Viewed From: The Couch
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).
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.
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'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.