Thursday, October 26, 2017
Everything In Its Place
“She did not answer and I don’t know how much of what I meant she had understood.” The simple, eternal truth of this early line in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” stood out to me as I read the novella for the first time in decades, a piece of description as Neil Klugman, in the beginning of his relationship with the beautiful Brenda Patimkin, is still trying to figure her out. It’s a line that’s not in the film, without narration there’s no way it could be, but because it’s locked together with the book in my memory it’s hard not to judge the two in relation to each other. I’m not sure how much people even remember the film these days except maybe in connection with Robert Evans through his myth-making autobiography, particularly the famous poster tagline “Every father’s daughter is a virgin” and how its success led to Ali MacGraw’s superstardom circa LOVE STORY. It’s a case of a novel that is so interior there’s almost no way to transfer over the essence without it so the film is in some ways missing a key component but at the same time still manages to get richer with each viewing, through every regretful moment. It’s just about impossible to think of the past without regret, after all.
While visiting a Westchester country club as a guest of his cousin, Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin) has a momentary encounter with Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw) and instantly smitten, he tracks the girl down to ask her out. Almost immediately the two are soon dating through the summer with Neil, out of college and working in a library, sticking out somewhat among the nouveau riche Patimkins and their circle but even though Brenda’s father Ben (Jack Klugman) isn’t exactly welcoming he soon begins staying over on vacation. But when their courtship moves to the next level and Neil convinces Brenda to get a diaphragm what that means for their relationship and what she means to her own family soon becomes very clear.
While the book was set in New Jersey the film has been moved, without much apparent alteration, to New York as Neil travels between the working class Bronx where he lives with relatives and the upper class Patimkin home in Westchester. For purely personal reasons I’ll mention that some location work included scenes filmed in Scarsdale where I grew up, just a few years before I hit the scene (the tennis match, for one, was apparently filmed at the high school and if I squint I can figure out where they are) with some shooting in nearby White Plains as well—Neil and Brenda sneak in to a few movies, ROSEMARY’S BABY at the Colony (long gone; I never went) then THE ODD COUPLE down the street at the Pix (also long gone; I have a dim recall of going there when I was very young and it may have been the first time I ever went to the movies). So I’m always thinking about a small degree of familiarity while watching GOODBYE, COLUMBUS which in some ways seems designed to play like an east coast opposite number to the west coast setting of THE GRADUATE, obsessing over the same themes of sex, maturity and where you’re going in the world. Somehow THE GRADUATE seems set in outer space even when I watch it now while GOODBYE, COLUMBUS looks like it was taking place right down the street from where I was learning to walk.
With director Larry Peerce the first thing that comes to mind is how Robert Evans mentions his name on the audio version of his book identifying him as one of the directors who turned down THE GODFATHER, his voice oozing with sheer contempt. Peerce probably deserves better than that but these days his best known film might be the junkiest, the 1975 sniper-in-a-football-stadium all-star disaster film TWO-MINUTE WARNING. He’s also made appearances in recent years at the TCM Classic Film Festival to present some of his early films including the 1964 interracial marriage drama ONE POTATO TWO POTATO so there’s an intriguing history found in his filmography even though he also happens to be the guy who directed WIRED. The style of GOODBYE, COLUMBUS has a definite late 60s extremism to it with lots of zooms and fast cutting almost out of a TV commercial as part of getting us acclimated to Neil’s view of the world. The specifics of when he describes the very moment he falls for Brenda on the novel’s first page (“I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.”) is translated into cinema via an extreme zoom into this action that cuts immediately to another zoom into his own face, a moment that gets your attention but is hardly what can be called elegant. Peerce is as interested in the gaze of the flesh as he is in the vibe of all these women, of various ages, living in this form of luxury in the escape to the suburbs and what that represents, cha-cha music always in the air so the first few minutes feel like it’s trying too hard to get our attention in an attempt to establish things.
But while the film always has a cluttered frame along with a slick magazine ad quality to some of the romantic poses it manages to eventually settle down and tell the story, looking for the calm in the summer air and just skirting the edge of playing too broad in an attempt to find the humanity. GOODBYE, COLUMBUS is as faithful an adaptation as it could be if just taking the basics of the story into account and for the most part is a perceptive, knowing romance with a feel of bitter satire coasting through as the characters build. Whole swaths of dialogue are carried over in the screenplay by Arnold Schulman and even a shot of Neil at work with a book that needs binding represents much of the internal descriptions of his world, one where he barely has much interest in anything at all. Just as John Cusack would state decades later in Cameron Crowe’s SAY ANYTHING that he has no plans for the future, nothing in mind beyond the girl he’s got his eye on Neil is the same only not quite as adamant about it, barely even interested in answering the question when asked. Finished with both college and the army the only thing he seems interested in is Brenda because, well, even he’s not entirely sure. Neil just calls her up so while he may lack ambition he definitely isn’t shy and it’s not even clear why Brenda goes for him unless it’s simply because no one else has asked lately.
Neil seems to watch everything from a distance as a visitor who knows he won’t be allowed to stay, just like the African-American boy (the word ‘negro’ used in both book and film, products of another age) in the library played by Anthony McGowan who sits there looking at a book of Gaugin paintings and doesn’t understand why he should take it out when he can just come in every day. “Can you visit?” he asks about Tahiti and Neil’s patient response is, “Maybe. It’s very far. People live there,” as if he can barely believe it himself. Trying to fit in where these people live, Neil isn’t much different from his Cousin Doris who invited him to the club in the first place, reading “War and Peace” every summer and I wonder if she ever actually finishes the book. His hope of ever succeeding is crushed as easily as those cherries from the Patimkin’s well-stocked refrigerator that he puts in his pocket, food that he can barely bring himself to eat while the family sits around him shoving it into their mouths. If any of them ever tried to talk about money with him, you know he’d zone out in ten seconds flat. And while his relationship with Brenda contains passion there’s a hostility to it as well as if she knows this is a summer fling that can never last because there’s no real connection there. When he reluctantly joins her at a local dance where he clearly has no interest in meeting her friends they go away to fight which turns into a fuck, the only dance they even really know even when they’re in her house with her parents sleeping nearby.
Even though Neil is absent from a few scenes in the film, it largely keeps things from his point of view as if Peerce identifies with his inquisitive discomfort more than anything, perfectly happy to just sit back and watch the actors behave. Without any interior element the overall effect becomes a little too spare, missing much of the language that provides Neil’s take on the world but there are still hints through careful direction, how when Brenda argues with Neil she’s kept on one side of the frame while he’s seen in a mirror framed directly below a photo of her father, both the men in her life reflected against her, one permanent and another who can never be anything but temporary. The film isn’t as iconic or knowing as THE GRADUATE since Peerce doesn’t have the careful eye of Mike Nichols but he still has ideas of where to place the camera and while it’s not as overly controlled the messiness of how lived in everything is does feel refreshing, helping the film to dig further into the tension of the relationships. Jack Klugman’s father in particular goes beyond the broad stereotype he seems like at first with shadings revealed to his anger and also to his patience, even as the film’s legendary wedding buffet sequence is given full crass depiction as if to really say everything the film is suspecting deep down about mid-century Jews assimilated into wealthy suburbia.
Brenda’s own view of the world makes it apparent that they find it impossible to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be at that wedding in the first place, how she never imagined anyone—any Jews—actually living in Arizona, as Neil’s parents do. She has privilege without realizing it and a family that in some ways has come closer while shutting doors as they bicker, each with their own phone lines, all through their flight to the suburbs away from the past of the Bronx and people like Neil who remain back there. The novella was written in ’59 and there are only a few changes made to set it specifically in ’69 like a Mickey Mantle reference that becomes Carl Yastrzemski, but why the Patimkins are rooting for the Red Sox is never explained—have they really turned their backs on the Bronx that much? As cluttered as the film is, it now feels like one of those older movies where the world seems so much emptier and even a shot of the two of them meeting across from the Plaza Hotel the way the world around them looks it really does feel like maybe, just maybe, everything is going to be all right, an innocence as perfect as a willing Ali MacGraw swimming nude only for you. And in this version of 1969 the counterculture is nowhere to be found—much of the music, including the Charles Fox score with songs by The Association is so apart from that and yet still locked forever into that time, easy listening of the sort that haunts my early childhood dreams.
There’s something in GOODBYE, COLUMBUS that goes beyond the simple yet forever complex romance that feels like it’s about the primal yearning to remain where you came from, and where you feel you belong deep down, just as the record that Brenda’s brother Ron repeatedly listens to that record as a reminder of his glory days at Ohio state, the refrain where the title comes from. They’re the places where you were formed, that never fully leave you and deep down you have to believe that you’re missed as well. The confusion the film portrays, arch as the laughs might be, feels genuine. If you have the confidence to go for fucking Ali MacGraw (or whoever your own personal Ali MacGraw might be) that’s doable. But like it or not you’re going to have to wrestle with what that really means, whether for you or all the other people involved. Peerce holds back the tricks near the end when the two meet in Boston (Brenda goes to school up there, so let’s just call this a LOVE STORY prequel) but it still contains some of his best work in how he breaks the two characters apart during their confrontation, even when they’re in the same frame they truly seem in different worlds. Brenda may only display hostility towards her mother (who, played by Nan Martin, doesn't get so much as a first name in either book or film) and you know that she’s going to become her mother one day but if she doesn’t have that all important bond with her father, the one with love and trust and the money hidden away that only she knew about, then she’s got nothing. Even the letter Brenda’s father has written to his daughter, capitalizing words in a way that would never be found in the books stacked up in the library that he stacks and repairs every day is like some sort of breaking point for him. The last page or so of the book is so internal that it has to be left out which gives a slight feeling of emptiness as the credits roll every time I watch it but the basic message seems to be that things end and sometimes there isn’t any real completion. You’re left by yourself and that’s all you have. But the world you know, whatever that world is, is still there.
The definitive study of Richard Benjamin’s filmography from ’69 to, say, ’73 has yet to be written but kicking off his film career with this role, Richard Benjamin knows how to work the frame already with perfect comic timing in the way he pauses before answering someone but also a sensitivity that lets you sense his mind at work. Curious to engage with people even while staying in his own bubble he’s also as relaxed as he maybe ever was and not as mannered as he would be later on while still expanding on the possibilities of how far he could push his screen persona. Ali MacGraw may be considerably older than Brenda but she still has a rawness to her screen presence at this point that works for her as the embodiment of every guy’s dream and every father’s daughter all at once, never sure which one she really is. Commanding the dance floor at the wedding without even trying she knows that she’s the center of it all and becomes this character in a way she maybe never was again on film. Jack Klugman takes what might be the stereotypical suspicious father role and deepens it through small moments, faithful to what was on the page but imbuing it with so much more as if Mr. Patimkin’s entire history can be found through every glance, every word spoken to his children. There’s also odd enjoyment in the gawky Michael Meyers as Brenda’s brother Ron who plays each scene broad but still natural, wanting nothing more than to play his records late at night and in the way he cheerily tells Neil, “I want to talk to you” then just sits there in a way that you can never quite pin him down.
Then there’s the story of Monroe Arnold who appears at the wedding as Uncle Leo, a character from the book with a speech lasting several pages as he drunkenly expresses regret to Neil over how his life has turned out. In the final film we get is what appears to be a brief glimpse of the end of that speech and as the film’s editor Ralph Rosenbloom wrote years later in his book “When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins” a full monologue was shot but as electrifying as everyone thought it was and as much as they loved Arnold in the role, as post-production went on the overall feeling was the massive weight of it all was too much for the relatively light film (why Larry Peerce only shot it from one angle with no coverage is something Rosenblum never answers) so it was almost entirely cut out. By that point in the story, I suppose, all that matters is Neil’s silent reaction to everything around him which leads into a quick montage of flashbacks courtesy of Rosenblum, an early version of what he would later do as editor of ANNIE HALL for the end of that film. The tragedy turned out to be that after all the praise Monroe Arnold had received during filming no one bothered to tell him this before he saw the movie at the premiere. He’s just there, then suddenly he’s gone and soon after this experience Arnold stopped acting entirely.
It’s inevitable that eventually in life you’re going to find yourself somewhere you don’t belong, somewhere you’ll never fit in because you’re not part of a certain history. You don’t know the people, you don’t know the stories and jokes they share and you never will. You'll never understand. GOODBYE, COLUMBUS may not be a classic but it still has a bite to its bittersweet romance with a complexity that feels rare these days. On the one hand I identify with Neil’s sense of never fitting in but I also remember the time I went to a wedding in Minnesota of all places and the half I felt comfortable with were all the other New York Jews. Of course, I’m not entirely sure what my past was either and I’m still not sure if I really ever belonged there. Don’t louse it up, Neil is told about the relationship he finds himself in. But sometimes you have to say goodbye. You have no choice. You have to find the answers in the possibilities of your own world.