On Fracturing the Funny Bone

by David Denby
directed by Alan Arkin
Twentieth Century-Fox
The movie version of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders reveals a bad piece of work, but it’s hard not to have sympathy for Feiffer and the other satirists in their current dilemma. As America threatens to go seriously out of control, as the daily reality in certain parts of the country takes on an increasingly fantastic character, satire loses its force as a dramatic mode. It doesn’t seem strong enough, and merely keeping up with America drives the satirist into farout humor, absurdism, and ghastly farce. But at that point the satirist’s art risks becoming even more ugly and incoherent than the reality.
Little Murders isn’t animated by a particular theme so much as it is by a mood of malicious disgust with urban life in this country. Feiffer throws in whatever he feels like ridiculing; it’s all part of the general malaise, all part of the big joke that America is a flop. Family love is corrupt, authority has given up or gone mad, and incessant random violence, the war of all against all, turns each apartment into a mini-fortress protected by steel shutters.
The author doesn’t have any ideas about all of this, just a lot of highly charged feelings which he projects onto the material. Nor is he concerned with any causes for it that can be named; the movie establishes a situation in which constant gratuitous violence is accepted as being in the nature of things. What causes urban violence can, of course, be rather accurately named, so if these reasons are to be omitted, and the real political world is to be transcended, the artist must make a tremendous imaginative leap into a newly created surreal world that has its own rules, its own crazy consistency. (I’m thinking of a work like Godard’s Weekend, in which the constant gratuitous violence was not meaningless in terms of the intellectual structure of the movie.) But Feiffer doesn’t, or can’t, do this. Instead, he plays for easy laughs with a lot of mediocre satire on urban discomfort, and then when the style does change to exaggerated viciousness in the second half of the movie, with people shooting strangers from their windows, we reject the shift as mere ambitiousness because this striving for total effect, for apocalypse, hasn’t been earned by the imaginative structuring of the whole work.
Feiffer adapted the 1967 play himself, and the movie was directed by the actor Alan Arkin, who led a successful off-Broadway revival of the play in 1969. In his debut as a movie director, Arkin has a number of familiar problems: some of the compositions are awkward and the camera is often at the wrong distance or standing stock-still when a little movement might help to provide some of the fluency the movie so desperately needs; the editor, stuck with this kind of shooting, can only cut from speaker to speaker as if he were prompting the actors; the performers, who have had little or no movie experience (Marcia Rodd, Vincent Gardenia, Lou Jacobi), are allowed to scream at the top of their lungs; and finally, the color is ugly and raw (which isn’t Arkin’s fault). But the big problem is Feiffer’s material.
Over the years Feiffer has captured in his superb cartoons a distinctive modern type—the educated person who adopts the latest political cant or the latest formulas of spiritual or psychiatric “insight” and then utters them as if he had thought of them on the spot, and as if mere awareness afforded some special power. His people are furiously self-conscious about communication, but they don’t get through to anyone or even begin to catch on to themselves; they use self-deprecation as a way of making themselves attractive, and it is as aggressive as ordinary boasting. The Feiffer people are hooked on verbal formulas which they repeat like magical incantations; the facial expressions rarely change from panel to panel because the formulas have taken over, and the words come out of a dead center.
For most of Little Murders, Feiffer’s humor is far less subtle. The members of the middle-class family at the center of the play are not self-aware; they do not hear what their own voices are saying. In fact, they are completely unconscious, dedicated to maintaining that nothing is wrong. The audience is supposed to see that, on the contrary, everything is wrong with them and that their commitment to conventional appearances is just barely holding in check a tremendous raving hysteria. This is the kind of satire that makes one angry at the author for creating such obvious targets. The style of these family scenes is a cross between television comedy and the mannerisms of the off-Broadway theater of the fifties and early sixties. The writing consists of repeated character tag lines, long “absurd” monologues, and clumps of non sequiturs followed by a stupid silence or a hysterical outburst that ends in strangled, crumbling self-pity. But despite these avant-gardisms (and they are used without any of the distinctive rhythm you hear in Ionesco, Pinter, or even Albee), the family situation is not so far from those in the domestic-neurosis plays of the conventional Broadway theater of the same period. The whole first part of the movie nags us with the author’s exposure of his characters; the actively “normal” parents, for instance, have created a hyperaggressive daughter who wants to “mold” men, and a son who wants to be a girl and who winds up, literally, as a closet queen.
A completely apathetic photographer (Elliott Gould) joins up with this family of hysterics and becomes the lover of the aggressive daughter (played shrilly and without much humor by Marcia Rodd). A lot of time is spent detailing the girl’s attempts to make this man come alive emotionally (and the picture nearly dies while she’s doing it). The photographer has successively withdrawn from painting and commercial photography and now makes his living selling pictures of feces to Harper’s Bazaar. This is Feiffer’s idea, I suppose, of a devastating final comment on our civilization, but it’s just a riff, and expires with a desperate titter from the audience. In the one truly funny sequence in the movie these two are joined in holy matrimony by a rather appallingly overliberated minister (parodied brilliantly by Donald Sutherland, who gives the hip jargon a slightly pedantic inflection). The minister tells the bride, groom, and assembled guests that “failing one’s partner does not matter. Sexual disappointment does not matter. Nothing can hurt if we do not see it as hurtful. Nothing can destroy if we will not see it as destructive. It is all part of life.” The sequence ends with the girl’s family throwing themselves on the minister.
As the movie goes on, the violence mounts; the daughter is pointlessly murdered, and the family and the photographer lock themselves into the family apartment. The apocalypse appears to be at hand. But just before the end, the photographer wanders around in Central Park, and we are surprised to see that life appears to be going on as normal. But if the world has gone mad and everyone is armed and shooting, as we had been told earlier, then what could be the purpose of this sequence? Is the family merely paranoid? But if that is the case, the rest of the movie doesn’t make sense. Either way, Feiffer and Arkin have thrown the movie away for the sake of some pretty outdoor pictures.
The photographer returns to the apartment with a rifle, and they all find a release from their anxiety and suffering by bashing the windows and firing away at people on the street. Then they sit down to dinner, completely happy, and throw food at each other like apes. This ending, which is supposed to be shocking and revelatory, is, I think, rather feeble. That everyone, including the most pacific person, has the potential to commit violence and that violence can give pleasure are two things we certainly know already; they would seem to be among the given, understood elements, both for writer and audience, in any play or movie about violence. The barbarian-underthe-skin business is both shallow and didactic—an adolescent’s notion of a profound idea.
There’s nothing in Feiffer’s treatment that imaginatively warrants his departing from the actual world. Prophecy is justified only by the fervor and intensity of its vision, not by its attempted shock value. As a final note, I can’t help wondering if Feiffer avoided writing his play in a realistic mode for the simple reason that it would be embarrassing for him, as a political liberal, to deal with the fact that most of the gratuitous violence is coming not from middleclass families, however neurotic, but from rootless wanderers and the victimized classes near the bottom of society. But then he might have found it impossible to write a modish “wild” comedy about this kind of violence.
The spirit of Lenny Bruce is alive in our movies: we may soon have to acknowledge the cinema of insult as a major new genre. Where’s Poppa?, like Little Murders, transformed flaming neuroses and urban nightmares into farce, and Carl Reiner did it without the end-of-the-world gloom. Poppa was one of those pictures (Putney Swope was another) that derived absolutely all its creative energy from the impulse to do something in unspeakable taste. No other principle appeared to be operating in it. I thought many critics were rather priggish about this movie, although I agree that there was one unforgivable scene—the one in the sordid old-age home, where the neglect of the aged was supposed to be amusing. However, a lot of this misconceived picture was much funnier than those critics were willing to admit, and they should at least admit the function of bad-taste humor, which is to release us from the hypocrisy of conventional appearances; indeed, one could see in the theater an occasional person quite paralyzed with laughter—liberated, I hope, from some debilitating piety.
Steven Marcus, who is on the Columbia University faculty, is the author of two literary studies and co-editor of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud.
William Abrahams is West Coast editor of the Atlantic and co-author, with Peter Stansky, of Journey to the Frontier.
David Denby is a New York-based writer who contributes film criticism to this column.
Edward Weeks and Phoebe Adams review books regularly for this column.
Bruce Bliven (page 82) was for many years editor of the New Republic. His autobiography, Five Million Words Later, was published last fall.
T. S. Matthews (page 102) is the author of several books of prose and verse.
I couldn’t make head or tail out of Brewster McCloud. Why, for instance, should a boy who is living in the Astrodome and learning to fly have his powers curtailed by sexual intercourse? The movie refused to abide by any set of rules, so one could neither enjoy it as a wild, self-enclosed fantasy nor figure out what relationship it had to the actual world. Is it possible that after the joyous and transparent M*A*S*H*, director Robert Altman wanted to make a movie so impenetrable that he could entertain himself for years collecting asinine interpretations of it? I didn’t think the scatological humor was very funny, and most of the performances burned up the material without generating much humor. One could respond to the movie only in bits and pieces, taking each parody, each attempted outrage, for what it was comically worth. And that is the best one can say for any of the recent far-out comedies.