Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Until We Find Something Better
I’d say that I’ve been spending a lot of time lately banging my head against the wall regarding certain women but anyone who actually knows me would probably say that such a thing is about as surprising as hearing me say that I ate lunch or drank some Diet Coke or went to the movies. Hang on, let me pour myself some more Diet Coke. OK, I’m back. I can appreciate how truly personal some of Paul Mazursky’s films are and also think several are genuinely noteworthy even though there are certain things about them I can’t entirely relate to. Part of this is how locked into their era that they are but I also freely admit that I’m not really the ideal person to relate to such incisive looks at the problems of marriage. His 1973 BLUME IN LOVE is consistently interesting and strikingly adult at times, in such ways that the director wouldn’t have gotten it made ten years later, let alone now. Part of that is due to how films have changed, even the ones that Mazursky made. Part of that is for other, more complicated reasons.
The story of BLUME IN LOVE is that of Los Angeles divorce lawyer Stephen Blume (George Segal) who is pining for ex-wife Nina (Susan Anspach) while on vacation in Venice. Told in a fractured narrative style, it has a framework that holds up well today even if the content is considerably dated. How exactly the character got to this place, as well as what a bastard he is, is gradually revealed. When social worker Anspach sits down with musician/drifter Elmo played by Kris Kristofferson at the beginning it’s pretty easy to guess where things are going since no man then or now could measure up to Kristofferson. But instead it’s Stephen himself who is revealed to be the one cheating, with his secretary Gloria (TRUCK TURNER’s Annazette Chase). As he tries to pick up the pieces of his life, Blume takes on a more casual romance with no-nonsense Arlene (Marsha Mason) but he can’t get his love for Nina out of his mind, particularly when she takes up with Elmo. Blume continues to look for ways to get back in Nina’s good graces by befriending her new guy. But even he can’t admit to himself exactly why he’s doing this, leading to a point where there’s nothing more for him to say and he takes surprising action.
The framing section in Italy has a smattering of Fellini but BLUME IN LOVE for the most part feels like Mazursky’s attempt at exploring the concept of marriage and its breakup with the utmost seriousness of a Bergman film. There’s a real sense that he’s trying to go deeper with his examination of the neuroses of these people than he had yet done and the matters of infidelity are never used for laughs like they may have been in his screenplay for I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS. Even the minor recurring character played by Shelley Winters as a woman continually seeking a divorce, one who would probably be used as comic relief in any other movie, is dealt with completely seriously. Marital troubles are of course a recurring theme in the director’s films and the pain that is evident in these characters in this movie in particular indicates that it was something he knew about intimately and warranted such an approach. Even the world of swingers and the 70s Southern California setting that Blume enters are never used for laughs—as strange as they are, he’s genuinely trying to figure them out without losing himself. Mazursky’s take on all this isn’t comic or even particularly affectionate—it’s as if he’s looking at it all with his head cocked, slightly bemused but also trying to accept it all for what it is. There’s a controlled looseness to the structure with scenes that rarely feel the need to rush to their conclusion and in a very European touch the film contains some extremely effective match-cutting as we are transported from Venice to Los Angeles and back again.
The genuine yearning Segal displays in his performance makes it easy to like him even if it’s clear what a prick he is at times and the film never holds back on this. Wisely, there’s never any real explanation given for his affair with the secretary—it seems as if he wouldn’t be able to come up with a decent reason if ever asked and he doesn’t hesitate to bed the character once more before unceremoniously firing her. Even the sequences where he visits his analyst (played by Mazursky's own analyst Donald F. Muhich who recurred in his films) only seem to muddy what’s already swirling around his brain, offering no hint of easy answers. Blume seems to be continually asking other characters what is going on with their relationships without letting things play out to learn the answer for himself. “Where are we?” he desperately wants to know. “We’re where we are,” is the best answer he can ever get. What this all leads to, and no spoilers ahead, is a genuinely shocking development that doesn’t really fly in this day and age, even if we are viewing it through the prism of a film made in 1973. Certainly the interpersonal relationship of a man and woman with a long history is more complicated than what may ever be deemed correct, but I’m still not quite sure how to reconcile this plot point and where it leads in the final section. Anyone who’s seen the film would know what I’m referring to and if they want to offer their own opinions on all this, they’re more than welcome.
The cast is phenomenal, with Segal raw, wounded and desperate, in what may be as good a role as he ever had. Anspach’s role is an interesting opposite to her wife that leaves Woody Allen in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM with this character given viewpoints that are continually valid unlike in that film where she just wanted to “ski down a mountain laughing like an idiot” or however Woody referred to it. The relationship between the two becomes more intriguing as it goes on with it becoming tougher to tell just how accepting she is of Segal as he tries to make amends. Kristofferson’s casting is most interesting since it’s difficult to imagine him ever interacting with somebody like Segal (or Mazursky, for that matter). The unpredictability of their scenes together (“Are you in love with Nina?” “What does that mean?”) reveals two actors at their very best reveling in playing off of someone totally unlike themselves. When the film focuses on the developing rapport between these three, it’s kind of an early version of Mazursky’s Truffaut homage WILLIE AND PHIL. Marsha Mason is about as good as she ever was in her scenes with Segal but she, as well as her character, is overshadowed by the effect this triangle has. There are some interesting unknown faces throughout that turn up, say some interesting stoner dialogue then disappear, never to be seen again. It’s a done in a way that feels very specific to the time and place, which Mazursky obviously knew very well. He’s in there too as Segal’s co-worker who is more centered, but just as baffled by everything going on around him as the film’s lead is. On a completely random note, I watched this the same day I saw several Noirs at the American Cinematheque, which led to noticing that both BLUME and the 1946 B-movie SMOOTH AS SILK contain scenes where the lead character climbs over a back fence to get into a house and confront someone. For a moment, it was like the two films somehow intertwined in my head, causing some very brief confusion. This doesn’t mean anything at all, but it just seemed like it deserved being pointed out.
BLUME IN LOVE is a challenging piece of work that offers numerous rewards, along with elements that are considerably problematic. The title character’s acceptance of the best way to communicate with his waiter in Italy, showing both men combining languages as they converse, seems to encapsulate much of what the film is about—you can never communicate with somebody in their language until you learn to communicate with them in your own. How this film communicates in its filmic and cultural language to us in the present day with our own is something that I still have to continue thinking about.