Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Dynamism Of Apathy

LITTLE MURDERS opens with one of the most brutal parodies of the meet-cute I’ve ever seen. A woman tries to intervene when a man is being beaten up by muggers. The man breaks free, the muggers focus their attention on her and he walks away. At this point, the writing credit for Jules Feiffer appears onscreen as if to inform us of the world we are about to enter. Furious, the woman races after the man screaming at him for abandoning her after she had tried to help him. He offers no apologies, only yelling back at her for getting involved when his attackers were clearly getting tired. She continues yelling at him as they continue down the street. We then cut to later, with the pair in his apartment talking normally as they get to know each other, with no explanation how they got to this point. Actually, there isn’t much explanation for anything in LITTLE MURDERS, at least not any that ever make sense on any rational level. Roving gangs, snipers, periodic blackouts, obscene phone callers. It’s all part of daily life in this world, one that may not have the potency when it was released in 1971 (or when the play it’s based on was first produced in 1967) but like the best black comedies it makes us pause in the middle of our laughter, making sure that the sense of unease never lets up. None of it feels real, yet it all feels real and that is about as unnerving as anything about it.

Putting it as simple as possible, LITTLE MURDERS is about photographer Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould), a self-professed “apathist”, a cynic whose only pleasure that he gets from life is his work and sleeping, who meets outgoing Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd), a woman who seems to take him on as her own personal project. This involves taking him home to meet her parents (Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson) and, of course, getting him to marry her. This is all set in a nightmarish version of the city of New York.

It’s very much a product of its time—jokes about heavy breathers constantly calling feel like the sort of thing meant for audiences of “The Dick Cavett Show,” but there is something to be said for the film’s non-judgmental look at its hero, someone whose apathy and cynicism informs every aspect of him. This is all directed in an ultra-deadpan fashion by Alan Arkin and shot by the great Gordon Willis which makes sure not to overshadow Jules Pfeiffer’s words yet still manages to make this dialogue-heavy stage play somehow cinematic. Some of it is shocking in how bloody it gets and it’s not even always clear how much of it is supposed to be funny. Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it. While it’s certainly inspired by the violence occurring in society through the sixties, the world of LITTLE MURDERS also feels like a look at what was still expected to come, especially for those who lived in New York. Yet in spite of the blood many of the darkest elements are what feel like the most personal to Gould’s character, particularly in the biting section when he reluctantly visits his academic parents (John Randolph and Doris Roberts) who he hasn’t seen for years. Receiving him as warmly as they would somebody they used to rent a room to they are never less than awkward in everything they say to him and can’t even seem to answer basic questions he has about his childhood. Special kudos should go to the sound person responsible for getting the specific ring of the phone, making the running gag it’s associated with both funny and dread-inducing at the same time. It’s the sort of combination which carries all through the movie and it would be interesting to pair it on a double bill with CATCH 22, which Arkin stars in, although I wonder if the two together would be almost too much to take in one sitting.

Gould is quite amazing in the film, confidently underplaying and still keeping us aware of his character even in the long stretches when he has no dialogue. But as much as Gould carries the film with his presence, the film is stolen by his MASH co-star Donald Sutherland as the Reverend who marries the couple (declaring “Of the 200 marriages that I have performed, all but seven have failed,” in the middle of the service), possibly the freest, most exhilarating work I’ve ever seen by the actor in front of the camera. The unknown Marcia Rodd, kind of Paula Prentiss by way of Jo Anne Worley, pulls off a difficult role, coming off as harsh but never unlikable even as she screams, “You have to let me mold you!” and ultimately kind of endearing in the end. As her parents, Gardenia and Wilson are excellent as well and I found myself paying particular attention to Wilson and what she was doing as I rewatched certain sections. Lou Jacobi and Arkin himself also have showy, monologue-laden roles and both are truly hysterical.

LITTLE MURDERS is a very difficult film to get a handle on and I’m still absorbing it. Even considering the time it was made in, I was still surprised to find a studio logo (Twentieth Century Fox) in front of it, considering how unrelenting it is. Either you willingly go with it from minute one or you don’t. There’s no middle ground with this film and I’ve found it difficult to shake some of its darkest, most disturbing moments. I certainly understand the nature of putting up walls to avoid the cruelness of the world. Ultimately, it’s about the possibility of opening yourself up to somebody, anybody, being willing to take that chance even though you don’t know what the consequences will be. Maybe you can’t take care of all the evils out there but you can still fight back against something and that in itself can be a form of joining in and staying alive. Maybe that’s how you find a place in the world. When I went to mail the disc back to Netflix I discovered that the Post Office had closed earlier than I thought they would and they wouldn’t let me in. Determined to mail it out tonight, I walked around to the back to the loading dock and succeeded in handing it off to somebody so it would go out. A small thing, but at that moment in time I had to do something. Though it was released on DVD, LITTLE MURDERS is now out of print and appears to be going for high prices. It’s unfortunate, because I think I’m going to need to see it again one of these days.


Anonymous said...

I suppose it was only a matter of time before you wrote on this film, judging from your present trajectory. This is one of the handful of films I own on dvd, though I have yet to give Gould and Arkin's commetary a listen. The film speaks for itself. Essential Gould, essential viewing - period. The line this film walks between the horrifying and the hilarious could only be found in real life.

Marcia Rodd did not turn up often enough in movies but if you hunt down Jonathan Demme's unknown pleasure CITIZENS BAND, you'll get more.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Now you've got me wondering what my present trajectory is. But I suppose I'll be taking a look at a few other Gould titles in the near future. I hope more people check this one out.

And I've never seen CITIZENS BAND, but it's been such an elusive title for so long I really should attempt to do something about that. In this city there's got to be a VHS of it somewhere.