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Deconstructing Harry and Crimes And Misdemeanors…That’s All, Folks!

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

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The Strand Bag-oisie has come out in full force for the finale. Time was when I could abjure membership as one of them, but in the past three weeks I have developed my own fanatical and proprietary devotion. The night before last, because I can now officially not get enough of him, I watched Woody on an old episode of The Dick Cavett Show from September of 1969. He’s so open and charming and quick. He watches Ruth Gordon speak with an amused look on his face the whole time. During an audience q&a, he throws his head back and laughs at some private joke. It’s so much more facial and spiritual animation than I’m used to from him. It’s like a bucket of cold water in a sauna. It’s easy to see why he became a star. Like Barbra Streisand in her first appearances on Jack Paar, he’s just an extraordinary, exotic creature. A Litvak orchid. In his mod flowered shirt, happily acknowledging the appellation of “pervert,” he looks like one of Harry Hay’s Radical Faeries, but for the heterosexuality and lack of facial hair.

This is my final post and, sadly, my thoughts just aren’t large enough. I had hoped to go out with some approaching a bang, a summation, some bit of cleverness or wisdom or synthesis…something to match, in even a fractional way, the brilliance of the work. (I have noticed, if trying to speak of something wholistically, that whenever any of his characters in any of the 28 films I watched, reaches for a cigarette, they are always from a soft pack. Hmmmmm… What does it all mean? How’s that for original scholarship? Where’s my adjunct professorship, motherfuckers?) But it’s no use. I am completely bested by the final double feature of the festival.

First up is Deconstructing Harry, which I am embarrassed to say I missed when it was first released. It’s really one of the best examinations of what it means to be an artist, particularly a writer (in this case Allen playing novelist Harry Black), and have people around you and in your life who might have, shall we say, feelings about being used for material. It’s precisely why I don’t write about my own family. The film begins with Richard Benjamin getting a blowjob from his wife’s sister, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We then realize that these two are the mere stand-ins in Harry’s fiction. Benjamin is Allen himself and Dreyfus the let-me-sing-a-Ring-Cycle’s-worth-of-praiseworthy-songs-to Judy Davis. The truth of their affair has come out and ruined her life. She has come over to wreak revenge. Brandishing a gun, she derides Harry with the very words with which he is no doubt routinely praised: “You’re so fucking verbal!”

Harry himself is a nice departure for Allen. A pill-popping drunk with a penchant for light bondage and whores, he has a filthy mouth and a Teflon conscience. Unrepentant, he calls Davis a “world-class meshugeneh cunt.” When his wife (Kirstie Alley in a knock-out performance as a psychoanalyst, a huge paradox given Scientology’s whacked-out stance against psychiatry) takes him to task for sleeping with one of her patients, he defends himself by asking where else he’s going to meet someone since they never go out. Harry is all rational pragmatism and horniness. “He’s betting everything on physics and pussy!” says his vehemently Ba’alat T’shuva sister, Caroline Aaron. When he’s consoling a friend with angina (the consistently charming Bob Balaban), he rejects the spiritual in favor of science. “Between air conditioning and the Pope, I’ll take air conditioning.”

So will I. (Coincidentally, in yesterday’s New York Times, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, in talking about her documentary about evangelical Christians, was quoted as saying, “I believe in the culture war. And you know what? If I have to take a side in the culture war I’ll take their side, because if you give me the choice of Paris Hilton or Jesus, I’ll take Jesus.” It’s one thing for a credulous private citizen to swallow that bucketful of bullshit and believe that this is, in point of fact, the actual dialectic choice behind the rhetoric of the culture war. After all, the voluble gasbag-ocracy of the right has its own news network and a federal administration to make just this case. But as loathsome and talismanic-of-everything-that’s-wrong as I find Paris Hilton, myself–and I do; I have a rantlet about her on page 85 of my on-sale-everywhere book–she was not, last I checked, trying to legislate my library choices, my bedroom, or make sure that I will never enjoy the rights of even a civil union. For a documentarian, essentially a journalist at the end of her journey and data-gathering, having synthesized all of her information to still come to this conclusion is downright embarrassing and can only lead me to the conclusion of my own that Ms. Pelosi must be some kind of reductive all-the-characters-smoke-soft-pack-cigarettes idiot {and remember please, as a deeply partisan fellow, I’m predisposed to be sympathetic to the daughter of the new Speaker}.)

In the end, all of Harry’s people, both real and imagined, gather around him at a party where Rodgers and Hart’s I Could Write A Book plays (a song from Pal Joey, a musical whose main character is a similarly amoral but loveable prick). “I love all of you,” Harry says. “You’ve even saved my life at times…Our lives consist of how we choose to distort them.”

Crimes and Misdemeanors’ version of this final statement is the more dire and deeply consequential “We are the sum total of our choices.” The moral question grappled with is not the comparative non-issue of who do we “kill” with our art but the actual taking of a life, in this case Angelica Huston playing Martin Landau’s desperate, hysterical mistress (in a demonstration of that old armed-with-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail truism, the film seems to me, in part, a remarkable portrait of lonely women. Huston’s character is heart-wrenching precisely because she loathes her own increasingly irrational behavior more than anyone. Another version, albeit played for laughs, is the wonderful Caroline Aaron playing Allen’s sister again. Divorced and on the market, she is humiliated and tearful as she relates the story of a date that turned into an unwitting and non-consensual exploration of scat, and not the Ella Fitzgerald variety).

Once again, I was too young the first time I saw it. I liked it, but had no capacity to grasp its moral scope. (A few years ago, I was talking to a young woman I knew and asking her what kind of fellow she was looking for. When I listed “kind” as a requirement, she gave a start of surprise. It really wasn’t something she cared about at that time in her life, age 22. Two years later, she understood. Thank god for aging.)

The film is gymnastically brilliant in the way it juggles the plot and characters. It is structurally a butterfly, the two wings joined at the center by Man of Science, ophthalmologist Martin Landau, versus his patient, Man of God Sam Waterston, a rabbi slowly going blind. So how does the film answer its charge of “We are the sum total of our choices?” Landau, who gets away with murder, is unbothered for the most part. There are some bad moments, but on balance, he’s doing fine. “We rationalize. We deny. Otherwise, we couldn’t go on living.”

Crimes boasts another Martin, as well. Martin Bergmann, a renowned psychoanalyst who “plays” Dr. Louis Levy, a philosopher whom Woody’s character is filming for a documentary. We see Levy’s face, grainy and sagacious, speaking to us from the small screen of the Steenbeck editing machine. His world view is, given the film, appropriately dualist, both consoling and chilling. The universe is a cold and unforgiving place, an anarchic system that cares not one jot for any of us. And so, he says, we invest it with our own feelings, applying our own moral structures. What Levy (and I suspect Bergmann himself; the words he speaks are his own, I think I recall hearing) finds so heartening amidst all this cold and atomized dark matter, is how steadfastly we keep trying. Once more into the breach we rush headlong to make connections, to fall in love, to feel that we and our actions reverberate in some way.

And then Allen has this character kill himself. “I’ve gone out the window,” is his terse suicide note (not unlike actor George Sanders–of All About Eve Addison DeWitt fame, for you non-homosexual readers–whose final missive before he dispatched himself read, “Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool–good luck.”)

The blind rabbi dances with his daughter at her wedding, the murderer goes home with his wife, his belly full of good food and liquor. He’ll sleep well, too. And so it all goes on. Back and forth we shunt, between meaning and its utter nullification.

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She’s big and brash, even a bit goofy sometimes, but I like her openness and straight talk. Sure shes’s trying to make a come back with her show The Big Life? And sure, she may be plugging her diet loss program, but then which show doesn’t plug something or try to make money. So what do you think of her new show? Have you seen it?

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Deconstructing Harry and Crimes And Misdemeanors…That’s All, Folks!

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

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