A strange, ringing tinnitus sound in the subway. A man, his shirt and face spattered profusely with blood, shambles in catatonic stupor up the stairs. Another man, blood gouting from a wound in his brow, staggers down the stairs. These men have something in common, but because of that very something, they do not notice each other.
Jules Feiffer, cartoonist, playwright, author and illustrator, is so multi-talented and so refined and brilliant in each of his talents that it's perversely easy to underrate him. For instance, as screenwriter of Mike Nichols' film Carnal Knowledge and Robert Altman's film Popeye, his work brackets the celebrated New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. Add to that one screenplay for Alain Resnais (I Want to Go Home, 1989) and 1971's disturbing family comedy Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin, and Feiffer's contribution to cinema becomes a small but vital one.
Of course, billed as Jules Feiffer's Little Murders, this film sits oddly amid the American cinema of its era: a writer's film. And Alan Arkin, while dabbling in filmmaking every so often, has not built up a reputation in that field to match the acclaim he has rightly earned as an actor. And in terms of the movie's cinematic language, credit must be given to cinematographer Gordon Willis, fresh from Hal Ashby's The Landlord but with Klute, The Godfather, All the President's Men and Annie Hall still to come—the man who would do perhaps more than anyone else to define the look of American film in that era.
Feiffer is known as a satirist, and Little Murders was sold as a "terrifying comedy," and somewhere between these terms the film can be located. The subject is urban alienation and the breakdown of society, random violence and the disintegration of the personality. And love. For all its grotesque exaggeration and surrealism, it has, at least some of the time, a direct truthfulness and insight, as in the following speech, which contains, it seems to me, a momentous insight:
"Those guys in the park, they said 'Hey, fatface! What are you staring at?' If I told them I wasn't staring at them, they would've beat me up for being a liar. And if I told them I was staring at them because I wanted to take their picture, then they'd beat me up for being a cop. So I told them I was staring at them because they looked familiar, and they beat me up for being a fag. There's no way of talking someone out of beating you up if that's what he wants to do."
The speaker is Elliott Gould, playing Alfred Chamberlain, who photographs shit (literally: he photographs shit) and wins awards for it. He accepts the beatings he regularly receives while taking his pictures, daydreaming and humming through them so it doesn't hurt. He's not a pacifist. "I'm an apathist." Perhaps his surname derives from the great appeaser of WWII.
Gould, who achieves a level of utter passivity unseen since pictures first started to move, also acted as producer. An early attempt to attract Jean-Luc Godard as director foundered when Gould asked Godard to attend meetings. "When my wife and my son ask me to tell them I love them," responded the great auteur, "I tell them to go fuck themselves." (The fact that Godard has no children may cast some doubt on this anecdote.) Nevertheless, some of JLG's chromatic patterns, those flat stencil-printed slabs of primary color, adrift against white walls, find their way into the picture.
Opposite Gould is Marcia Rodd, as unknown then as she is today, but an excellent actress, opposing Gould's empty nihilism with positive go-ahead American spunk. Feiffer relates her to JFK, and to the American ideal. It's an oddly conservative satire, in some ways: Feiffer sees the collapse of faith in social institutions such as the church, government and law enforcement as threatening, and his "little murders" are the crimes which erode our confidence in ourselves as social beings. So it's a touch conservative, but terribly humane.
Like many a woman in the world surrounding and invading this film, Rodd wants to transform her lover, to make him over, to mould Gould. But this is romantic comedy staged amid the collapse of modern civilization, so the plan is derailed, with violent abruption, and Gould is forced to carry on Rodd's American go-getting philosophy without her guidance, to be worthy of her. The results are grotesque indeed. Can a killing spree really be a way of reaching out? Can it bring a family together? Feiffer has engineered a heartwarming resolution that has the power to seriously creep a person out.
The film's story world, which starts off-kilter, with Gould as its most extreme oddity, gradually comes adrift from "reality", aided by the actors playing Rodd's family (the apoplexy of Vincent Gardenia, the denial-denial-denial of Elizabeth Wilson, the peevish hysteria of Jon Korkes) and by a trio of exuberant cameo players, who basically wrest the wheel from the dependable Rodd and steer us ever deeper into waters both kook-infested and blood-dimmed. The nightmare destination can be intermittently glimpsed, as if through a haze or stupor, until all at once it is falling upon us and nothing will ever be alright. Our pilots on this voyage:
1) The great, recently departed Lou Jacobi, as the judge who refuses to perform Gould and Rodd's wedding without any mention of God, is another explosives expert, like Gardenia, but even producing bigger bangs. You need reinforced sprocket holes with an actor like this in your film. Feiffer describes his character as the embodiment of the older generation, who will not stop telling the younger generation about how they had to struggle. And the information has become meaningless. For all the brilliantly written monologues transposed from the play, hardly anybody in the film communicates anything to anybody.
2) Donald Sutherland, as the hippy priest who agrees to perform the wedding without any mention of God, goes for a gentler style of acting, but with a very strange voice. Possibly the funniest Sutherland has ever been, embodying an anything-goes ethos which urges the acceptance of absolutely anything as "part of life."
3) Alan Arkin himself, as a homicide detective in a state of complete mental collapse, guides us towards the third act resolution, or dissolution. By the time he appears, the family is under siege behind steel shutters: society is in meltdown, bullets fly everywhere. Feiffer's exaggeration is more psychologically accurate than satirically barbed: when violence strikes, the world becomes a crime scene. Police sirens which were once background noise become piercing omens of doom, each the aural signpost of an actual incident, pulsing with actual pain and blood. So when Arkin opens a tiny hatch in the steel blind and a single bullet immediately shatters his glass of milk and whisky, it pinpoints the paranoiac mania animating his crazed features.
Is Arkin as good a director as he is an actor? He's made kind of a perfect film here. And a film good enough to prompt no less a personage than Jean Renoir to write to him, saying, "This film will never be forgotten."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.