggling to hide her blushes at being her sister's "other woman" in Harry, or the kid-wisdom of Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, telling Woody, "Look, you have to have a little faith in people." Or is it faith in little people?

Woody Allen doesn't kid us, or himself, that he knows, understands or is interested in real gangsters, say, or the Dalai Lama. Yet, time after time, he makes pictures about the people he knows, the city he has locked himself into, the very streets and apartments that are like his lovely life sentence. Ironically, more or less, that world is pretty close to ours, for just like Jules Feiffer in his cartoons, Allen has regularly depicted his own audience - a world of people worried about being safe and adventurous at the same time, about being in love, being esteemed, being smart and hip and cool and warm in the late 20th century. These people worry about their work, their integrity, their motives, their sincerity - and, increasingly they have gone from worrying about Woody - or the Woody within - to being just a little restless and jittery about being near him, or near enough to become his creatures.

Call it self-consciousness - which, surely, can just as easily be stupid and vain as noble or touching. But who else in our panorama of movie-making has had the wit, the accuracy, the lightness and indifference to human pain to make that uneasiness so profound a subject?

And don't we sigh with rapturous agreement when the very talented but surely out-on-a-limb James Cameron says that all he wants to do now is just two or three very small, intimate films - as if to urge him on, yes, yes, that's where art and depth lie, Jim, not just at the bottom of the sea. Study Bonnard and Monet until you've lost that youthful affection for comic-book cut-outs. And isn't that what Allen has been doing for over 25 years, so that any one scene from Deconstructing Harry - you can pick either Kirstie Alley's multiple explosions, the furtive Richard Benjamin-Julia Louis-Dreyfus assignation, or the conversation between Davis and Amy Irving - is enough to let a Titanic fan know that, yes, there are quite different decks and classes of human talk, substance and alacrity, and some people have them and some don't. Woody can be smartass, facetious, too cute for his own good, nastier than he knows - he can be like Gore Vidal, so that you can't quite judge where your respect for him ends and loathing begins - but he does think, does know, and can say things (even if you worry about the prowess) that so many other film-makers are deaf to.

So all we have here, really, is a 62-year-old guy who can't stop making movies, who makes them by the old-fashioned precepts we prefer, who makes them modestly, using the camera and film as they were intended to be used, exposing us to ourselves, our foolishness and our dreams, more or less with comedy and pathos. And let us not forget this - when he runs into the most notable "difficulty" his life has yet had; or, if you want to put it this way, when his cold, selfish manipulation of others is discovered; and when he is widely trashed, mocked and abused by his people (because his people worry more than most about whether you could and should fuck your step-child), he does not falter or cave in, he does not "rest", he does not back down, or seem to immerse himself in extra therapy (surely, he is the great visionary and exponent of therapy sessions as just another name for story development or actors' improv). Instead, he digs in and makes not just one film a year, same as always, but Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You and Deconstructing Harry.

As if to say, thanks - I needed that!

Now, you don't have to like these films, you understand. No, all you need to do is show me anyone else in America who has come anywhere near that run of work. And sure, you can say it's just Woody being Woody, making the films so fast that he doesn't have to pause or think them through - that his "thinking" and "worrying" are just schtick. All right, I don't like him, either; I don't want to be with him or have to listen to his justifications in person. I wouldn't want to have to watch him and Soon- Yi under any circumstances. But we see a country prepared to defy the character "thing", as long as Bill Clinton does a terrific job playing that other character, the "caring smiler". Meanwhile, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry - you don't have to please me by liking them, or working at liking them. But still, throw in Annie Hall, Manhattan and The Purple Rose of Cairo and you've got 11 films that are ... well, never mind what they are, can you really say we're not in the presence of a major director?

TAKE Bullets Over Broadway, and the scene in which David the playwright (John Cusack) realises that Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) has killed Olive (Jennifer Tilly), the woman he was hired to protect. Olive was the gangster's moll and a showgirl with dreams of doing theatre. So the gangster put up the money for David's play - God of Our Fathers - so long as Olive had a part in it.

I know, I'm talking about gangsters, and you're saying I told you before that Allen didn't use gangsters. What I said was, he didn't kid us, or himself, that he knew or understood or was interested in real gangsters. The Thirties hoodlums in Bullets Over Broadway are the kind of figures that Allen's imagination has inherited from movies, and he's only interested in what he can imagine. They're play figures, as well as guys in a play, stooges that let him do the voices and hire some actors. But their presence immediately leaves some sense of a gap, an abyss, between reality and play. You get the same thing in Hawks all the time, where the most consistent straight-faced joke was that Howard was a man of these real tough worlds - instead of a fantasist. The same gap exists in David, between the very forceful assertion that he's an artist and his real status as an opportunistic hack. Because he's all talk and no substance,

Olive can't act (though Jennifer Tilly handles that limitation very prettily, and got an Oscar nomination for it). Still, her role is small. She's getting along well enough in the rehearsals and Cheech just sits there in the gloom of the theatre waiting for her to finish. He's there because, whatever Allen knows about gangsters, the gangster boss knows that show-people are too tricky to leave anyone as dumb as Olive alone with them.

There comes a day at rehearsal when, out of the dark, Cheech, in fury and frustration, throws out an idea about fixing a dud moment in the play. This is delivered in long shot so that we see the stage, the front rows of the orchestra seats, and - with a swaying pan - the place where Cheech is sitting. There has been no one shot, let alone a soulful close-up of Cheech listening to David's naive, pretentious play. Allen hardly gives us a close-up in the entire elegance of the picture, preferring those tricky long-distance views where people struggle for position and we have to look and see. You can say that's because it's a movie about stage play, but in fact Allen has always been drawn towards the detached, problematic point of view, and the crowded stage on which everyone has his reasons, and his chance.

He feels no need to reveal or underline the artist in Cheech, or to separate him from the others in the story. But as soon as we hear the bored bodyguard's idea we know he's got genius in him, and the camera wavers - as if it needed a second to adjust to that - and then carries the idea back to the professionals as insight, or answer. From that moment on, Cheech begins to be co-author of the play (whenever he can remember to be that polite to David). So Cheech comes to the point of knowing that Olive is ruining the play - killing it. No, she's not that bad, says David; and anyway, it's a small part. She's a necessary compromise. Again, there is no close- up soliloquy to show Cheech's brooding; though worry is Allen's great subject, he is at his best when not isolating it (framing it in self-pity), but letting it hang in the air of the ensemble. So Cheech just shoots Olive, which isn't what a gangster would do (and it surely spells Cheech's demise); it's what an artist would do - because that kind of wilfulness has no choice and no truck with compromise.

David guesses instantly what has happened, and he storms in on Cheech in a pool hall. The slam of the door opens the scene and sweeps David across the room to where Cheech stands. This is the master shot, and the only shot; the single set-up looks at a receding diagonal, and it plays the splashes of orange light on the walls against the squashed pistachio rectangles of the tables. Without ever giving you a shot to knock your eyes out, Allen has become one of the most graceful and spatially enquiring composers in American film. It's a camera style one can find in the best of Preminger (a great arbiter of doubt) - and it's something that has received hardly any comment.

The beauty of the image is utterly unspectacular and unshowy; it's just a way of keeping an open mind and making us address what people say. (Time and again, directors intent on talk make the best compositions.) David rants at the gangster for being so callous, and defends himself by saying, "I'm a decent, moral human being." Seen and heard at a distance, that's nothing but a bum line - one we flinch from, in the way Cheech might have done, and Cheech asks what sort of decency it is to be carrying on with the lead when David has a girl already. He knocks the "author" down and tells him, with an absolute severity, "Nobody is going to ruin my work."

Bullets Over Broadway is a comedy. Its framework cannot help but see the sad irony in meeting of an "artist" and a gangster that teaches both of them what fakes they are. David takes a lesson in play-writing and basic modesty, and he goes back to his girl (why not? She's only been having sex, sensational sex, with Rob Reiner - nothing like love). "I know I'm not an artist, and I know I love you." And Cheech is as dead as Van Gogh or Schubert; his own last line is another knockout suggestion to fix the play's curtain line. The humour here is not a matter of Woody's one-liners - it's the line, the arc, that goes all through the film, and it's what genius is all about. It harks back to the chief gangster's knowledge - that show-people are tricky; they fool themselves for the sake of it; they play around. But that leaves an impulse, a commitment to perfection, quite ready to destroy itself if the play is improved in the process. Which only helps remind us what a serious business comedy is, and how it was always made and intended for the tougher, more painful lessons about emotional life, social order and human ambition.

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LINE, Allen is a David who has absorbed Cheech's lesson - and thus a New York showperson who has acquired the concentration, the cruelty, even, that may make a genius resemble a killer. If you doubt that progress, then look at Crimes and Misdemeanours, which comes just five years before Bullets Over Broadway, and which stands as one of the most rigged, shitty and sanctimonious of Woody's films.

Crimes was not shot by Di Palma. Its photographer is Sven Nykvist, which may mean just that Di Palma was busy elsewhere, or that Allen wanted to get himself into a Bergman-like moral trough. The results are horrible. A ponderous pan-shot insists on linking a close-up of Judah (Martin Landau) with one of his dead girlfriend (Anjelica Huston) at his feet. The style attempts to confront some of the most slippery and unlikeable of characters with a Moral Dilemma. It's misanthropy with a vengeance. The group shots are filled with fussy irrelevance: the ensemble degenerates into names like Claire Bloom, Sam Waterston, Joanna Gleason - and, let us add, Mia Farrow - doing nothing (and Allen's big casts have always offered far too much of that; he doesn't so much showcase his guest stars as humble them and becalm them in their vanity).

But in some grim contest with himself, Woody has found Landau as the only other actor around as unworthy of a lead role as himself. Landau's self-regard is unctuous and unwholesome. The thought of his affair with Huston is preposterous - indeed, the posed love matches in Allen's films are often offered without the least conviction or spark. Obsessed with sex, he is terrified of looking at it. Landau's self-justification is humourless, clammy and revolting. And when he tells his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), "I'm not going to let this neurotic woman destroy me!", we hear a line that was waiting to be traded back into Woody's real, ugly life with merciless ease. So Judah lets Jack - a mysteriously humdrum figure with "contacts" - arrange for Huston to be offed. Orbach gives us maybe the only grown-up or appealing figure in the film, a glum, practical man, oppressed by a lifetime of being the black-sheep brother, the dumb one and the failure. There's a great moment when, after the deed is done, as Judah is lamenting and stroking his bad feelings, Jack tells him curtly, "Be a man!" It's as if the line had slipped through the prevailing self-pity that leaves every other line cute and stuffed.

And if Woody is expecting us to sympathise with his moral refinement in seeing how Judah gets away with it all, and even feels better as time passes, so he throws in the most woeful and childlike of his own countenances at the end - that cringe-making stricken close-up as he realises Mia Farrow has gone off with Alan Alda (just at the time, maybe, that he was longing for the real-life woman to find someone else).

In other words, the determination about feeling bad overwhelms life or courage in Crimes and Misdemeanours (the more Woody's films hinge on men, the more likely this outcome - Henry and His Brothers would turn out an orgy of suicide). And the character Allen plays - the high-minded documentary film-maker who can't stop taking his 12-year-old niece to the movies or see why his wife has given up sex - is creepier and more alarming than he ever seems to understand. (There are people in Allen's films way past the need for therapy; only terrific drugs would help.) There is no more glaring proof of the self-destructiveness of Woody acting in his own movies than this film, and no more grisly moment than his monstrous reaction to the story his sister tells of the lover who defecated on her. He howls and covers his eyes - the exaggeration loses her experience. That's not just bad acting, it's a level of performance that derides the art and community of acting and which undermines the pretend reality of the work. It's what got Olive shot - and any one of us would be ready to squeeze the trigger. Crimes and Misdemeanours may be as bad as he got - we have to hope so - as a study of self-adoring cowardice dressed up as moral discrimination. Of course, it also got Oscar nominations for best director and screenplay - so it's up to you about liking it.

MUCH AS I like Deconstructing Harry, I don't support Allen playing Harry - nor do I believe that he tried desperately hard to find anyone else. (Although I can see a wonderful film about a director like Woody going through actors endlessly, and being "dismayed" because in the end only Oscar Jaffe can play Oscar.) Imagine Harry played by Richard Gere, say, or even Alan Alda (an actor who evidently holds a dreadful fascination for Allen) and the implicit poison would leap into view. Imagine Chazz Palminteri - he deserves more. Imagine Gore Vidal - he likes to act. But finally, Woody, just give us anyone but yourself now that you've found the hard, sure distance and the necessary resolve to stand back from human beings and just watch their tricks.

Of course, we don't have to like all Allen's films (he makes enough for hits and misses), just as we don't have to forgive or forget what happened with Woody, over there ... in life. Do we? As it is, in the last few years, the hero- worshipping stance has had to come to terms with the unequivocal report that Capra, Hawks and Lang were all shits. The same sort of comeuppance may be on its way for Clint Eastwood and all the others.

It's just possible that one day we'll grasp the fact that you need to be a pretty awful person if you want to be an artist. In which case, I'd propose, Deconstructing Harry is an indelible lesson along the way, with that shameless last view of the zealous clerk to his own imagination, typing up life as art.

There's stuff I haven't even mentioned yet that I never want to have to see again - Interiors, Alice, Shadows and Fog, Another Woman, and those early films where people said he was so funny. But I do want to say that I think Allen has grown up, devoured his own poison, and become tougher because of it (it seems clear now that the events of the early 1990s strengthened him - OK, left him no alternative but to be a bastard). He has found a deeply impressive style and the habit of making one adventurous film after another. I mean, we've hardly touched on Everyone Says I Love You, which came out of some side-pocket, filled with authentic whimsy, creating a race of song-snatched people, with Goldie Hawn never better, and with that odd, awful, sly trick about the secrets of therapy being used to advantage, so long as it's all for the story.

I'm not sure what we should make of such numbers, but at the age of 62 Woody Allen has been nominated six times for best director and eleven for best screenplay - that's in the Billy Wilder class, and Wilder is an untouchable. More to the point, let us offer the thought that in Bullets and Harry, there's a style and an intelligence akin to the way Renoir regards Jean Gabin's showman at the end of French Can-Can. This is a film- maker whose journey exceeds that of any American working today. His sense of the great untidy group of acquaintances is, at its best, a vision of great originality and importance. It makes his contemporaries seem narrow and old-fashioned; it lets you believe still that movies might address our modernity better than other arts. This is a great film-maker. And if we've never liked "Woody" less, well maybe that tells us something about film-making and art that we are still too young to take hold of.

Still, I'd shoot the actor, given half a chance.

`Deconstructing Harry' is released on 17 April. Pulling power: Woody in `Manhattan' with the young Mariel Hemingway (left) and Diane Keaton (centre left). Top left: Hemingway in `Deconstructing Harry'; and (bottom) Cusack and Wiest in `Bullets Over Broadway'

Family man: First there was Mia Farrow (above, in `Husbands and Wives'). And then came Soon-Yi Previn (below)