The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Danger Mouse Says You Should Rent Deconstructing Harry (and so do I)

"When I got to college, I saw 'Manhattan' and 'Deconstructing Harry.' I thought to myself: Why do I relate so much to this white 60-year-old Jewish guy? Why do I understand his neurosis? So I just started watching all of his movies."
-Danger Mouse, New York Times Magazine

You may think the Gray Album was overrated (I do), you may wish that the Dangerdoom album was more consistent (check), but you thing you cannot attack about Danger Mouse is his taste in movies. Particularly, his admiration for Deconstructing Harry, one of the best films of the 90s.

But alas when Deconstructing Harry was released nine years ago, both Danger Mouse and my sentiments weren't shared by everyone. While some critics reveled in its scathing and razor-sharp humor, Slate magazine found it less the sum of its own parts, while The Onion called it "self indulgent, hateful and not worth seeing." Indeed the film garnered just one Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay, ultimately losing out to the infinitely safer, less imaginative and more heart-warming, Good Will Hunting. (Boogie Nights somehow lost too, but that's a different rant for a different time).

If I had to guess at the underlying reason behind some of these mixed reviews, I'd say that they can be summarized in one sentence: it's not Annie Hall. Then again few films (if any) can match Annie Hall's poignant, hilarious and mindblowingly imaginative look at failed romance. Either way, watching Deconstructing Harry this weekend, confirmed what I've long suspected: that Woody Allen is the greatest comic filmmaker of all time.

Woody Allen: Giving His Best "If You Want My Body and You Think I'm Sexy" Stare
In particular, Deconstructing Harry supports this statement mainly because its often regarded as minor-Woody Allen (to be said with the voice of Jeff Daniels in the Squid and the Whale). Most critics regard Manhattan, Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Hannah and her Sisters as the first tier (at least, if we're going by Oscar nominations), with Deconstructing Harry as a less universally acclaimed but still very good work.

But even if it is, Deconstructing Harry remains nothing short of brilliant. At first glance, the film's plotline is rather simple: an examination`of the tragic philandering life of novelist Harry Block (played by Allen, of course) and how he has systematically ruined every relationship he's been in since he was a young man, thanks to an all-too-healthy sex drive. Compounding the destruction that Block has already caused, he can't help but spill all the details of these failed romances via his thinly veiled highly personal novels.

While the plot is none-too-revolutionary, the way in which it unfolds showcase the work of a true master. Fact and fiction continually blur as Allen effortlessly shifts between past and present, examining the life he's led and the myriad rationalizations behind each of Allen's bad decisions . What makes it even more interesting is the fact that the film parallels Allen's own tabloid-worthy personal life as it was made at the height of the Soon-Yi fiasco. Destructing Harry allows a much fuller portrait of Allen, not just as a human being but as an artist using his fiction very much as a coping mechanism to excise his feelings of guilt and self-loathing.

And Some Things Just Never Change

Indeed the film is self-hating to the point of masochism, as Block/Allen is the first one to admit that the only person worse than him is Adolph Hitler. Yet while the plot may be full of melodrama and gloom, Allen successfully balances its cynicism with wit and humor. In particular, the scenes ripped from the pages of Block's novels are not only hysterical, but they also shed light on how all writers struggle with the question of how much of their own life story is too much to throw into their "fiction."

Allen's prodigious skill behind the camera also greatly enhances the film's merit. Utilizing fractured jumpy cuts during the scenes of the novelist-Block's "real life," Allen manages to imbue a sense of the unsettled and tumultuous state of the character's non-fiction existence. By constrast, the scenes replayed from Block's fiction are shot in a smooth and orderly dream-like world.

Deconstructing Harry might tread on ground that Allen has covered before, but despite its thematic similarity to Allen's earlier work, it's every bit as outstanding. I can't recommend a film much more than this one. So if you're looking for something good to Netflix, this is it. Even if you can't trust every album Danger Mouse makes (c'mon we all know the Gnarls Barkley album only had three good songs), you can at least trust his taste in movies.

Rating: A

The Rapture
(produced by Danger Mouse): "Pieces of the People we Love" (left-click)

Dangerdoom: "Korn Dogs" (left-click)


At 5:49 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

I really liked Deconstructing Harry...but then again, I was 18, on a big Woody Allen kick and I probably thought that "appreciating" Woody's work made me smarter and wittier than anyone else who didn't quite get it. I'd like to watch it again.

At 6:35 PM, Blogger amphimacer said...

1. Ace C -- appreciating Woody Allen's movies does make you smarter than everybody else, though not necessarily wittier (mind you, you can fix that by quoting his best lines).

2. "Harry" was, I agree, much underrated, largely because people thought he was just trying to cope with criticism of the fiasco that was his personal life at that moment. In fact, the self-criticism it includes is typical of his work, particularly when he is at a low point, and makes for some of the most interesting bits of his oeuvre. My favourite moment of such matter comes from the horribly misunderstood "Stardust Memories": when he encounters the aliens who tell him that even with their massive intelligence, "we don't know what you want." This is followed by a remark wonderfully bitter, yet ultimately self-deprecatory: "By the way," they call out to him as the spaceship is leaving, "we love your movies, especially the early, funny ones."

I still think "Bananas" is the funniest movie I have ever seen. Even the music makes me laugh. Add "Play It Again, Sam," "Love and Death," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," and the ones named in the blog I'm commenting on, and yes, this is a great moviemaker. But the most fascinating thing about your comments is the remark about how he has become a filmmaker -- you talk about the cuts as a means of expression. Early in his career, critics commented frequently on how good the scripts were, but how little he seemed to know about how to use the camera. He's had his ups and down as an artist in the film medium, but he is an artist, and he's too good to ignore.

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

He really did come a long way as a filmmaker and I think by Deconstructing it really shows. Each frame of the film seems framed in a bleaker dark light to match the Block character. I confess that I haven't seen all of those films Amphimacer but its my goal..consider this review part I of my Woody Allen Manhattan Project. I'm gonna' try to make it through each one,even the clunkers.

At 7:20 PM, Anonymous silawe said...

Is this a Jewish thing?

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I think it definitely helps to be Jewish, there's a lot of inside humor in the Woody Allen stuff, specially if you have NYC jews in the family (which I definitely do).


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