Movies: More Sad Young Men

STOLEN KISSES directed by Francois Truffaut Lopert Pictures

Can a sensitive young man from a middle-class background find happiness in a corrupt society that is eager to sully his purity with wealth, fame, comfort, and fancy women?

This rhetorical soap-opera question (the answer is almost always a resounding NO) has served as one of the most popular themes in Western literature, from Stendhal to Salinger, from Joyce to Allen Ginsberg. It is hard to think of any modern writer who has managed to resist it.

The story is always being retold, and sometimes an especially popular version produces a whole school of imitations. The success of The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, gave rise to a higher-than-average production of sensitive-young-adolescent novels told in the first person; and now, the box-office triumph of The Graduate seems to have spawned an outpouring of new movies about sensitive young men Facing Life.

Of the batch of these post-Omduate movies I have seen in the past few months, by far the most pleasant, unpretentious, and entertaining is Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses. Truffaut seems to have taken the basic Graduate story but set it in Paris and worked it out as it might happen in French, rather than American, society. The young hero (played with wit and understatement by JeanPierre Léaud, who as a boy was the star of Truffaut’s Tour Hundred Blows) has just been dismissed from the army as unsuitable material and goes off in search of his life as the film begins. He lives in a room in Paris, takes several jobs, is seduced by the middle-aged wife of the boss, and ends up going back to his young sweetheart.

Despite the similarity of these ingredients to the American Graduate, the French story, as rendered by Truffaut, is not nearly so hyperdramatic. Rather than going for some deep social commentary, the movie is content to tell a touching, sometimes humorous story with grace and charm—like some of the young-love stories of Turgenev.

The pace of the production is relaxed, and what a relief that is after the increasing assault on the senses of the nerve-jangling juxtajiositions, explosions of color, and sudden cuts to the next scene or symbol of the fashionable style that hyped up The Graduate and reached a brain-busting peak in Petulia. Stolen Kisses is one of the few non Excedrin movies of recent months, and I, for one, am grateful for it.

Just as Truffaut refrains from shattering us visually, he also gives us a little emotional breathing space by presenting an honest, charming story that does not pretend to probe great psychological or social depths. It’s as if he were saying of his subject, “Look, this is a nice young man, and he’s having his problems, and let’s be interested and sympathetic, but let’s not treat them like Greek tragedy. There’ve been other young men like this. There’ll be more. Let’s not do them the disservice of regarding each one’s growing pains as the Second Coming.”

My apologies to M. Truffaut for putting words in his mouth out of my own head, but that is what came across to me through the quiet, admirably suited tone of this fine and lovely film.

GOODBYE, COLUMBUS directed by Larry Peerce Paramount

I was especially eager to see the movie of Goodbye, Columbus, since the novella by Philip Roth was the funniest and most original Graduate-type story of my own graduate era in the late fifties. That was the long-gone age of Eisenhower and the bad guy McCarthy, when people worried about fallout instead of dropouts, and the youth, like the Negroes, still “knew their place.” To retain that setting would, of course, have made the movie a period piece, as remote from the Now as Gone With the Wind or Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but in a way I wish the producers had been brave enough to do it that way. If nothing else, it would have shown the current disaffected youth that we had our own anguish back then, too, were troubled by war and big business and phoniness, and many of us were sensitive as hell.

The people who made the movie shunned this historical approach, however, anti brought the music and fashions and topical dialogue right up to date. The trickiest piece of updating had to do with the fact that the plot of the story revolved around the heroine’s getting a diaphragm. You see, gang, it may be hard to believe, but way back then there wasn’t any pill, and couples who didn’t want to make babies had to rely on this sort of medieval device. (Talk about your anguish!) Well, the movie script has a whole explanatory passage about why this particular girl is allergic to the pill and had suffered bad side effects from taking it, so that’s why the whole business about this diaphragm tiling came up.

The story concerns a young Jewish guy who is out of college and the army, doesn’t know what to do with his life, and is staying honest and neutral by working in a public library in Newark. He meets Brenda Patimkin, the Radcliffe daughter of an upward-mobile Jewish family, and has a summer affair that is nice arid painful, and also, in the story by Roth, hilarious. What’s missing in the movie is the hilarity. Richard Benjamin plays the young man like a carbon copy of Dustin Hoffman’s graduate—straight-faced, cool, unemotional, deadpan. Compared with that guy, Roth’s hero was a veritable Rabelais, and I kept wishing he would appear and give us some laughs. The only funny performance is by Michael Meyer as Brenda’s jock brother, a big, gregarious, simpleminded, good-hearted lug who has exactly the right moves of the athlete— shoulder rolling. ass-slapping, gum-chewing—all down pat.

The movie’s most strained and mighty effort to catch the Rabelaisian quality of the novella is a Jewish wedding scene that will hopefully end all Jewish wedding scenes. It carries vulgarity right through the boredom barrier, and then heaps it on for another twenty minutes or so. Real fun shots of fat ladies’ breasts drooping from their dresses into the bowls of food, things like that. The style of the direction and editing, clone in the flashy manner mentioned earlier, is a pretentious imitation of all that is now fashionable.

CHANGES directed by Hall Bartlett Cinerama

Pretentiousness is carried to new frontiers, however, by a widely hailed youth movie called Changes, which supposedly breaks all the rules of Hollywood and is very uncompromising. That means there isn’t any plot.

The young hero (an unknown, like most of the cast, and rightly so) is blond, innocuous, handsome, lazy, self-pitying, and intellectually pretentious. His parents don’t understand him. He suffers. He won’t go off with his childhood sweetheart, and so she commits suicide by walking into a scenic ocean. Well, Virginia Woolf did that a long time ago, but she wrote some good books first. The young man smashes up his car, drives in a stock-car race, hitchhikes around the land. He thinks this is a great country, but it hasn’t yet realized its potential. He wants to get to know the country, see its possibilities. For a while there I thought he was about to join Moral Rearmament, but just in the nick of time he shacks up with a sexy wench who works in a carnival. He leaves her, too, but sends her the complete works of Thoreau. Don’t knock it— when he went into the bookstore I figured he would go for The Prophet or Are You Running With Me, Jesus? He hitches a ride with a Negro who has a nice car and turns the radio to music when there is news about a black-power rally. All men are brothers. And to all a good night. The movie finishes with the young man walking over a bridge, while the voices of Hitler, Churchill, and other World War II figures are heard. Momentous.

When I walked out into the blessed daylight after an hour and a half or so of watching the plight of that young chap, I found myself singing:

Where have you gone,
Stephen Daedalus,
Our culture turns its lonely eyes to you . . .
Hoo hoo hoo.