Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Monday, September 15, 2008

Little Murders (1971)

dir. Alan Arkin

"I don't say I believe in God. The question is wide open. But with me it's not a matter of belief in God. It's a matter of belief in institutions. I'm a great believer in institutions."
-Mr. Newquist

When Alan Arkin portrayed the meek George Aaronow in David Mamet's gloriously profane Glengarry Glen Ross, it was a surprise to those accustomed to the unhinged performances that had become Arkin's trademark (see also Arkin's roles in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Edward Scissorhands). In this film he is allowed just one scene of helplessly desperate mania before being shooed away by a condescending Kevin Spacey. Although this performance seems like a departure for Arkin, a closer examination of his films shows that the Aaronow performance is one of a piece with his entire body of work. Even with deliriously manic roles in such films as Catch-22, The In-Laws, and Simon; Arkin frequently exhibits the quality of a coiled snake. Indeed, he has always been at his most interesting during the moments just before he explodes, when the intensity boils just under the surface. Because these moments are fleeting, one knows that Arkin is always on the brink of giving in to the id. The difference in Glengarry Glen Ross, of course, is that it takes the entire length of the movie for this side of his persona to come out, however subdued it may be.

With his feature directorial debut Little Murders, Arkin made a movie that was the tonal equivalent of the typical Arkin performance. Adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own play (a play which tanked after only one week), Little Murders found a director in Arkin who knew only too well how to articulate the film's theme of a country slowly devolving into a massive nervous breakdown. Set against a backdrop of assassinations, urban decay, and political/cultural upheaval, this film examined the ever shifting and seemingly obsolete natures of sanity and morality in a decaying society.

It is in this atmosphere that photographer Alfred Chamberlain (Eliott Gould) has resigned himself to detaching emotionally from the world around him. Constantly a target for muggers and thugs, Alfred accepts the inevitable beatings because, as he explains, "There's no way of talking someone out of beating you up if that's what he wants to do." Fully giving in to apathy, Alfred sees no reason to fight against the system and the status quo, much less muggers. He accepts a world that he cannot change, a world that, according to him, lacks any standards. To prove his point, he decides to make a career of taking pictures of shit. To his surprise, these pictures become the most profitable work that he has ever done.

After meeting Alfred, Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) considers it her duty to marry this man and mold him into a man who sees that life has some value. Because of his passive, apathetic nature he agrees to marry her, under the condition, of course, that God is not mentioned in the ceremony. In their search for someone who will marry them without mentioning the Deity, they meet Judge Stern (Lou Jacobi), who lectures them on what he sees as the faults of this new generation of jaded, over-privileged youngsters:

It is soon obvious to this couple that Judge Stern agreed to meet with them only for the opportunity of inculcating them with the importance of God, hard work, and tradition. Like many scenes in this movie, the Judge's tirade is an excuse for Feiffer to write an overly wordy monologue. As with other plays turned films, this movie bears the unmistakable mark of its source. It is talky in a frequently entertaining, if non-subtle, way. Whereas many writers would define their characters through actions, Feiffer makes no bones about having these people verbalize, in great detail, their philosophies on life and the human condition. This technique would have turned me off if the dialogue weren't so frequently funny. Indeed, quotations made up the majority of the notes that I took on this movie. Here are a few:

"I didn't call my own father dad."
"What did you call him?"
"I didn't call him anything. The occasion never came up."

"I married you because I wanted to mold you. I love the man I wanted to mold you into."

"What do you want out of life, just survival?"
"And to take pictures."
"Of shit?"

Exhausting all other options in their search for a preacher, Alfred and Patsy enlist the services of the hippie Reverend Dupas (Donald Sutherland in a role not too dissimilar from his work in Kelly's Heroes), who performs the service at his church of The First Existential. What follows is the kind of chaotic circus sideshow that would have been right at home in a Marx Brothers movie or a Monty Pthyon episode.

Again, all subtlety is abandoned. Nothing is sacred here. During the ceremony, Dupas states that most of the marriages he has presided over have failed. He knows that most people will wonder whether this marriage will succeed. As he states, "I know no one likes to say these things, but it's all in the back of our minds." This line pretty much sums up the theme and style of the movie. The characters in this movie state the obvious shared sentiments of a disillusioned citizenry, ideas that most would rather keep buried. The culture had become so numbed and accustomed to the massive upheaval of this period that Feiffer felt the need to state in obvious and bold terms the problems staring an unresponsive society right in the face.

Because of its deadpan tone; offbeat characters; dark, yet quirky, humor; and simple, though elegant, camera setups, this film's resemblance to the work of Hal Ashby is quite striking. Although this might seem like an instance of a first time director (Arkin) aping the work of another whose films he admired, Little Murders was released a few months before the release of Harold and Maude, Ashby's second film, and the one that most closely resembles Arkin's film. The similarities between the works of these two directors come, rather, from a similar mindset born in the cauldron of this chaotic era (Of course, both of these directors have more than a little debt to the work of Mike Nichols). Unlike Ashby's films, however, Arkin and Feiffer's work makes no attempt to ingratiate itself to audiences. Little Murders is defiantly vitriolic. We are rarely allowed moments to sympathize with and care about these characters.

Indeed, as dark as this movie is, it somehow manages to take an even darker tone two thirds through. [MAJOR FUCKING SPOILER ALERT!] After Alfred has an epiphany regarding his apathy, he decides that he wants to change into a man who sees that there is value in life. Alfred and Patsy embrace, and a sniper in another building shoots and kills Patsy (how's that for subtlety?). A distraught Alfred visits Patsy's family. He realizes then that the only way to live in this world is to join the insanity. He buys a rifle, and he and the Newquist clan take turns sniping citizens from their apartment window. This is the only moment of true joy that any of the characters experience in this film. Of course, in Little Murders, the idea of a happy ending is strictly subjective.[END SPOILER ALERT]

This movie begs the question, "what constitutes a comedy?" Although, technically, this film is a comedy, it is not one that produces hearty gut laughs (the wedding scene being a notable exception, of course). The laughs are usually of the nervous nature. This is not to say that the movie fails. It is a comedy of the most anarchic sort, one that attempts to deconstruct everything it means to be a comedy, including the inducement of laughter. Its attempts to upset the audience must be admired on a certain level, whether it is a work that begs to be rewatched is another question.

the trailer:


Anonymous said...

The play failed on Broadway within a week. A few years later, directed by Arkin and featuring a lot of Second City alumni, the play re-opened off-Broadway, received rave reviews and ran a good, long time. What happened? Society caught up with the dark vision of the play and the Sixties were upon us. (Arkin directed a subsequent Feiffer play, THE WHITE HOUSE MURDER CASE, which essentially predicted Watergate.) Feiffer is a genius. Arkin is a great actor and a talented director. (Incidentally, Arkin is a graduate of the same improvisational tradition from which Mike Nichols emerged -- the Chicago Compass-Second City connection.) -- Jeff Sweet

Dave Enkosky said...

Good call on the Mike Nichols and Alan Arkin Second City training. Undoubtedly, this had a great deal of influence on their similar styles and humor. I mentioned the film Catch-22 in passing in my piece but I should really emphasize what a great movie this is (Nichols directed and Arkin starred). The sensibilities of Arkin and Nichols were the perfect match for the tone of Heller's book. It is one of my favorite book to film adaptations, by the way.

Incidentally, I will be covering a Mike Nichols movie in my next review. Which one? You'll just have to wait and see.

Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who talks about the new collection of his comic strips from the Village Voice, Explainers, getting his start with Will Eisner on The Spirit, his plays (Little Murders), his movies (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye), the Disney musical adaptation of The Man in the Ceiling, and his forthcoming memoirs.