Little Murders August 10, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , trackback
My enthusiastic suspicions have now been confirmed. Elliott Gould is, forever and always, one cool cat. I caught the Gouldness sometime after seeing California Split and The Long Goodbye in fairly close succession - amazed, humbled, and envious at every turn. Gould may not necessarily have been the best actor or movie star of the 1970s, but I do believe he came to epitomize the decade. Time magazine famously labeled him “Star for an Uptight Age,” a moniker borrowed by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Cinematek series dedicated to the actor. It fit way back then, even before anyone could have possibly put the laurel in perspective, and it certainly fits now. He’s never been Redford, Pacino, Hackman, Hoffman, De Niro, or Nicholson, but Elliott Gould, if you really think about it, probably represents both America and Hollywood in the ’70s better than his more popular, longer lasting peers. His films and performances remain as snapshots of the era, owing completely to that decade and unimaginable elsewhere. Gould’s neurotic comfort, knowing everything is messed up but not really caring, is the ultimate symbol of a time possibly invented in our own heads.
Gould has been all over the local New York papers in the last week or so, making for his second time in the sun in as many years. It was just April of 2007, coinciding with a run of The Long Goodbye at Film Forum, when he was treated to a Village Voice cover story, one that apparently was incorrect in stating Gould hadn’t seen an Ingmar Bergman film prior to working with the Swedish director on The Touch. Of some interest, that picture is being screened in the actor’s personal print on August 21st at BAM, and I hope to finally be able to see it. Just prior to Gould’s Scandinavian trek, he made the film version of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders, screened for the occasion and followed by a question and answer session with its star. Though the film is on DVD from Fox, I’d never seen it and the disc is now out of print, fetching large sums of money if you can even find it. (Why do DVDs go out of print again?) I’m disappointed to be missing out on a commentary with Gould and Feiffer, though rental may still be an option.
The new 35 mm print, struck by Fox especially for this occasion, looked beautifully ’70s, complete with the inherent grain that repertory mavens love. As I was new to the film, and generally don’t read much on movies I’ve not seen, my impressions were muddled. It’s deeply, darkly satiric, especially in the final portion, which resembles Buñuel more than any American film I can think of right now. There’s also a superbly daring element to the movie. It’s difficult trying to imagine the majority of viewers now, much less then, appreciating how dry some of the bits are. Gould’s character steps onto a crowded New York City subway car, covered in blood against his white clothes, and no one reacts. Jaded apathy to a fault.
In thinking back on the film now, I’m most struck not by the Buñuellian aspects, since I find a lot of those flat even in Buñuel’s tries, but the other, more reflective element. The particular scene that especially stands out is when Gould’s character Alfred, a nihilist photographer incapable of feelings and married as a challenge by a woman desperately trying to mold him, unfolds this long monologue about his younger days. He sort of became an activist and was monitored by the government, which lead to a guy reading his mail every day. After Alfred realized this, he decided to write letters to the surveillance man. The scene details this experience and it’s absolutely stunning, both in writing and performance. Gould, in great contrast to his Altman characters, is mostly quiet in the film and hearing him deliberately recount the situation makes for a brilliant scene. It truly ranks with the actor’s finer pieces captured on film. Just absurdly good.
This fusion of thick satire with more introspective cultural surveying leads Little Murders all over the place. The result is a slash and burn of American society, unleashed often without warning. Few films could be called uneven as a compliment, but this is probably one of them. Familiar faces come out of nowhere, likely owing to the picture’s stage origins. Alan Arkin appears briefly (and hilariously) as a disheveled police lieutenant working on 345 unsolved murders in the last 6 months. Vincent Gardenia gives a mammoth performance. Marcia Rodd, an actress I’m unfamiliar with and someone who doesn’t have a lot of film credits, is second-billed and also effective. In addition to Arkin’s short turn, Lou Jacobi and Donald Sutherland pop up in similarly gut-busting scenes. Calling them cameos would be almost disrespectful. The guy who perhaps steals the film out from under everyone is Jon Korkes, whose name and face I didn’t know. He was present tonight, too, and a quick peek at IMDb reveals nothing as substantial as his turn in this film. He’s entirely loony as Rodd’s brother, drawing laughs at every opportunity.
Arkin also ended up in the director’s seat. He actually has a few directing credits, but I’ve not seen any of the others. I can say, with confidence, that Little Murders is well-made, and not just competently done. Gordon Willis undoubtedly deserves some of the credit, as well. He’s near the top of my favorite cinematographers and his work here is typically excellent. Michael Chapman, who went on to shoot Taxi Driver and others, is credited as the film’s camera operator. So while it may seem that this was a low-budget kind of movie, the talent was undeniably there. Actually, from listening to Gould after the screening, I suspect he too had some input, and he did serve as a producer on the film. The Broadway version of Feiffer’s play, with Gould starring, only lasted a week, though it was more successful off-Broadway.
The original idea was for Jean-Luc Godard to direct, which would have obviously changed absolutely everything. Godard never directed anything in Hollywood or English so one can only imagine how different the film might have been. Gould wrote to the French director and got a response, which lead to a meeting in New York. As he told it this evening, Gould talked with Godard in New York about making the picture, but it never really went anywhere. He remembered walking with Godard down 57th Street, past Carnegie Hall, and realizing the collaboration wasn’t going to happen. “If my wife and child ask me to tell them I love them,” Gould recollected Godard saying, “I tell them to go fuck themselves.”
I went in blind to the film and that was probably for the best. It’s certainly quite different than Feiffer’s Carnal Knowledge screenplay. You don’t know what to really laugh at or where to wince, etc. (though my audience was like a readymade laugh track at all times). The film can be overwhelming in its absurdity. I’m sometimes at a loss with that type of satire, finding it difficult to completely determine what exactly is being laughed at and whether the punch lines are as much on the audience as the target. Gould’s character here exhibits no emotion. We first see him as a photographer getting beaten up with a boxer’s mouthpiece affixed, simply waiting for his attackers to become tired. In some sense, his apathy is refreshing. Not everyone should live and die by emotion so how about exploring the even-keel guy. I’m not entirely sure this is fully rendered, but there’s so much thrown up in the film that you can hardly expect anything to really feel complete. Its charms are there for the picking, wholly without regard to convention.
Thought it now seems somewhat dated in its muted anger, Little Murders is still refreshing. A reminder that studios once did make films catered far, far away from the mainstream. It’s more than just a time capsule, and the film actually seems prescient now, tame in everything except its climactic absurdity. I wish we still had working writers like Jules Feiffer, those who were content with staying within the lines of the ridiculous components of satire and who could produce somewhat ordered insanity that, in turn, meant something more than half-hearted diatribes lacking any real bite. Gould is probably a one of a kind so I suppose I’ll accept what too few performances there are of his that really matter. In a decade when every other actor wanted to be like Brando, Gould seemed to want to just be himself, whoever that was.
The session that followed the film screening saw the actor drop plenty of names, including a mention that Sam Peckinpah wanted him as the lead in Straw Dogs. “Can you read between the lines?” the director asked. Gould responded, “I live between the lines,” as he expressed hesitancy at mixing his methods of working and living. A sly reference to poker games with Sidney Poitier at the Belafontes was also thrown in, though not really as a boast. Listening to him or reading his interviews, it becomes apparent that Elliott Gould is a supremely interesting and genuine guy.
He would start off answering people’s questions from a seemingly unrelated point, only to come full circle for an appropriate, well-considered and frequently candid response. If there’s any one thing I took away from it all, it’s probably that he comes across as someone who’s spent many, many hours in search of some form of introspection. A quick judgment might even brand Gould as a bit of a flake, but I don’t think that’s a particularly fair conclusion. No one could have imagined him as an essential movie star of the seventies. The fact that that actually happened, and that it didn’t last, must’ve taken a toll on him. To come to terms with it all, making peace with your temporary spot in the firmament, seems admirable.