New York Blues


by David Denby

directed by John G. Avildsen
Cannon Group
directed by Frank Perry
Universal Pictures
“So much of ‘official’ American culture has been cheaply optimistic that we are likely almost by reflex to take pessimism as a measure of seriousness.” This observation was made by Robert Warshow in 1952 when almost every movie ended in a burst of affirmation. Now that for the first time the mainstream of American movie-making has turned toward a pessimistic view of American life, it is still true as a description of the common response; the audience is generally respectful before a movie that presents a “negative” image of American society, criticizes an institution like the Army, or dissects a hopeless marriage. (Generally, but not always. A healthy minority of the audience and critics have been complaining steadily about such stupidly conceived or even incoherent “serious” movies as Medium Cool, Zabriskie Point, and Catch-22.) Perhaps we shall eventually arrive at the common-sense position that pessimistic movies can be as false (or as true) in as many ways as optimistic ones, but we are not there yet: two of the most harshly unpleasant movies of the summer, Joe and Diary of a Mad Housewife, both set in New York, received many rave reviews and became box-office hits, beneficiaries of the reflex that Warshow was describing. I don’t think either of these movies is “serious,” if we mean to convey by that word the quality of movie art.
In New York, which always seems on the verge of some unspeakable breakdown, and where the daily routines can take on the aspect of a bitter struggle, movies like these make contact with a rather large, cynical section of the population that prides itself on living totally without illusions. In these abrasive pictures, almost everyone speaks brutally to everyone else, and the human relationships are corrupt. The characters may be as depressing as stale subway air, but when they admit that their lives are terrible, the audience chuckles, and the pessimism and defeat become almost comforting.
Joe employs the structure of standard melodrama, but the men who made it are too hip and knowing to balance out good against evil in the old-fashioned way. In this sordid shocker the characters represent opposing forces and values which are all criminally corrupt and evil. The good has been completely dropped out, and the result is some kind of savage melodrama of the future, without romance or beauty. Yet the movie certainly isn’t trash; the details are too carefully worked out, the general level of awareness too high; it’s as if the editors of Esquire had labored over a story from The National Enquirer.
The original screenplay by playwright Norman Wexler brings together a $60,000-a-year advertising man and a $160-a-week factory worker in a murderous compact against what they perceive as the common enemy: hippies. The relationship begins in a bar when the executive (named Bill Compton) inadvertently reveals to a bigoted drunk (Joe) that in a fit of rage he has murdered his daughter’s lover, a hippie drug-dealer. Joe is intrigued and openly admiring: he loathes hippies himself (also “niggers”) but has never “done anything” about them; he pursues Compton and the two become friends, male solidarity triumphing over social differences. Together they scour New York’s East Village for Compton’s runaway daughter; stumbling around in restaurants and stores whose services are an utter mystery to them, they are finally picked up by a group of predatory hippies who turn them on, offer them girls, and rob them. They track the kids to a commune upstate, and, with guns from Joe’s “well-balanced” collection, massacre the entire commune, innocent and guilty alike—including, by accident, Compton’s daughter. At the end of several showings in New York young people were heard shouting, “Next time we’ll shoot back, Joe!”
Almost any movie with something going for it generates goodwill, but the skill of a malicious rabble-rouser like Joe is actually dismaying. It was made on a $300,000 budget by the Cannon Group, an independent film company in New York run by men in their mid-twenties who have carved out a commercial niche for their firm with Swedish erotica. These men know how to spend money without waste. The actors, selected rather crudely for physical type, are practically unknown, and director John G. Avildsen (who used to make nudies) did the location photography himself. His work as a photographer is business-like and plain; I admired the way he captured the particular decor of places like Compton’s office, the dealer’s pad, and Joe’s home in Queens, without restlessly panning into every corner. After so many movies with jumbled time sequences, it’s pleasurable to be reminded of how efficient chronological sequence can be for building suspense. Considered strictly as narrative, the story is well told.
Joe is an attempted parable of the Nixon-Agnew constituency: it proposes a class collaboration between the upper and lower reaches of the silent majority, a collaboration sustained not for economic reasons, but to protect basic social forms and ward off psychic panic. Avildsen and Wexler almost make this heavily thematic relationship plausible (and also avoid obvious sentimentality) by showing how deep the class differences go in matters of furniture, food, social style, and speech patterns, how really awkward and difficult it is for Joe and his wife to talk to Compton and his wife, and vice versa. Very few American films have been so thoroughly candid and nastily intelligent about class.
Unfortunately, Avildsen and Wexler haven’t the generosity of mind to go with their daring. They gleefully combine odd elements—upper and lower class, straight and hip—to see how large an explosion they can produce.
Their intention is to condemn these adults: they are lousy parents and hypocrites as well, obsessively fascinated by the life-style which is threatening to take their children’s allegiance away from them. The two men hate hippies because they can’t have the freedoms—drugs and screwing— that the kids have. Psychological formulas substitute for any fuller sense of humanity. Even Compton’s love for his daughter is shown as sick—a repressed sexual desire that he represents to himself as parental solicitude.
The hippies on their part are merely vicious. The daughter’s lover, a junkie parasite, is perhaps the vilest character in recent American films, and Avildsen stages his death as the slaughter of a repulsive animal. Thus we are shown that the older people may have good reason to worry about their kids or dislike hippies, but even this concession to fairness has its opportunistic purpose: in the flat confrontation between hung-up adults and loathsome youth, Avildsen exaggerates what each group finds hateful in the other, a device which allows him to extend cultural and generational hostility into a mass murder.
It’s true that Godard also went all the way in sections of Weekend, and I wouldn’t make any great case for his humanity, only for his art. Working in the style of surreal farce, Godard’s exhilaratingly free imagination raised the conflicts to the level of visionary metaphor. The depredations of Weekend were witty, the liberation from questions of motivation and consistency a triumph of style. But in Joe we are stuck on the grinding plane of melodrama, where we notice the contrivances and shifts that set up the sensational denouement.
Joe is too undeveloped and crude to be considered a success as a political film, and since the film-makers also handle the human conflicts crassly, failing to open their subject to any emotion but horror, I finally concluded that the picture was an example of hip Schadenfreude, a big joke at the expense of crazy America. Putting some feeling into a movie may expose one to the risk of absurdity, of being square, but who wants to see many movies as cold as this one? Last year’s low-life chronicle, Midnight Cowboy, had some gratuitous and even decorative bits of sordidness, but the movie generated warmth in the friendship of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight—a suggestion of what might emerge from the general demoralization if given the chance. As a character Joe is that recurrent liberal nightmare, the American as vigilante, a compound of ranting obsession, menace, and obscenity. He used to turn up in secondary roles as a Terry Southern parody, but now he walks center stage with such lines as “Fucking hippies— I’d like to kill one.” Yet because Joe is free to use the obscenity that audiences love to hear, because as a character in a movie he’s rather entertaining, audience sympathy stays with him most of the time. At the gut level of existence his complaints are occasionally funny and eloquent, and when his obscenity cuts through the phony, condescending solicitude of Compton’s wife, we are supposed to find him admirable.
In combination with the spineless Compton, whose character is so smooth it seems all but worn away, Joe is a powerful force, ruling the older and wealthier man at every point of difference (the script suggests that Compton’s flabbiness is exactly what allows him to succeed in advertising). Unfortunately, the acting overemphasizes the character traits. I was not bowled over by Peter Boyle as Joe; nevertheless, the performance is so busy and detailed— with wolfish grins, burps, and pursed lips a la Brando—that Boyle easily dominates every scene with Dennis Patrick, who looks right for the part of Compton (silver hair and tanned, sagging flesh) but delivers his lines with dull soap-operatic pauses and low “confidential” tones. Impatience with Patrick as an actor grows so great that one longs for Joe to do something to move the scene along. For many reasons, then, Joe comes close to being a hero; when we are suddenly forced to see hint as a hopeless psychopath, it seems a cheat, an arbitrary betrayal of our moderate affection for him and our sense of what he is.
Of course the real purpose of that final slaughter may have nothing to do with Joe’s character or anything else in the movie. Since the victims include Compton’s daughter, I suppose one could extract some kind of unconvincing irony about violence always hurting oneself in the end, but I really think the scene refers to something outside the film. Joe was the second picture of the summer to end with multiple murders in a house (the other was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Once something like the Tate murders happens, and is constantly being discussed and written about to the point where it becomes a mass public obsession, the subject becomes “possible” for the movies. No matter how repulsive the event, film-makers are willing to take a crack at what the audience has been unreeling over and over in its mind.

They still think dirty at the Cannon Group. For many reasons—incoherence, moral and emotional obtuseness, opportunism—Joe qualifies as a part of the social pathology it appears to condemn.

The troubled characters of Joe and Diary of a Mad Housewife haven’t been allowed the freedom, largeness, and strength that would make their failures count for very much or really move us. Failure seems to be one of their identifying characteristics, an element in their makeup as representative social types. As people with hangups, they have been created for an audience that knows all about them in advance, an audience drenched in movies, plays, television, and the heavily psychological and sociological magazine journalism of the sixties. When this audience applauds the “reality” of such characters, what it really appreciates is the thoroughness of its education in mass culture, an education that extends even to the way people in each social group may be self-deceived or disturbed. The representative mental problems very easily get absorbed into the stereotype. A knowing audience should liberate film-makers from having to explain everything, but not from the task of creating complex human beings. Without such people in our movies, there’s hardly a chance of art, and our pessimism is sure to be trivial and shallow.
Diary of a Mad Housewife is the sixth film by Frank and Eleanor Perry. (She writes, he directs. Their films include David and Lisa, The Swimmer, and Last Summer.) This one is a mixture of the sufferingwomen pictures of the forties, ladies’ magazine fiction from any time, and television-style satire from today. It looks as though all you have to do is give this kind of material some contemporary reference and put in a little rough bedroom talk, and people will carry on as if the definitive statement about marriage in our time has been made. As always, the Perrys imprison their people in a kind of brutally reductive psychology; three infantile adults flounder about within the narrow confines of their problems, and the audience can alternately pity or sneer at all of them.
The housewife in the incomprehensible title (she’s neither angry nor crazy), played by newcomer Carrie Snodgress in her husky June Allyson voice, is unhappily married to a fatuous egotist—a social-climbing, name-dropping lawyer (Richard Benjamin); in desperation, she starts an affair with a “brilliant” young novelist (Frank Langella), but he also treats her badly, shuttling her in and out with other girls, until she finally informs him that he has been putting on a show of virility because actually he’s “a fag.” (“Right on!” a woman behind me shouted.) This “insight” comes out of nowhere and connects with nothing—a cocktail-party putdown which nevertheless carries great weight in Perryland, where unusual success with women is apparently a presumption of homosexuality.
Meaningless as the line is, it completes the fantasy of the much-abused woman who has been frustrated and cheated in every area of life; for her, even her lover is a fake. But if the Perrys are going to be so tough with everyone, why don’t they examine the housewife, too? We never do understand why she allows everyone to bully her (including the dogs!), and it’s embarrassing to be required to sympathize with an intelligent but helpless rich woman. Clearly the movie has been made for the same upper-middle-class people who are the subjects of the movie: who else would be impressed with the terrible misfortune of having an uppity Negro servant and a sloppy handyman to help the housewife-victim maintain a luxury eight-room apartment? The Perrys seem to be calling for her liberation, but oddly enough, only the worst sort of male chauvinist would be tenderly solicitous about such a mousy, uninteresting woman.
Through the Richard Benjamin character the Perrys try to satirize the type of fashionable, ambitious fake who hasn’t an idea of what he should really be doing with his life, but when Benjamin rattles off ten fancy labels in a row or haggles with a waiter over wines, he just looks like an ass. The element of self-consciousness and control which allows such men to become eminently successful in impressing other people is completely missing. As an actor, Benjamin makes his voice so heavily false that he seems to be signaling us with his distaste for the man he is playing so we won’t confuse him with the part. When it turns out that he has lost all his money in imprudent investments (contrary to everything we’ve heard about his abilities), the trivialization of the character is complete. By artificially cutting him down to a pathetic near-bankrupt, the Perrys allow all those Richard Benjamin types who are rushing to line up for the movie since it became a topic of fashionable conversation to conclude that the main thing wrong with their double is that he tried to move up before he was ready.