Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Films I Love #37: Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971)
Alan Arkin's adaptation of the Jules Feiffer play Little Murders is a harsh, acerbic masterwork, an unflinching satire of a society spiraling out of control. The film's main character, Alfred (Elliott Gould), is a spineless, neurotic photographer whose work consists almost entirely of photographs of dog shit: he walks around the city with his eyes continually pointed down, focusing his perspective on the sidewalk and the waste that stains it. This is, to him, the only rational reaction to a rotten world, at least until he meets the relentlessly cheery Patsy (Marcia Rodd), who rescues him from attackers in the opening scene and then becomes enraged when he simply wanders away, disinterested, leaving her to get assaulted herself. Naturally, it's the blossoming of a romance, mainly because Patsy just cannot countenance someone as bland and cynical as Alfred, so she makes him her latest "project," a hopeless guy who she can rehabilitate into enjoying life.
The film is structured like the theater piece it's based on, with little attempt to get beyond the stagebound nature of the play. Fortunately, this is some of Feiffer's strongest, angriest writing, and his set pieces and monologues are never less than stunning. An encounter with Patsy's family is especially hilarious, as Alfred is forced to cope with her leering, authoritarian father (Vincent Gardenia), her stereotypical unflappable 50s housewife mother (Elizabeth Wilson), and her creepy brother (Jon Korkes), with whom she shares a borderline incestual camaraderie. What's brilliant about these scenes is that Alfred's nihilism is presented as a fairly logical reaction to the insanity of this society, certainly more than the almost pathological optimism of Patsy, who reacts to even the complete trashing of her apartment with a kind of teeth-gritted determination to make the best of things. The film really soars, however, in a pair of lengthy monologues that take up a large portion of the middle section. The first of these is delivered by the pompous Judge Stern (Lou Jacobi), who harangues Patsy and Alfred with a rambling discourse on his hard life as the son of working class parents, and the importance of God in his life. When Jacobi's bellowing, hilarious oration proves too big for the small room where he's met the couple, he simply walks away to find a courtroom where, backed by a tremendous American flag, his rhetoric more comfortably fills the space. This scene is quickly followed by Patsy and Alfred's wedding, performed by an unconventional hippie reverend (Donald Sutherland), whose speech is inflected with a shrugging, anything-goes indifference to marriage, fidelity, divorce and drug use: this wedding ceremony acknowledges right up front the likelihood that it will all end in divorce. Later, Arkin himself appears in a cameo turn as a jittery, flinching police detective, while Patsy's family hunkers down behind steel shutters, driven mad, fending off society's collapse with a sniper rifle. This bleak — and bleakly funny — film is Feiffer's most uncompromising statement on societal disintegration, and Arkin's adaptation memorably translates this satire for the cinema.