Monday, July 14, 2014

Notes from 29.2: The King of Marvin Gardens

Dir: Bob Rafelson
Viewed From: The Couch

There are, at the least, a few benefits to being cheap, though these are almost never apparent at first, and almost never have anything to do with money. The benefits accrue at random, thrown up at you when you least expect it, and, usually, unless you pay very close attention to these things, go by without notice. The reason they go by without notice is that no one will ever tell you the benefits of not paying for something, because, unlike the many people who will tell you how great you are for paying for something, and stand to profit directly from that payment, there is no one to benefit from your not paying, except the cheapskate himself, and the cheapskate himself, even at his most self-aware, tends to think only of money while being cheap, and not the ancillary benefits.

And then comes something like Movies, a channel distributed most everywhere I think, but which comes into my home via a $30 antenna on channel 29.2 (a kind of absurd decimal, given that I have only ten or so channels), and provides about a dozen great movies a month (in addition to a host of curiosities), most I've not seen, at no cost. It exists I believe on cable, but is a major presence in my television life for the reason that I do not pay for cable, or have much in the way of internet service, and so therefore lean much more heavily on its offerings than your average 500-channel + Hulu/Netflix/Torrents viewer.There is advertising, of course, which, entertainingly in itself, tends to feature really second- and third-rate infomercials, but as the lead-in to each movie notes, the film is not edited to fit in these commercials, and is shown in its entirety, with curse words simply not heard, and Dateline-like blurry blobs obscuring the nudie bits (which really brings you back to being a kid and, in its own way, is actually more erotic than seeing the boob/butt/vagina up close). There is the freeness of this to like, of course, but also the spontaneous serendipity, which allows you to do more than discover something new, but to gratify your curiosity immediately, even if you've already missed the first ten minutes (which again, oddly, is somewhat pleasurable, though annoying in that these are always the longest ad-free segments).

This kind of thing happened the other day, when I flipped on 29.2 to see Jack Nicholson, out working the oil rigs with Elton (a character/name so memorable that this was the first thing my dad said when I mentioned seeing Five Easy Pieces on TV), and then patronizing Karen Black, whose first outfit in the film is her pink waitressing one, the one that rides absurdly high up her thigh as she flips Nicholson on his back onto her bed and climbs up on top. I hadn't seen the film in a while, and couldn't remember, exactly, why Nicholson was out here, playing cards, when I remembered the film mostly for the house in the Pacific northwest, with the pianos, the Andy Kauffman-like nurse who seduces Nicholson's crazy sister, and the road trip up there, with the two iconic scenes that really, at this point in my mind, are more individual shorts rather than scenes vital to the narrative: the chicken salad bit and the Helena Kallianiotes garbarge rant. How did he get out here? Did the movie ever explain why he left? Do you see more of Karen Black's thigh?

I watched the rest, trying to remember how the film began, and, checking the channel listing (a very cool feature of the digital broadcast signal which, in some ways, makes up for the loss that occurred when the analog was halted [why this is a loss is a whole story in itself, but basically boils down to the inability to fudge with the antena]), saw that Five Easy Pieces was being shown again in two hours. I could simply catch the repeat broadcast to see whether we start with Elton and Jack out on the fields, or if we're given more of a story. In between the end and beginning of Five Easy Pieces was The King of Marvin Gardens.

The King of Marvin Gardens is a film that has Nicholson in it as well, is directed by Rafelson, the director of Five Easy Pieces, and, as I learned from the promo shown between movies, features some great location shooting in pre-Casino Atlantic City. It showed Nicholson and Bruce Dern, running around on the beach, with some kind of fire going on. And it was shot by Lazlo Kovacs. I was going to watch this film.

It is, in my mind, a better film than Five Easy Pieces, though I'm willing to admit that had the roles been reversed, meaning had The King of Marvin Gardens been the much-referenced early highlight of Nicholson's career and the one I'd seen clips from a hundred times, and Five Easy Pieces had been an unknown, serendipitous find, I might be making the opposite argument. But I don't think so.

It is a daring film, daring to open with the charismatic star's face almost completely obscured, as Nicholson is seen up close, with glasses, while being only half-lighted, and telling the story of his own troubles with his father and grandfather. He's telling it into a microphone, as part of his improbable radio show called Etcetera, which seems like it could be an early version of Moth Radio Hour, but much more depressing and only focusing on one person's story (I have no idea whether there existed in the 70s commercial radio shows where one sad guy talks for an hour; if so, another reason to like that decade). It's a great story, one maybe not true, and it goes on for what seems an interminably long time. By the time we're through, we know that Nicholson's David Staebler (who is not at all stable, which that added 'e' reminds us) is one dour and depressed dude, with an almost complete inability to connect with anyone, especially his family (he lives with his Grandfather, who listens to David's shows and corrects the inaccuracies of the stories). To reinforce David's isolation, we then follow him down the dank stairway to the 34 Septa Trolley, which takes you from Center City out to West Philadelphia, and whose platforms are still pretty scary (it reminds me a bit of Harry Caul riding the San Fran trolleys in The Conversation [also recently on Movies]. Imagine Nicholson trying to be as repressed as Hackman, and you can get a great sense of how good a job he does. This is a movie to use when people accuse Nicholson of not being a real actor, but only playing versions of himself.

It's safe to say then that David is not The King of Marvin Gardens. That would be his brother Jason, played by Dern in full-on charm and mustache mode, who operates some scam or another in Atlantic City, and who finds himself in jail, needing David to bail him out. David agrees to tape his radio show, and hops on an Amtrack train to AC to help both his brother and, as we see, himself. I probably don't have to mention how good a duo Dern and Nicholson are, or how much freedom Rafelson gives them to perform. David opens up considerably when his charismatic brother is around. The two ride horses on the beach, scam some old ladies into buying used junk at an auction, and put on a fake Miss America pageant in the legendary Atlantic City Convention Hall. They also make plans to buy an island and set up a casino, even if David largely remains skeptical. It's a tremendous amount of fun to just watch them walk and talk on the AC boardwalk, even as we know the best laid plans will go nowhere (in part, due to the presence of bossman Lewis, played by Scatman Crothers, who worked with Nicholson in The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). This is Atlantic City before the legalization of casino's, but it's also the Atlantic City that needed the casinos to survive. It's winter, but the tram cars still run, and the scammers and dreamers are still around.

As good as these two are, however, about halfway through the movie, you realize a very different story has been going on. As David and Jason strut and drink around the city, they're joined by Sally and Jessica, two girls without much means who are seemingly content to hang around with the brothers Staebler for whatever excitement (and money) they provide (incidentally, cannot help wondering whether this kind of kept woman still exists, like Teri Garr in The Conversation or Ann-Margaret in The Cincinnati Kid). Sally is played by Ellen Burstyn and, while she is prominently featured in the posters and ads for the film, seems only a minor character in the beginning. Then she becomes Ellen Burstyn, and it can be an at times frightening thing to watch, as those wild eyes make you realize (if you're a man) that women contain multitudes upon multitudes, and that there is much more to Sally and Jessica than meets the eye. I was a tipped off that the movie was going beyond the brother's story by a scene about halfway through, when Sally and Jessie (Julia Anne Robinson) are discussing the fates of beautiful women as they age. It's a scene Alison Bechdel would have been proud of, as the two women intricately discuss aspects of their lives that are not related to men, and it sets up the harrowing conclusion to the film where the contradictions in all four of the character's lives are resolved in a single, tremendous, scene.

It's safe to say that Burstyn brings more of a complicated presence than Karen Black, and the fact that the film gives empathy equally across the characters (especially women) makes it superior to the myopia of Nicholson's Robert in Five Easy Pieces, from whom we get mostly the perception of the world from a single vantage point. Valid as it may have been, the narcissism of Robert (who constantly asks: Who am I?) feeds back into the most common criticism of Five Easy Pieces, or of Easy Rider, about the selfishness of the late 60s generation. The easy targets of the Dupea siblings Lois and Carl, to say nothing of the poor waitress who is just trying to get through a tough day without some petty jerk telling her how to do her job, are replaced by much more broadly conceived characters. We never think that Carl might be right to live a fairly dull bourgeois life teaching Piano, or that the waitress might be right to insist on the the 'No Substitutions' policy, but viewers of The King of Marvin Gardens may justly wonder whether it is David's resigned gloominess, Jason's irrational enthusiasm, or Sally's repressed violence that is the most appropriate response to the crumbling of the American Dream.

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