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?
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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.