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Deconstructing Harry -- The Future of an Illusion

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Woody Allen is at it again. With liturgical regularity (almost one every year) he produces a movie which he writes, directs, and in which he plays a leading role. In Deconstructing Harry, his central figure is a fiction writer, who articulates what Allen once referred to as "my philosophy of life." Allen denies that the neurotic, sexually obsessed writer, Harry Block, mirrors the details of his own life, or even his personality. In an interview with Bernard Weinraub of the Times, Allen said recently: "People confuse the details of Harry's life with my life, when I'm nothing like Harry. I don't drink to excess or take pills. I've never had the nerve or craziness to kidnap my son, like Harry. I've never experienced writer's block. I've never used the lives of my friends in fiction, like Harry. I've done 27 films, and never once has anyone complained." Allen did acknowledge, however, that this movie's anti-hero represents himself in certain crucial respects: "Harry's philosophy speaks to me -- I feel the same way he feels about women, about science, about philosophy, religion, and art. But he's got such a chaotic life. He's got 600 crises coming in on him from all sides, I don't." More on Mr. Allen's philosophy in a moment, but first to the movie's premise.

The story line of Deconstructing Harry is quite simple: a prominent New York novelist is invited back to his alma mater to receive an award for his life's work. What should be the shining moment of his career turns out to be the occasion for encountering all his fatal flaws and weaknesses: his three failed marriages, his infidelities, assorted betrayals, alienation from family, friends, and former lovers. It turns out that Harry has difficulty finding a single person who is willing to come with him to the awards ceremony, having broken trust or betrayed every person he has ever encountered in real life, and then compounding the misdeeds by turning these former friends, lovers and relatives into all too thinly disguised characters in his stories. These characters come back to haunt the writer in a series of flashbacks or dream sequences, and some of them confront him directly in real life, in one case with a gun. In what is in many ways the culminating sequence in the movie, Harry imagines himself descending into hell (in an elevator). He passes through various levels of the underworld: those populated by "members of the NRA," "the media -- very crowded," "lawyers who appear on television," and "televangelists." Finally, he arrives at the very bottom floor of hell, where Satan (Billy Crystal) presides over something closely resembling a 1970's Playboy Club. Not to say that Deconstructing Harry has, therefore, a moral or that evil is punished and virtue rewarded. On the contrary, the movie, makes fun of, even mocks, every concept of morality or faith, indeed every coherent philosophy with which readers of this review are likely to be familiar. It sneers most pointedly at the Judaism of Harry's own family. To be sure, much of this satire is quite funny. But underneath it all lies Allen's unrelenting nihilism. And this is not funny at all.

As I said at the beginning, Allen produces his movies with "liturgical regularity." I used that phrase intentionally, for one of the things Mr. Allen satirizes in this film is the tradition of regular prayers in the home (a spiritual practice shared by Judaism and other major religions, including Christianity). Harry Block argues with his sister about this. He says scornfully, "tradition is the illusion of permanence." Of course, in a thoroughly deconstructed world, where everything of value is an illusion of sorts, an illusion of permanence may have as much value as any other. My question for Mr. Allen is this. What of a story line in which a sexually obsessed older man falls in love with an apparently unending string of younger women, only to see those women transformed into an ever growing cloud of angry and resentful witnesses to his neurotic obsessions? Exactly what is the future of this illusion?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.