Yucky Woody

Andrew O'Hehir on Woody Allen: the neurotic court jester of sophisticated urbanites everywhere has given his most

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

ALMOST NOBODY WAS a bigger Woody Allen fan than I was, and I guess that was the problem. Relationships that intense -- obsessive love affairs, cults, idol worship -- generally end badly, and the survivors bear scars that may fade with time but never really heal. Those analogies may sound melodramatic, but that's about how it is for me (and, I imagine, many of my fellow Woodyphiles) now that "Deconstructing Harry" has demonstrated what I was beginning to realize but didn't want to admit to myself: Woody Allen doesn't want me anymore.

Increasingly imprisoned by his own narcissism, xenophobia and fear of death, Allen has now convincingly scattered his remaining disciples at one stroke, like a misanthropic Prospero breaking his staff. "Deconstructing Harry" is a fever dream about an aging, grasping, neurotic artist who brings his disastrous personal life, thinly veiled, into his work and ends up as a grotesque caricature of himself, alienating everyone who ever loved him. Ritual assertions that Harry Block is not Woody Allen aside, the message from the filmmaker to his fans is unmistakable: He'll make more movies, cash his checks, go to Knicks games and grow old without us; we'll have to find other heroes or none at all.

I don't mean that Allen's new movie, his 26th feature as a director, is bad, exactly. I can step back into my film-critic mode and observe that it has more vitality, more cinematic crispness and more of that familiar self-lacerating/other-people-lacerating humor than anything he's made since "Husbands and Wives" in 1992. In a sense, that's precisely the problem: "Deconstructing Harry" is the movie that the faithful few have been waiting for, through Allen's recent stretch of competent comedies (which we secretly believed merited neither his attention nor ours). And it's a movie that told the faithful few, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck ourselves.

I'm talking here about the hardest of Allen's core audience, we band of brothers and sisters who prized his darker obscurities of the '80s far above his sunnier, more accessible works. When the pleasant yuppie couples burbled over "Hannah and Her Sisters," we smiled tolerantly and inwardly rolled our eyes. (At any minute they were going to start complaining that Woody wasn't funny anymore.) We were made of sterner stuff; give us the mordant Chekhov-in-Vermont acidity of "September," the Felliniesque self-parody of "Stardust Memories," even the earnest imitation Bergman of "Interiors." On some level, we believed we had a private understanding with Allen. He'd keep his career commercially afloat with bourgeois entertainments like "Hannah" or "Radio Days" or "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy." We'd shut up about them and be rewarded with the movies that he really wanted to make, the movies that only we could understand.

It's easy to look back and say that this relationship was pathetic and dysfunctional even at its best, but genuine passion, by its very nature, is not susceptible to reason. Why did the romantic Reds of the '30s worship Stalin, or the postwar intellectuals fetishize Sartre and de Beauvoir (to mention two other passions that ended badly)? I suppose because they were the only models they had, and Woody Allen was about all the weedy, overeducated aesthetes of this country had in the 1980s.

In an age of blockbuster spectacle, Allen was small and intimate; in an age of action, he was all talk. He was the only visible heir to the serious and personal European filmmaking of the '50s and '60s, which had crucially shaped the sensibility of baby-boom intellectuals. This in turn connected him to the fading dramatic tradition of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov. In other words, he was the only contemporary American filmmaker whose work seemed rooted in high culture and an old-style liberal education, which otherwise began to feel like dead ends in the age of "Blade Runner" and MTV.

Rather than expounding endlessly on a general theory -- which is exactly what a Woodycentrist would do, of course -- perhaps I should discuss a specific case. After all, I don't know how anybody else became dangerously overidentified with a self-absorbed, aging comedian. I only know how I did: Woody Allen became my father. (If that sounds like a joke from one of Allen's less memorable movies, I suppose that's only fitting.)

My cautionary tale begins on a chilly evening late in 1975, when my real father and I set out from his shag-carpeted bachelor pad in El Cerrito, Calif. (which a few of you pop-culture mavens will identify as the hometown of Creedence Clearwater Revival), to go to the movies. We wound up in a converted warehouse called the Rialto, a counterculture repertory cinema on a deserted industrial street in North Berkeley, to see a Woody Allen triple bill. If memory serves, we had already seen "Love and Death" together that year, and now we were catching up on our homework: "Play It Again, Sam" (not directed by Allen, I know; hold that e-mail), "Take the Money and Run" and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)."

Things weren't going real well for me and my dad that year. In the grip of a late-40s panic attack, he had split up with my mother and was sharing the aforementioned El Cerrito apartment with an undergraduate girlfriend who was about six years older than I was. I was an ungainly teenager on the cusp of puberty who had read "Crime and Punishment" and cut school to drink beer or vodka almost every day, but was painfully shy around girls.

But while we were sitting there in the dark, with the Rialto's old ceiling heaters rattling overhead, watching what seemed to me like outrageously risqué and sophisticated comedies, I felt like I could forgive my dad for 19-year-old Paulette and appreciate his diffident, embarrassed efforts to treat me like an adult for the first time. Adults were people who could discuss Freud and Mahler and who told dirty jokes that seemed intelligent rather than crude. They went to movies like these late on Saturday night, had a few drinks and then slept hedonistically late on Sunday morning, when they awoke in their spacious big-city apartments to good coffee, smart banter and the Arts & Leisure section.

As I write this 20-odd years later, it seems to me that I've never quite escaped this conception of adulthood and never will. For better or worse, it allowed me to evade both the picket-fence suburban version of Middle America and the Volvo-and-granola variation I saw all around me in Berkeley. Other influences certainly played their part -- my older brother's copies of Playboy and Esquire, a particularly roguish high-school English teacher with a private poster of Diana Rigg taped in his coat closet, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" -- but the imagined community built in and around Woody Allen's movies was a central factor in shaping who I have become.

"Interiors," in 1978, was my first indication that Allen would change along with me as I grew up and inevitably grew away from my actual father. A few months after sweeping the Oscars with the universally adored "Annie Hall," Allen released a somber, wrenching WASPish drama of death and family trauma, a movie that bewildered most of his mainstream audience. Maybe it was a calculated career move; with another hit comedy, Allen might well have compromised his ability to make small films on his own terms. For me as a high school junior, trying to grow into that vision of urbanity I had glimpsed in the Rialto, it was a challenge. Along with Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata," released the same year, it was virtually the first art movie I'd gone to on my own volition. Both offered precisely the kind of downbeat, intimate aesthetic experience appreciated by the people in Woody Allen movies.

In the community Allen was perhaps inadvertently creating, audience, characters and filmmaker shared an understanding of the world: Families tended to collapse, sexual relationships were fraught with danger and death waited on the horizon -- but recompense was to be found above all in the realm of art. If we began to lose track of the moral dividing line between art and entertainment, one of Allen's "difficult" small-audience films would come along to remind us. They were probably less important in themselves than for what our response to them said about us. They seemed to cement our communion with Allen, reassuring both himself and us that the neurotic tics and fixations so evident in his work stemmed from a profound existential dilemma and not merely from a defensive shield of Borscht Belt schtick.

As I progressed through the 1980s, I began to associate the premiere of each new Allen film with a particular early-evening scene: standing in the fog, in a polite line of tastefully underdressed white people, outside a theater called the Vogue in the Pacific Heights District of San Francisco (which is about as close as you can get to the Upper East Side on the West Coast). I was resentful and cynical about the growing size of the cult, and I jealously guarded my idiosyncratic preferences -- "Stardust Memories" over "Manhattan," "The Purple Rose of Cairo" over "Broadway Danny Rose," almost anything over the yupscale hit "Hannah." As far as I know, I was the only film critic in the United States to write a favorable review of "September." (I haven't seen it since, and I'm not sure I should.)

Looking back, I suppose I knew even then that Allen was working too much and too rapidly, and that he often seemed unable to escape what critic David Thomson calls his "claustrophobic self-regard." At the peak of his career, it hardly seemed to matter. In 1990, I might have told you Allen had made six masterpieces in the '80s; now it's hard for me to imagine any of his films after "Annie Hall" surviving l'affaire Soon-Yi without at least a slightly unpleasant tinge.

You thought I wasn't going to talk about that, didn't you? Or that I was going to say it didn't matter, the way Wagner's anti-Semitism is sometimes alleged not to matter (which is also crap). The reason it matters is not entirely Allen's fault, although I'd argue that sleeping with your girlfriend's teenage adopted daughter is the sort of thing that might make a lot of guys' friends wonder about them. Allen's stupid personal life obviously ought to be his own business. But the fact is that a wide swath of the American intelligentsia had developed an unhealthy attachment to Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow; I can remember earnestly discussing it with friends as a model of artistic/personal partnership and non-bourgeois monogamy.

As quasi-public figures with an interest in marketing their joint image, Allen and Farrow certainly participated in creating this myth. Their unspoken deal with us was that their neuroses got therapeutically rinsed into the work, while their private life was a well-adjusted and orderly ritual of Sibelius symphonies, Diebenkorn openings and parent-teacher conferences. The only reason I fell for this hogwash, I guess, is that I helped invent it and desperately wanted to believe it. Like the rest of the Allen cult, I had seen "Scenes From a Marriage" and ought to have known better. The truth was the exact opposite: The life we thought we were sharing with Allen was a transient fiction. All we had ever really had of him was the movies, and once they were stripped of the communal mystique we had built around them, they didn't look so good to us anymore.

The split with Farrow splintered the Allen cult like a feuding Trotskyist sect. Many of Allen's female fans felt personally betrayed by a man who had somehow, they felt, acquired vaguely feminist credentials. As illogical as that seemed to me at the time, the people who bailed out were being more honest about the twisted nature of our relationship with Allen than were those of us who stayed onboard and tried to rationalize the iceberg away.

Allen's first movie after the scandal broke almost made everything all right for me (and still almost does). "Husbands and Wives," a savagely funny marital-breakup comedy with clear undertones of loss and regret, is one of the finest and most honest movies of his career. If any of his late works survives his reputation, this one should. But despite his sudden notoriety (or because of it), the movie did little business. Over the next few years he retreated into a string of trivial comedies that did nothing more than reestablish his commercial viability while he battled Farrow in family court. He was no longer an avatar, only another celebrity entertainer whose screwed-up private life was discussed in the New York Post.

It's probably going too far to suggest that Allen deliberately became tabloid fodder in order to rid himself of his hard-core fans, but he couldn't have done a better job if he'd tried. As "Deconstructing Harry" indirectly reminds us, Allen himself dropped out of college twice and then became a TV gag writer; it's reasonable to suppose that he's always viewed his intellectual acolytes with some mixture of envy and mistrust. Nonetheless, a few of us were left -- some of us will be with him, I'm sure, until Death drops by for us wearing that goony outfit from "The Seventh Seal." And we knew Allen had one more movie for us.

We were right: It's a movie with all the viciousness of "Husbands and Wives" and all the self-loathing of "Stardust Memories," but without the perspective or tenderness of either. In Harry Block, Allen has willfully exaggerated his own foibles -- the lust for younger women, the obsessive self-regard, the New York chauvinism -- to the level of odious caricature. Harry shows up at a tribute in his honor (held at the college he never graduated from) with a hooker in hot pants, the corpse of a friend and his own kidnapped son, as if to say, "You think I'm a monster? All right, I'll show you a monster."

Is the insufferable Harry Block any closer to the "real" Woody Allen than all the lovable-nebbish characters Allen has played over the years were? Of course we don't know, and that's exactly the point. "Deconstructing Harry" is often very funny in a desperate, queasy way. But the humor is designed to rub our noses in our own tendency to confuse art with life, to build idols out of our own fantasies and delusions and then tear them down when those fantasies make us sick. Allen's latest joke is to insist that we never knew him at all, that everything we ever believed about him and ourselves and our shared community was a con game: He was never more than the intellectual's answer to a circus geek, exaggerating his own freakishness for the entertainment of a gawking crowd who told themselves the spectacle was edifying.

Allen's bitterness is understandable, but the hypocrisy of a man who lived off the devotion of his fans for years is not. As disgusted as I may feel with this surrogate father now, I'd like to think that he's wrong about himself and us, and that I didn't waste all those hours in the movie theater with him, inventing the man I would become. Before my real father died, I was able to forgive him for almost everything, no matter how buffoonish or horrifying he had sometimes seemed, because I saw so much of him in me and understood his weakness so well. But he was my father, after all. All I ever had of Woody Allen were some words and pictures, and, at least for now, those have lost their charm.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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