Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Deno Diary: "Little Murders"

I love Jules Feiffer as a cartoonist. But he is one seriously overrated screenwriter. Carnal Knowledge never worked for me, especially the ending, and now I've finally seen Little Murders, a movie based on his play. The play closed after one week. The film didn't fare much better, and it's easy to understand why.

Little Murders may have had more satirical impact if I'd seen it back in 1971, when it seemed like the social fabric was breaking down and New York had aspects of an outlaw town. Now, it just comes across as an over-the-top translation of a theater farce (you can feel the outlines of stage blocking throughout) and a not very good one at that.

The movie, with a screenplay by Feiffer and directed by Alan Arkin, does try to spoof the concerns of New Yorkers in that time period. There is the young "apathist" photographer (Elliott Gould) who has gone from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar to snapping piles of dog shit, and winning awards for both. He meets a young, upbeat woman (Marcia Rudd) who is determined to snap him out of his funk and marry him, essentially making him conform to middle-class mores.

She has a crazy family, including a hothead dad (Vincent Gardenia), a mother with blinders on and the requisite crazy brother. (I got the feeling that Woody Allen may have used some of this as subconscious inspiration for Annie Hall). There are scenes that are supposed to be hilarious family gatherings, but Feiffer and Arkin are not the Marx Brothers, even though Gardenia is a physically appealing farceur.

Little Murders may work best in the little details. Throughout the movie, New York's infrastructure is seen crumbling, a metaphor for moral decay, as well. Lights fail, bombs explode, Gould gets beaten up and called homosexual epithets, and 340 "little murders" go unsolved through the city. When we finally meet Gould's parents (John Randolph and a young Doris Roberts), they are the clueless, over-educated liberals that Feiffer often winningly skewed in his cartoons. Finally, the lawlessness building slowly on the edges of the story strikes Gould and his wife's family, and they literally go crazy, turning into part of the city's uncontrollable rabble.

Feiffer said some of this movie was his reaction to the political assassinations of the '60s. It is also part of theater's absurdist and surreal traditions, from Beckett to Ionesco. And I can see where he's going with it, but it just doesn't work onscreen. There are long, excruciating stretches, as though the whole movie is the opening cat food scene of Gould's The Long Goodbye. This might have made a nifty casual on the pages of The New Yorker or Feiffer's Village Voice, but onscreen it doesn't come close to what Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola pulled off in their '60s indie experiments.

There are several reasons to sit through Little Murders. From the opening credits, you can spot the gorgeous grainy photography of Gordon Willis, who favors us again with several velvety dark interior shots. Arkin's direction is sort of intriguing, a mix of standard and hand-held shots that keeps the film off-balance. Elliott Gould was at the height of his youthful handsomeness, and has there ever been a more unlikely and appealing leading man than Elliott Gould? Sometimes, just the mere fact of his presence in a movie makes it worthwhile.

Finally, in the pantheon of great ministers-at-weddings scenes, Donald Sutherland's cameo as a hippie existentialist reverend deserves pride of place next to Peter Cook's in Bedazzled. Instead of me describing it, you can watch it here. This might be the single best sequence in the movie, with Feiffer pulling together a great soliloquy on marriage and Arkin crisply editing the back-and-forth commentary with a deft touch that resembles Mel Brooks-meets-Woody Allen:

Sutherland is great, isn't he? In the end, I wish all of Little Murders could live up to that scene. (The opening scene, as we hear Gould being beaten up outside Rudd's window and she keeps getting a busy signal when she calls 911, is just as inspired.) It sounds as though there are a lot of reasons to see Little Murders, and perhaps there are.

It is definitely a sui generis film, but I don't think it measures up to similar counterculture classics such as Hi, Mom! and You're A Big Boy Now. In acting parlance, it doesn't kill.


Ed Howard said...

Feiffer. Heh.

Anyway, I love him as both a screenwriter AND a cartoonist, in fact it's hard for me to pick if my favorite Feiffer work is Arkin's Little Murders or the Munro comic. The film is definitely over the top, and it's more a satire of an imagined possible apocalypse than it is of anything too closely related to actual reality. It's too crazed and wild to be a precise satire. But I find it absolutely irresistible in its bleak insanity, its spiraling into madness. The monologues are inspired, both Sutherland's hippie preacher and Lou Jacobi's portentous judge (who was later the model for Dave Sim's Judge character in his Cerebus comic). That's sharp, hilarious writing. I'd agree with you about the general staginess of the whole thing, but it doesn't bother me much when there's so much inspired lunacy going on in virtually every scene.

As for Carnal Knowledge, I see that as being developed directly from the Bernard and Huey characters in Feiffer's Village Voice strip. The take on romantic relationships and gender dynamics in the movie is straight out of Feiffer's comics. It's not as much dark fun as Little Murders, but it's very sharp satire and also very funny in its own bleak way.

And while we're on the topic of Feiffer as a screenwriter, what do you think of Altman's Popeye?

Deno Lao said...

See, I go mouthing off and completely forgot about Popeye, which I think is a work of genius, until the last third. Hmm...Feiffer does seem to have trouble with endings, doesn't he?

And thanks for not beating me up on the spelling, I'll fix it now.

Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who talks about the new collection of his comic strips from the Village Voice, Explainers, getting his start with Will Eisner on The Spirit, his plays (Little Murders), his movies (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye), the Disney musical adaptation of The Man in the Ceiling, and his forthcoming memoirs.