Sunday, September 14, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: When Harry Met Sally

The Set-up: "When Harry Met Sally" gets a lot of guff from folks who saw it as warmed-over Woody Allen. Yeah, one can see that argument. It's set in New York, after all. And there's a lot of neurotic behavior going on, so much so that you want to slap somebody now and again.

But the big difference is tone. I don't know anybody who talks like the folks talk in a Woody Allen movie (Allen writes all the parts, after all, and they all have a tendency to sound like him), but I know a lot of people who talk like the folks in this scene. And there's another quality missing from "When Harry Met Sally."
Cruelty.

Specifically, Woody Allen's cruelty. Let's compare scenes. In "When Harry Met Sally," there's a scene (the one immediately preceding the one featured) where Harry runs into his ex-wife and her new lover at a "Sharper Image."

Compare that to the scene in "Manhattan" where Isaac Davis (Woody) meets Mary Wilkie's (Diane Keaton) ex in a store, and it's Wallace Shawn. Shawn's character has been held up as this towering intellect, and, after seeing him, Woody expresses shock that he's "this little homunculus." I forget which critic said it, but it was pointed out that Allen picked the one guy in New York homelier than Allen to play that role, whereas in "Harry," "Ira," is fairly normal-looking, if slightly uncomfortable in the situation. Allen stacks the deck in his favor. Reiner doesn't make a point of it--it's the humiliation of meeting the new lover in the store that's the point, not his appearance. But Allen had enough ego to belabor (and take advantage of) the point.

I love Woody Allen movies, but I like the people in "When Harry Met Sally" better...and I recognize them as human beings, as opposed to merely being entertaining aspects of Woody Allen's psyche.

There's nothing fancy about the presentation of the scene. Reiner starts by focusing on the object of discussion and moves out from there to include the participants, all shot at eye-level, and with an emphasis on expression. There are no fancy moves with the camera (a trademark of the style when cinematographer Barry Sonenfeld directs!); it's all in the presentation and how the scene is played. Allen is the better director than Reiner compositionally, but Reiner's is a classic, unpretentious shooting style that doesn't emphasize close-ups for conversion to television, although it is framed with the participants grouped in the middle of the screen, should that prove necessary. Reiner is shooting a movie, not TV, and it's evident in every frame. And his handling of Ephron's material is miles ahead of her directing her own stuff ("Bewitched?" Hello?)

The scene feels real. Relatable. And we're not borrowing from Bergman or Chekhov or Tolstoy to get there.*

This is a lot of complaining about a film-maker I like. Even watching Allen's uneasy musical "Everyone Say I Love You" (which I did a couple of days ago)exhibits a multitude of joys. I guess the issue I have is with the film's critics using the phrase "warmed-over Woody Allen."

To which I reply "This is a bad thing?"

Maybe I have a fondness for this scene because I have so much stuff in storage (Gotta clean that stuff out...).**

The Scene: Friends Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) are on a shopping outing, when Harry runs into his ex-wife Helen and her new lover, Ira, which devastates him. The feelings spill over later while helping their best friends Jess and Marie (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher) move in together.

Action!

Jess: I like it. It works. It says “home” to me.
Marie: All right, all right, We’ll let Harry and Sally be the judge. What do you think?
Harry: It’s nice.
Jess: Case closed.
Marie: Of course, he likes it, he’s a guy. Sally?
(Sally screws up her face “no”)
Jess: What’s so awful about it?
Marie: It’s so awful there’s no way to even begin to explain what’s so awful about it.
Jess: Honey, I don’t object to any of your things.
Marie: If we had an extra room we could put all of your things there, including your bar-stools.
Jess: Wait, wait. wait, Honey, wait, wait, wait. You don’t like my bar-stools? Harry! Come on! Someone has to be on my side!
Marie: I’m on your side! I’m just trying to help you have good taste.
Jess: I have good taste
Marie: Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste..
Harry: You know, it’s funny. We started out like this, Helen and I. Harry: We had blank walls, we hung things, we picked out tiles together. Harry: Then you know what happens? Six years later you find yourself singing “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in front of IRA!!
Sally: Do we have to talk about this right now?Harry: Yes, I think “right now” actually is the perfect time to talk about this because I want my friends to benefit from the wisdom of my experience. Harry: Right now, everything is great. Everyone is happy. Everyone is in love. And that’s wonderful! Harry: But you gotta know…sooner or later, you’re gonna be screaming at each other about who’s going to get this dish. This eight dollar dish is gonna cost you a THOUSAND dollars in phone calls to the legal firm of "This is mine, This is yours”Sally: Harry…
Harry: Please. Jess. Marie. Do me a favor for your own good. Put your names in your books right now. Before they get mixed up and you don’t know who’s is who’s... Harry: ...'Cause someday, believe it or not, you’ll go fifteen rounds over who’s going to get this coffee table. Harry: This STUPID-WAGON-WHEEL-ROY-ROGERS-GARAGE-SALE-WAGON-WHEEL COFFEE-TABLE!! (He stomps off)
Jess: I thought you liked it!
Harry: I WAS BEING NICE!!!
Sally: He just bumped into Helen. (She leaves after Harry)
Marie: I want you to know…that I will never…want that wagon-wheel coffee-table.
(Sally goes outside and sighs)
Harry: I know, I know, I shouldn't have done it….
Sally: Harry, you’re going to have to try and find a way of not expressing every feeling that you have every moment that you have them.
Harry: Oh, Really?
Sally: Yes! There are times and places for things.
Harry: Well, the next time they’re giving a lecture series on social graces, will you let me know, ‘cause I’ll sign up.
Sally: Hey! You don’t have to take your anger out on me!
Harry: Oh, I think I’m entitled to throw a little anger your way…especially when I’m being told how to run my life from "Miss Hospital Corners."
Sally: What’s that supposed to mean?
Harry: I mean, nothing bothers you! You never get upset about anything!
Sally: Don’t be ridiculous!
Harry: What? You never get upset about Joe! I never see that back up on you! How is that possible? Don’t you experience any feelings of loss?
Sally: I don’t have to take this crap from you!
Harry: If you’re so "over Joe," how come you’re not seeing anyone?
Sally: I SEE PEOPLE!
Harry: See people! Have you slept with one person since you broke up with Joe?
Sally: What the hell does THAT have to do with anything? That will prove I’m over Joe because I FUCK somebody? Sally: Harry, you’re going to have to move back to New Jersey because you've slept with everybody in New York and I don’t see that turning Helen into a faint memory for you…Sally: Besides I will make love to somebody when it is “making love” not the way you do it like you’re out for revenge of something.
Harry: Are you finished now?
Sally: Yes.
Harry: Can I say something?
Sally: Yes. Harry: I’m sorry, I’m sorry. (They hug. They move to go back inside. Jess comes outside carrying the wagon wheel.)
Jess: Don’t say a word!



"When Harry Met Sally"

Words by Nora Ephron

Pictures by Barry Sonnenfeld and Rob Reiner

When Harry Met Sally" is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.

* Also the phrase "warmed-over Woody Allen" should be more correctly "warmed-over Annie Hall" as Allen does a fine job of exploring different territory in his films. Sure, there are familiar aspects from film to film, but he explores other genre's than simply "relationship comedies"

* You're probably asking yourself, "Why didn't he use the "fake orgasm" scene? It's the one everybody remembers!" There are a lot of reasons: It's the one everyone remembers; it's a one-joke premise--that Reiner and Ryan draw out to great lengths with the final whip-snap of the tag-line; It's really funny and true, but not terribly convincing when it's a series of frames; the exquisite timing of the line "I'll have what she's having" (delivered by Rob Reiner's mother) cannot be duplicated in this format, which makes it not worth doing; and the capper--too many exclamation marks!!

2 comments:

Jon said...

It's not warmed-over Annie Hall - it's different and better for the reasons you so eloquently put here. One difference is that I can watch this movie again and again without cringing whereas AH, Manhattan etc are not repeat movies. Maybe Allen's earlier slapstick works still and maybe the later Crimes and Misdemeanors period is worth a look but only maybe. Allen had his time when we would put up with his ego and his neuroses because he made us laugh but he doesn't do that anymore.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Sure. But let's not throw out the Konigsberg baby with the bath-water. I don't think we should negate "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" as unrepeatable--I mean, I can watch them. And for all the mis-fires and failed experiments, look at the good ones--"C & M," "Hannah and her Sisters," "Broadway Danny Rose," "Zelig," --and I'd list "Vicky Christina Barcelona." I'm just now catching up with his later films.

Certainly we can acknowledge Allen's career-consistency (and his ability to put out different product every year) as being better than either Rob Reiner's or Nora Ephron's.

And the harshness fades more with every film and veers into the sublime. I still cringe at some of the sensibilities of the "earlier, funny ones." But, I find myself charmed at his "later, wistful ones."