Commentary Magazine


Jules and Jack

By now, just about everyone has heard of the folkloric salesman whose reaction to Death of a Salesman is reported to have been, “Well, that New England territory never was any good.” From as valid, if off-center, a point of view, the film of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders might be taken as one long, belated (or premature, in the case of the play) Procaccino-for-mayor commercial. All the typical discontents of urban living—the smog-laden air, rusty tap water, malfunctioning telephones (except for obscene callers), electrical power failures, promiscuous muggings, random shootings—that one has grown inured to in sporadic doses are imagined as nonstop and ubiquitous. The image is, above all, of anarchy, of the complete breakdown of law and order.

The family of middle-class morons that we see as principal victims of this calamitous disorder—two of its members killed by sniper-fire—is, the film implies, merely by being middle-class and ipso facto moronic, also its provocation; and, toward the end, the father makes an impassioned and benighted plea for repression in the name of “freedom” that, from the film’s perspective of leftish derision, has the effect of making him seem deserving of all he has got. But though middle-class responsibility for the city’s ills might well be argued apart from the film and play, within the context of Little Murders the one instance we see depicted of the step-by-step progress from order to anarchy is that of Alfred, the ex-left-wing “activist” turned first “apathist,” then sniper. (He is awakened from apathy by the boosterish zeal of Patsy, the daughter of the family which he marries into, and then, after Patsy’s murder-by-sniper and his lapse into catatonic withdrawal, parodically reawakened to life—as a sniper—by a stroll through a surprisingly wholesome Central Park, and a glimpse of ongoing life around him.) And since Alfred isn’t a member of the burlesqued family (other than by marriage) but rather the product of a cultured (ergo “sterile”) home, and is given a speech detailing his development from activism to apathy that is obviously meant to be taken seriously as is no other in the film, the effect is of a tacit endorsement of Alfred’s attitudes. Whatever Little Murders may think it is about, it is in actuality the most sympathetic portrayal of liberal backlash that the movies have yet given us.

Of course, when one speaks of Alfred’s “development,” one uses the word a good deal more provisionally than one might of a work that contained palpable characters with interior lives rather than the dimensionless constructs which inhabit Little Murders. I am hardly the first to make the point that the people in Little Murders are little more than animated versions of Feiffer’s cartoon creations, but it is worth pointing out that Feiffer is a very peculiar kind of cartoonist to begin with, the cartoons in his work rarely more than a pale accompaniment to their captions, and the work itself usually losing nothing in paraphrase. This is not to say that Feiffer isn’t talented, and, at times, very funny, but only that his work, even as a cartoonist, is singularly deficient in a dramatic sense, a sense of people interacting; a Milton Caniff might write a real play, however flatly melodramatic, but for Feiffer the encounter of two people is only the occasion for a dual monologue. It’s not surprising then that the chief impact of Little Murders (the rest being mainly the erratically funny running of some lightly sketched figures through some implausibly plotted paces) is, like that of his cartoons, conveyed by voice, and resides in four long monologues. Alfred’s sub-Kafka parable of his role-reversal with the petty bureaucrat who is intercepting his mail, and his abandonment of political activism with the conclusion that “If they’re that un-formidable, why fight back?” is the most ambitious of these, and, freighted as it is with solemn self-importance, the dullest; Lou Jacobi’s harangue on pulling oneself up with God’s help by one’s bootstraps begins more promisingly, but soon outlasts its inventiveness. But Donald Sutherland’s sermon as the permissive, anything-goes, with-it minister (“First Existential”) who marries Alfred into the family is, as a self-contained comic turn, very good indeed, and Alan Arkin’s nervous breakdown, as a detective convinced that the common motive behind the city’s rash of unsolved murders is the destruction of confidence in the police, quite brilliantly captures in miniature the paranoid hysteria and sense of anomie that the film as a whole draws on but nowhere else so successfully sustains. This speech and Arkin’s manic delivery of it (he also directed the film) have been objected to as a virtually pathological outburst of paranoia, which they are, but the problem with Little Murders is not that it goes too far in this respect but that it doesn’t go far enough; the Feiffer who genially says in an interview that he actually wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but New York unfortunately does really seem to be the author of the play. And garbled and ambivalent as it is, the net effect of Little Murders is merely to give paranoia, at least the artistic expression of paranoia, a bad name.

After the St. Vitus’s dance of Little Murders, one is inclined to give oneself to the unhurried pace of the opening moments of Carnal Knowledge with something like relief, and in hopeful anticipation that here is a movie in which scenes are going to be allowed to open up and develop and actors allowed to build a performance. Feiffer wrote Carnal Knowledge also, but this time as an original screenplay to be filmed by Mike Nichols, and one’s first impressions are of the difference to a writer’s work another director can make. But, as with the opening of Catch-22, hopes soon grind to a halt, and what at first seemed to be leisureliness very soon comes to be felt as a kind of torpor. And though one tells oneself that Nichols is at least a good director of actors, what one really means (if one actually recalls Dustin Hoffman doing his ingratiating schlemiel bit to Anne Bancroft’s Dragon Lady in The Graduate, or everyone going his own way in Catch-22—I except the Burtons in Virginia Woolf as an impossible case) is that, given Nichols’s background as a performer, he ought to be a good director of actors.

Carnal Knowledge is a series of episodes in the sexual lives of two males from the time of their college years as roommates in the 40’s to their turning roughly forty themselves. Though the more prominent of the two, played by Jack Nicholson, is a big-time make-out artist and the other an idealistic believer in love, they are seen equally as products of their illusions, and those illusions themselves as a product of the 40’s with its sexual taboos and pop-music sentimentality. Along the way, a number of females are rather callously abused, but, if Carnal Knowledge presents a feminist or at least anti-male chauvinist view of the relations between the sexes (when Jack Nicholson “takes” his first, virginal victim, he is seen only as a black, bearlike shape above her pale, suffering face), it remains true that the men are as much used as users, used and imprisoned by their own fantasies. In the end, his marriage to his college sweetheart having failed, the one searches for true love with an underage hippie, while the other, the ladies’ man, attempts to stave off impotence by enlisting prostitutes in ritualistic tributes to his virility.

What Carnal Knowledge is, in short, is yet another version of Don Juan as impotent, a sentimental, wish-fulfilling cliché as durable in our popular art forms as that of money not buying happiness, or ruthless power-seekers ending up lonely. What distinguishes this from previous versions are chiefly its overlay of “frank” language and the unpleasant hint of gloating vindictiveness with which it pushes its principal from conquests to humiliation; the effect is rather of a wallflower’s revenge on all the males who’ve ever outscored him. What distinguishes it also, and makes it, all differences of execution aside, of a piece with Little Murders, is its utter, limp passivity, its sense of experience as something before which one can only passively submit. I suppose one might call this the mark of the Feiffer sensibility, if it didn’t seem more generally that of the sensibility of the Eisenhower era, of which period Feiffer was perhaps the preeminent wit. The characters in Carnal Knowledge do not act but are acted upon; if, indeed, as with Little Murders, one can describe as characters ventriloquist’s dummies given lines like, “We spend fifteen minutes on fore-play. Do it in all the rooms of the house. It’s a seven-room house” (the “idealistic” friend straight-facedly describing his conjugal relations to Nicholson) . The funniest moment in the film is really quite telling in a way Feiffer hadn’t intended: Jack Nicholson concluding a showing of slides of the girls in his life with a Bugs Bunny-like, “Th-th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”

I guess it might be said that in some respects Carnal Knowledge represents an advance in dramaturgy over Little Murders in that the vicious quarreling between Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret (as another conquest he tires of) does demonstrate Feiffer’s ability to write dramatic dialogue; but this kind of verbal violence, though effective, is, after all, rather easy to do; Albee and LeRoi Jones made their reputations as playwrights with such stuff. Given, if not a character (signals flash: “Vulnerable—Potential Suicide!” almost as soon as we see her) then at least a part, Ann-Margret delivers a surprisingly good, solid performance; maybe Nichols deserves some credit for this, and maybe not. But Jack Nicholson’s Hollow-Man role gives him even less to work with than he had in Five Easy Pieces, which in its turn was less than in Easy Rider. Here is an actor not only able to project real intelligence, but one with genuine audience rapport as well; notice, for instance, how in the scene in which he brutally berates Ann-Margret, even though his is the unsympathetic character, his appeal as a screen personality has the audience in his hands (laughing at his cruel jokes at her expense, etc.) much as the early Kirk Douglas could win an audience even while playing heels; which is to say, though one can’t yet assess Nicholson’s capabilities as an actor, he does already manifest the presence of a star. Like Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge is depressing in a way I would contend no successful work of art, however grim, can be; but the continued failure to make use of Jack Nicholson’s talents is really the saddest thing in the whole of the film’s flattened-out, cartoonish wasteland.

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Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Alan Arkin, Jules Feiffer, Mike Nichols, Jack Nicholson; notably among the missing from this stellar gathering are Dustin Hoffman and Buck Henry, and perhaps one might also add Arthur Penn to the list, but in the main Little Murders and Carnal Knowledge are almost the epitome of a certain kind (and currently the most prestigious kind) of “New American Movie.” Why do I go to see such things? Why does anybody? In part, I go for careerist reasons; in search of something to write about. But in great measure I go out of a habit of movie-going, now almost tropistic. I don’t agree with Pauline Kael when she claims in her introduction to Going Steady that, to speak with authority, a film critic must see everything; what may be right for her (and it is) isn’t necessarily right for everyone else. But while the thought of going daily to the movies depresses me beyond words, I can’t get through two movieless weeks without developing a restless desire to see a movie; and not necessarily any movie in particular, but just a movie.

This habit, or drive, was formed in me before my adolescence, and had little to do with any search or hunger for art. (When a friend led a splinter group of our Saturday-matinee-moviegoing gang to depart from our routine of thrillers and Westerns in order to accompany him to The Red Shoes, he was set upon and beaten up by his companions on leaving the theater, a response I sympathized with then and do now.) I did occasionally find art, and, along the way, was stimulated into reflection on what constituted art in film and elsewhere. Yet it would be hypocrisy to pretend I sought it, or that it played much part in the many films of the 40’s which I enjoyed and continue to enjoy, even though I went to them “critically” even then. Of critics now writing regularly on films, probably there’s no one with whom I share so great an affection for so many disreputable films of the 40’s as I do with Andrew Sarris; yet, while I can admire the way Sarris continues to give himself over to apologetics on behalf of these works with a lover’s devotion and the way he has been willing to risk ridicule for the sake of his enthusiasms, much of his writing seems to me to turn on the fallacious assumption that, because one likes something, it is necessarily good. Several of my favorite movies are bad, and for an inveterate moviegoer (like Sarris) not to admit this of himself seems to me not only to misrepresent the impeccability of one’s taste, but to misrepresent as well what we go to the movies for.

I went not for art, but for pleasure; aesthetic pleasure at the “highest” level of my moviegoing experience, but also other pleasures, descending through various levels to mere escapism at the lowest. And I continue to go for both the highest reasons and the lowest. The observation has been made that intelligent people will go to see films whose novelistic equivalent they wouldn’t think of reading, and in part this can be explained by the inability of the medium, owing to its multifarious character, to be as lifeless as hack fiction. In a novel, everything is filtered through the writer’s sensibility; this single sensibility sets the limits of what the work can contain; but, in the film, one may find diversion in scenery, or clothes, or beautiful people (not to say distinguished acting, or writing, or photography, or direction) quite apart from the hackneyed materials which may be at the fore. Yet, beyond this, the fact is that it’s easier to see a bad movie than read a bad novel; easier to sit passively through something like Carnal Knowledge or Little Murders than actively to bring oneself to read someone like Bruce Jay Friedman. Indeed, it would be sham not to admit that, other than on the very highest level, the experience of moviegoing is in general a less demanding one than that of reading; except insofar as the experience of seeing a foreign-language film is partly one of reading. And though some of my favorite films are as complex and difficult as works of art in any medium can be, some part of me (the prototypal moviegoer) still resists the idea of the experience of seeing films presenting such difficulties. Pauline Kael recounts how, when she managed a movie theater and showed The Seventh Seal, people used to call up to ask the starting time of The Seventh Veil, which she assumed they really wished they were going to see. I know, in my own case, I’ve rarely gone to any foreign-language film when, at the moment of passing through the theater door, I wouldn’t have preferred to be about to see a Bogart thriller or Astaire musical.

That I continue to go to the movies in search of pleasure—other than that “highest” pleasure to be found in the occasional film which is a serious work of art—is a tribute to how deeply the movie-going habit is ingrained in me, considering how rarely pleasure is afforded. There are still some conventional “lower” pleasures—excitement, romance—occasionally to be found in some unfashionable films by older directors—Huston’s The Kremlin Letter, Stevens’s The Only Game in Town, Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, whatever their deficiencies may be—and odd pleasures also in the even rarer work such as Brewster McCloud, which, whatever its deficiencies, uses the idiom of with-it, Lesteroid film-making toward individual and imaginative ends. (The kind of pleasure one at least tells oneself one once got from good American melodramas one finds now either in such more complex form as that of Bertolucci’s brilliant The Conformist or not at all.) But does anyone get pleasure from Carnal Knowledge or Little Murders? Isn’t one, on the contrary, persuaded of the notion of their seriousness by the very fact of how little pleasure they provide? The cant phrase here is “black comedy.” The genre it identifies is one in which gag-writing as indiscriminate in its rule of anything-for-a-laugh as that of the Red Skelton show eventuates in something calculated to shock the audience into a realization of the film’s significance; increasingly, as in Little Murders, this “something” has been bloodshed, and the “anything” sacrificed for a laugh usually includes consistency of characterization for a start. Above all, there is the self-conscious sense shared by film and audience alike of going beyond the bounds of “good taste,” and laughing at taboo subjects. A film such as Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? seems to spring solely from this impetus: that of testing the limits of the new permissiveness in screen comedy; despite which (apart from its genuinely heartless humor at the expense of “old folks” in “homes” during its final scenes) the work has been thoroughly tamed in advance by its desire to be shocking without running the risks of daring to displease. (The final scenes of placing the mother in an institution have displeased some of the film’s admirers, an index to these scenes’ superiority.) And the same is true of Little Murders. It is “shocking,” though not, of course, to us, who dig it. Rather, it “shocks” its audience in the way that, in the view of the censor, pornography “corrupts”; that is, it shocks not us but some presumed “other.” We who dig it are left feeling not so much shocked as hip and virtuous.

And it is this, above all, that I resent about Little Murders and Carnal Knowledge, and all the films like them which they can be taken to represent. Moviegoing used to be something about which one felt one ought to feel guilty; it was time-wasting, and one’s sense of this somehow enhanced its pleasure. But going to a movie like Little. Murders or Carnal Knowledge (or Catch-22 or Little Big Man) has become as dull and “worthwhile” an experience as going to a concert or the theater; one is no longer going to a mere movie, but to a legitimated cultural event. There were always, of course, these kinds of movies, but they used to be the ones one’s parents went to and the knowledgeable (which used to mean “youthful”) moviegoer shunned. Now the members of the so-called “movie generation” line up to see Carnal Knowledge, and their elders in newspapers and magazines provide critical sanction for their preferences. And just in case one still isn’t cured of The Seventh Veil, there’s now the first Elliott Gould movie by Ingmar Bergman to look forward to. It’s almost enough to make me reconsider my skepticism about doctorates in Cinema. Any discipline as unenjoyable as has become that of contemporary film-study probably merits the handing out of Ph.D.’s.

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If the opening moments of Carnal Knowledge tend to be encouraging, I had, during the first few minutes of Drive, He Said, the sinking feeling of being about to celebrate my first anniversary of having seen Getting Straight. “More drivel,” I said to my companion, but very soon after I realized with surprise that I was wrong. (Not so surprising, perhaps, given the film’s pedigree of having been found insulting to Judith Crist’s intelligence, and, in the great tradition of L’Avventura, booed at Cannes, though I suspect those going in the expectation of another grooving youth movie are in for a nasty surprise.) The speaking of the Robert Creeley poem from which the film and novel take their title is a mistake—the poem should have remained a written (pre-credit) epigraph—and the first scenes of a college basketball game interrupted by some radical students’ guerrilla theater seem just familiar stuff from the campus-protest movies bag. As subject matter, the campus in turmoil has been so thoroughly travestied by our movies that one is predisposed to dismiss such things out of hand; which makes even more astonishing the film’s achievement in imaginatively remaking the campus into an arena of serious human emotions. Who could have believed after Alice’s Restaurant that a scene of a radical hippie calculatedly (in part) freaking-out at his army induction could be as powerfully unsettling as it is here, or that one could ever bring oneself to care again about the fate of another alienated student?

I don’t think one can effectively convey the impact of Drive, He Said by any paraphrase of what happens in it. The principal characters are a college basketball player, committed to the exercise of his skills but disaffected from the locker-room ethos and increasingly conscious of his skills’ irrelevance to his life and that of those around him, the athlete’s politicized roommate, slipping into drug-triggered psychosis, a young professor with whom the athlete maintains an awkward friendship, and the professor’s wife with whom the athlete is having a volatile affair. What we see in fragmentary glimpses of these fully-imagined characters in their complex tangle of relationships constitutes the substance of the film; it is what the film is about if one can really say that the film is about anything as one traditionally thinks of a work’s theme in fiction (though the relations among the professor’s wife, her husband, and her lover convey a more exacerbated sense of the convolutions of sexual exploitation than can be found in the whole of Carnal Knowledge) . The film’s effect is less of drama than of a series of scenes or sketches of campus life. What unifies the parts is essentially the sense of uncontrollable breakdown, of stasis, dysfunctioning. The image is of a world whose defining principle is that of entropy. In the end is no revelation, but only one more piece of the crumbling system, coming apart.

Could so discursive a work be as compelling in any other form less hybrid than that of film? I don’t think it could as a play; it isn’t in Jeremy Larner’s smug and flashy novel from which the film has been very freely adapted. What makes it so compelling as a film are its look of jagged modernity (it was photographed by Bill Butler who shot The Rain People) and the way the film’s look sets off the exceptional ensemble of performances by William Tepper as the athlete, Michael Margotta as his roommate, Robert Towne as the professor, and, perhaps most impressive, Karen Black as the wife. (Bruce Dern in the more conventionally-written part—though hardly the novel’s crude caricature—of the basketball coach gives a performance whose cameo effect is, on a smaller scale, a bit like that of Jack Nicholson’s performance in Easy Rider.) Nicholson himself directed Drive, He Said, and, though I usually cringe when I hear of actors turning to direction to give wider scope to their “creativity,” it seems clear that Nicholson has had here an opportunity to utilize the intelligence his recent film roles have denied him. Directing in a fragmented style I’m not generally partial to, he has nevertheless succeeded in creating a work in this style in which the performances come strongly and vividly through, and, when performances are as good as they are here even in such small roles as that of Mike Warren as another basketball player, or the Pfc. who makes a pre-induction speech, then it’s clear that they are also a director’s achievement (as is the film’s consistently imaginative use of music and sound).

There are occasional lapses in handling—there’s too much poetry-of-the-game slow motion in the basketball sequences, but then there probably ought to be a moratorium on slow-motion sequences in movies for at least ten years (though the slow motion under the credits works beautifully), and a student “rap” session descends to the level of the opening. But the penultimate scene of the now-deranged roommate, alone on campus in early morning, freeing the insects and reptiles in a biology lab, though criticized as a too-crudely-symbolic representation of his madness, seems to me rather a strikingly successful, surreal metaphor for both the world all the characters have come to inhabit and the emotional upheaval of all that has gone before; this, after all, is a film which begins with the casually unstressed uncaging of a leopard which, in a sense, vanishes into the very texture of the work. As guards and orderlies appear to take the roommate away, he turns to them and says with chillingly persuasive conviction, “I want you to know one thing. . . . I’m totally sane. . . . I’m seeing you exactly as you’re seeing me”; and it almost seems as if the film itself is at this point addressing us. The only words spoken after this are those of the athlete forlornly shouting, “Your mother called. . . Your mother called. . .”; his voice growing inaudible, blending with the bells tolling from the campanile, as we see his receding figure from the window of the ambulance in which the roommate is being driven away.

Despite its real imperfections, Drive, He Said seems to me to be not only an extraordinary directorial debut, but, beyond that, probably the most fully alive and exciting American movie since The Wild Bunch. If the Feiffer films provide an occasion to lament the passing of a kind of pleasure from American movies, I do nevertheless realize that we cannot really make 30’s and 40’s movies again. Drive, He Said may be harsh and difficult (though it can also be very funny), but, unlike Nichols’s films, it’s not depressing, and its energy and brilliance do indeed give one pleasure, if not the simple pleasure of a Casablanca. Moreover, it is something we probably need in films now even more than we do a more polished, perfected, self-contained masterpiece: a work which shows that there are ways out of our blind alleys. At a time when our films’ “new freedom” is resulting in an almost instantaneous trivializing of serious contemporary subjects by their assimilation to coarsening formulas, Drive, He Said takes some of the deadest commonplaces of the current screen, and makes us see, despite our skepticism and resistance, that these bones can live.

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