Friday, February 12, 2010

You Don't Have To Know About It

True, I’m not employed these days which some people might consider a bad thing but the good part of the situation is that I don’t have to get stressed out over all sorts of ridiculous occurrences like I would at the place I once worked. There’s still plenty in life to get stressed out over, obviously, but several things are certain for the time being--I can freely go for long walks in the middle of the day. I can go meet a friend and her dog, I’m able to drive down to the ocean and stare out at it for a long time. And I can write. There are times when I’m not sure that I can bring myself to care about anything else. So it was in this frame of mind that I encountered the free spirit charms of the little-known QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX, which seems to confirm some of these feelings I have. Originally released in 1970, it’s easy to place it alongside other such coming-of-age films of the time, with maybe some of it recalling GOODBYE, COLUMBUS in terms of its class concerns, but the film has a particular nature of its own. There are tonal issues here and there but it’s still a sweet movie, one that was interesting to finally catch up with, particularly considering the two people who star in it.

Quackser Fortune (Gene Wilder) lives a carefree Dublin existence in his family’s tiny house as he ekes out a meager living as a manure salesman, spending much of his days pushing his cart around the city collecting his merchandise from the horses who make the daily milk deliveries and freely ignores his father’s demands that he take a job at the nearby foundry as he would be expected to do. One day he meets Zazel (Margot Kidder) a beautiful rich American girl taking classes at Trinity nearby who takes a sudden interest in him. They quickly hit it off in spite of having little in common, though just as they’re getting to know each other Quackser’s life is further turned upside down when modernization causes the horses to be sent away and replaced by trucks, essentially putting him out of business. He knows that it’s only a certain amount of time before Zazel returns to America and he must soon come to a decision what to do with the hand life is dealing him.

In Danny Peary’s “The Guide for the Film Fanatic”, which I first read over two decades ago, the writer refers to this film as ‘a cult favorite for college-age viewers mostly due to its non-conformist stance but those days have probably long since passed. I’m not sure if many people my age, let alone college students, have even heard of QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX anymore and to some people it would probably be little more than an oddity if only because of the two leads. Certainly not perfect, the film presents a character that is flawed in his simplicity but it the respectful way in which it presents him means that he’s not made to represent all that’s pure and good in the world. Quackser Fortune barely knows how to read or write and even comes off as completely unaware of how much contempt Zazel’s college friends treat him with when he comes into contact with them.

Directed by Waris Hussein and written by Gabriel Walsh, QUACKSER FORTUNE occasionally comes close to treating its lead character with too much of a Chaplin-like pathos but he’s ultimately canny enough that this is avoided. He has no interest in a ‘normal job’ but he’s certainly not an innocent, particularly in his dalliances with the local spinster on his route played (very well) by Eileen Colgan, and all he really wants is a certain amount of freedom in life. He’s not even trying to flee Ireland for America, though the possibility continually looms as a threat put there by his parents. Quackser clearly isn’t the smartest person around—and it may be a flaw in how the film goes almost a little too far in displaying this—but at it’s best it portrays him not as stupid either but as someone who only knows that he doesn’t want to be sucked into the soul-deadening life he sees all around him. He’s just trying to avoid what a life working in the foundry would mean to his spirit, to the dreams that he has of nothing but holding on to the freedom of being outside all day with the ability to go where you want. It’s not the greatest life that he leads, but it is a life and it’s by his own rules, which is something.

And when they come together the two leads make for an engaging couple, even though their differences keep them from always knowing where the other is coming from (“You silly bitch. You don’t even understand,” he tells her harshly at one point). A free spirit who gladly gives up her shoes when asked, Zazel represents something that Quackser’s never had, never even considered, a piece of the future coming to tell him that he doesn’t have to give up his freedom but there’s still more possible in this life. She’s ultimately an enigma who only ever tells him just part of what she’s feeling at any given time but maybe there’s no other way to present her. “Are you happy?” she asks Quackser at one key point and I believe that it’s important to Zazel at that moment that he is. I know that in my life I’ve seen that smile she gives him before in my life when they sit for tea with his mother. Makes me miserable just thinking about it. If there’s one thing the best women you encounter in life have in common it’s that their influence makes you want to be better, to accomplish things and under certain circumstances you really do emerge from that relationship in a better place than you were when you started.

QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX (the title refers to the cousin Quackser and his family often speaks of, who interestingly lives in a borough where the Hartford-bred Zazel has never been either) isn’t about leaving where you are behind or in solving a problem with empty gestures—and at one point I thought that was how it was going to resolve itself—but in genuinely making progress, avoiding the cynicism that something like the GOODBYE, COLUMBUS movie had. Some tonal uncertainties make me think that a more disciplined directorial hand would have helped get a handle on the film’s tone which just strolls along when it needs to glide--one drunk scene in the local pub late in the film in particular makes sense but it feels like Hussein doesn’t have any other idea of how to present things beyond the gimmick of a fisheye lens (this aside, the cinematography by the legendary Gil Taylor evocatively portrays the city of Dublin and its surroundings). That slight crassness which creeps in on occasion keeps it from being more satisfying than it is and a few times I couldn’t help but think of how it was a sort of early attempt to do the sort of ‘nice’ provincial movie the likes of Miramax would do years later. But the best parts of QUACKSER FORTUNE give off a nice vibe, often backed up by the lovely score by Michael Dress, with a certain amount of depth to it as well. It’s not about turning your back on what and where you are but of making something of the possibilities that really do lie in front of you.

Gene Wilder (who apparently tried to get Jean Renoir to direct at an early stage) doesn’t seem like perfect casting for someone from Dublin and it would probably make more sense if it were someone younger playing the character (even though dialogue refers to him as being ‘nearly thirty’ he still seems just a shade away from being too old for the role) and I’m not sure he fully overcomes that. Certainly the moments where he seems to be going for a more overt ‘Chaplinesque’ approach are the most problematic but there are times when he seems to drop that and just become this person with zero gimmicks just by being present in the scene. The ultimate effect is that if Wilder seems a little out of place in this environment that actually makes a little sense. Margot Kidder is beguiling, no doubt about it (boy, she was fetching way back then and there’s brief nudity too, in case anyone cares) and manages to hold close to her vest just what her character thinks about Quackser. How much of this is in the script is tough to say but Kidder is such an evocative presence that it makes us always wonder how the gears are turning in her head. She silently makes it clear that she likes him but, clearly uncomfortable whenever Quackser comes within proximity of her school friends, also never seems to think of him as anything more than a diversion before she has to go back to the life that’s expected of her in Hartford. These things all combine to give us an intriguing glimpse of her, but we know it’s never the entire picture and that’s the way it should be.

In the middle of writing this piece over the past several days I happened to hear part of an episode of the NPR show “Bookworm” in which an extensive discussion of The Kreutzer Sonata was taking place. As I listened to this, I suddenly found myself thinking of how a certain girl who I knew long, long ago introduced me to The Kreutzer Sonata, both the musical work by Beethoven and the novella by Tolstoy. She was certainly someone who opened my eyes to some things in life and while listening to the piece on NPR I suddenly found myself wanting to pull the car over to the side of the road and lose myself in some sort of reverie of the past. QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX (which I saw on DVD in a very poor-looking transfer, but at least the film is out there) is slight and it does have its flaws but the best parts of the idiosyncrasies that arise from its setting and two lead characters add up to something special during the brief 86 minute running time. It offers certain rewards in the end and in its own way gives me even more to think about the next time I take one of those very long walks in the middle of the day.


le0pard13 said...

Well, you got me with one, Mr Peel. I've never heard of this film (and certainly not this pairing of leads). It must be the week for this, but your wonderful review has me intrigued with one (as J.D. did with Lola Montes). It's now in my Netflix queue, my friend. Thanks for this.

Mike Lippert said...

Well Mr. Peel, you certainly have a knack for digging up lost treasures. I'll certainly have to check this one out after reading this review. Good job.

Unknown said...

Add me to the list of people who have not heard of this film. Wow, it sounds very intriguing and your post has me curious to check this one out. Thanks for the heads up, Mr. Peel!

Paul Matwychuk said...

I remember reading about this film in Danny Peary's GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC and being intrigued by Peary's descripton as well as the odd title. Although I guess I wasn't intrigued enough to actually rent the film from the Jumbo Video outlet near my house, where a VHS copy was, somewhat improbably, part of their stock. Thanks for the writeup... it's stoked my curiosity again.

Oh, and I hope this comes across not as spam but as a sincere token of esteem: you've been nominated for a Kreativ Blogger Award. Details here:

Griff said...

I actually saw this back in the day and liked it very much. I thought Wilder was wonderful here. Yes, he's not ideally cast, and has to work at the Irishness, but he makes the role his own, creating a great offbeat character. His age gives Quackser gravitas -- if he were much younger, he might be hard to take. Kidder seemed a real find, though literally years passed before she found another feature role nearly as rewarding as Zazel. This picture remains a fond memory of 1970 for me; your thoughtful essay reminded me of so much of what was worthwhile about it. Thanks.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Hope you guys enjoy it when you check it out! Paul, I think I always resisted giving it a try back in the day as well, even after reading the Peary review. I'm glad I finally caught up with it.

Griff, thanks for the recollections. I hadn't thought about Wilder in terms of the gravitas--that's a good way to look at it. And I love 70s Kidder--she displayed something very special in this film.

And Paul, many thanks for the award! Dennis Cozzalio bestowed this upon me already and I have yet to do something about it because my mind has been elsewhere. But that you think so highly of this site to pay me this compliment really means a lot.

Arbogast said...

I saw this on TV when I was a kid and all I remember of it (apart from Quakser's duck imitation) is the sense of loneliness it left with me. Somehow I intuited at an early age that the movie was telling me something about apartness and isolation and boy were those lessons to be realized in later life. I'd love to see the movie again, as I'm sure I'd have an entirely different (though positive) reaction to it.

If you're of a certain age, you tend to look back at your childhood years of watching offbeat films like this on late night TV as an education that simply isn't being offered anymore. Half the time I turn on IFC it's fucking sketch comedy.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Det. Arbogast--

If I'd seen this film at another point in time I would have thought about the loneliness--not that those things don't stick with me anyway. As it is, right now it got me to think about certain girls I've known. Maybe thinking about them was preferable to the other thing.

I know what you mean about certain things to be found on late night TV in the past and I miss that as well. It's like a doorway to other avenues of the world has been shut off. Calling it part of one's education is right. Thanks to you for checking in.

Coyote said...

I'm quite curious to see this (and amused that I best know Waris Hussein for directing the premiere episode of Dr. Who). Recently saw Wilder in Rhinoceros, as it happens.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Mr. Peel, for your treatment of one of my favorite films.

I've searched the internet for information on Quackser's Michael Dress filmscore, to no avail.

Can you tell us what is the origin of the melodic theme that Quackser whistles in the opening scene, and that appears in the score in other scenes?


Joey Driven