Friday, February 1, 2008

Little Murders

Dir. Alan Arkin

Viewed: From the Couch

I thought I was pretty informed on my dark comedies from the '70s. Especially those featuring Elliott Gould and/or Donald Sutherland. So it was with much curiosity that I dropped Little Murders into my queue and saw to it that it quickly (in terms of my Netflix queue) rose from 400 something to the top. This happened after it got plugged by Bill Hader in an interview I saw. What can I say -- I take my recommendations from anywhere -- but when they're in the form of, "Have you seen the first feature length movie Alan Arkin directed? It's this really crazy dark comedy with Elliott Gould," say no more.

I wish I could praise this movie to the mountain tops, and I will to a certain point, but it certainly isn't for everyone, probably not for most people, and more than a little tough to get through. Yet, I highly recommend it. Not only was this movie made in 1971 with major Hollywood talent, it's still off the wall crazy by today's standards and I'd say it's still ahead of it's time over 35 years later. The themes of the film are still as ripe as ever such as people getting into relationships with the idea of changing the other person. While the fact that it's based off a play can make it a bit stagey and dialog/monologue heavy, Arkin does a fine job of shooting it in a cinematic fashion.

The story is about the peculiar romance of Alfred (Elliott Gould) and Patsy (Marcia Rodd). They meet and fall for each other after Patsy breaks up a gang of delinquents that are pummeling Alfred outside her apartment building. It's not so much that four teenagers are beating up one man but that the annoying sounds of a pummeling can really get in the way of sleeping in. Alfred's lack of gratitude intrigues Patsy ("Are you really so down on people or are you just being fashionable?") and after finding out that Alfred is in fact a very curious photographer they begin a courtship and he's eventually led to a diner with her parents. This is a scene to rival Buffalo '66 in terms of awkwardness and Gould's apathy and nonchalance about it all is beautiful. The electricity in her parent's apartment is going on and off with hardly anyone pay it attention, her father -- a never younger Vincent Gardinia -- only knows the setting "boisterous", her teenage brother still likes to wrestle with Patsy and dip into her wardrobe, while the mother calmly puts up with it all until she gets that same heavy breathing phone call that Patsy gets and recounts the tearful tale of the other brother of the family that got shot down in the street by a sniper that is still on the loose.

This doesn't stop the young couple from getting hitched -- as long as God keeps his mitts off the proceedings. Enter Donald Sutherland as the hip padre who's ok with God not getting involved. In fact he's ok with pretty much everything and anything. His monologue is one for the ages and the rest of the wedding is one of those great 70's anarchic montages. Patsy's parent's certainly don't appreciate God being left out of the ceremony and things pretty much end up in a small riot but the main problem ends up being Alfred's unemotional response to all of this and life in general. Which leads Patsy to ask, where are his parents? What did they do to him -- if anything? In a scene that plays like a presaging of Regan's testimony in the Iran-Contra Affair, Alfred gets sent to his parents with a tape recorder and a list of questions.

At this point you might be wondering why the movie is called Little Murders. Good question. But I'm not going to answer that one for you. If you rent the movie you'll find Elliott Gould covered in blood on the dvd's main menu -- but even this is misleading. I'd be spoiling the movie if I gave away the title. Yes, it's a bleak ending to a black comedy. But it's one that perfectly wraps up something you're thinking is impossible to wrap up. And it's certainly one that leaves you thinking about what it is you just watched. Is it a happy ending? No (though it is funny in a feel bad kinda way). But is it completely misanthropic? I don't think so. The loss of life clearly affects this family in a bad bad way, leaving them in a shell-shocked state. What's the answer, how will this family be able to move on? Well, it isn't a visit from Dr. Phil.

It's one of the reasons some people might not like it. It confronts you to look for answers to questions about the dark parts of humanity. It presents an unthinkable solution, but then what would you do?

There's hardly any discussion about Little Murders out there. If you've seen it, drop a line at RFC, it's been months and I'm still kicking this guy around in my head.

So you don't want God in your ceremony, eh? The look on Gould's face almost trumps the amazing monologue.

Donald Sutherland knocks one out of the park.

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