This Sunday, August 21, at 2.30pm, the delightful new Metrograph theater at 7 Ludlow Street will offer a very rare 35mm screening of the 1971 film Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin and with a screenplay (based on his play) by Jules Feiffer. Though Metrograph describes the film as a “surreal, nightmare vision of Mayor Lindsay-era New York,” it’s a film that has continuing, even greater relevance in an increasingly violent society like our own, as I explained in the below essay about the film, first published here in March 2015. Tickets for Sunday’s screening are available here. You should stay after the show for a drink or two at the theater’s relaxing downstairs bar.
Metrograph will offer a second showing of the film on Thursday, August 25, at 6.30pm. At this screening, Jules Feiffer will be present to participate in a question-and-answer session and sign copies of his new graphic novel Cousin Joseph. More information here.
Rumor has it that when Elliott Gould secured the film rights to Jules Feiffer’s 1967 Broadway satire Little Murders (according to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran for all of 23 performances, including previews; Gould appeared in the play on Broadway), he tried to interest Jean-Luc Godard in directing the film; eventually Godard withdrew and the film was completed and released in February 1971 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. The idea of Godard directing Gould in Feiffer is daunting, to say the least. But the film that resulted in the end is one of those products of Hollywood that makes you wonder how it was ever made in the first place, let alone released — and it’s very very certain that it would have been neither produced nor released had it been proposed today. Little Murders is an extraordinary work that retains a profound significance for 21st century America, and putting things like Richard Nelson’s Apple family plays, presumably also a family-centered meditation on the conflicts in American culture, next to it is an indication of just how toothless American drama has become over the past four decades.
The play’s lead character, Alfred Chamberlain, the son of Chicago-area intellectuals, describes himself as an “apathist.” He is frequently mugged and beaten by strangers for no discernible reason, but he never fights back; if he puts up no resistance, he observes, the muggers get bored and eventually leave him alone. One day he crosses paths with a woman named Patsy Newquist, who becomes determined to introduce him to happiness and compassion, as well as the necessity of fighting back against whatever forces conspire to rob him of his dignity. It is an uphill battle. Late one night, Alfred reveals the source of his quietism to Patsy (and actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):
Having made this confession of his own paranoid cruelty, Alfred finally realizes the importance of fighting for what he believes in, of hope, of trust, and of love — and, in the next moment, all of these are cruelly shattered by a tragic act of random violence.
Feiffer was writing about the American culture of the late 1960s, but the violence, the surveillance state, the rapid crumbling of traditional values remain central dynamics of the 2010s. In Little Murders, he proved himself a far more observant and caustic satirist of the American scene than his status as West Village Liberal might have suggested. “It’s dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses,” Alfred says at one point — and he turns out, with terrible consequences, to be right. It’s a line that should echo through things like the Occupy movement.
Among Feiffer’s many targets in Little Murders are the upwardly-mobile middle class; the justice system; religion both old and new (the parson who marries Alfred and Patsy in a disastrously ridiculous ceremony is the head of the “First Existential” church); homophobia; both apathy and idealism (obviously); the art market and photography; and, as I mentioned earlier, intellectuals. Beyond all this, though, it’s a shockingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and ridiculously hypocritical, but it’s revealed early on that their promising first son was killed in a random, unsolved act of violence on a New York City streetcorner; the revelation undermines an easy dismissal of their defensively bourgeois perspective. In many ways, the rhythm of the plot is cruel, not only to Alfred and Patsy but to the audience as well; and though the conclusion of the play appears facile at first glance, there is a poetic rightness to it that gives the play a cohesive shape. I know that a few artistic directors of regional and New York non-profit theatres read this blog; though I’m usually loathe to make recommendations, I would hope that they would take a look at Little Murders, a cruelly underrated and even forgotten American play that ranks with the most powerful work of Twain and Swift. (A 1969 revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.)
“And of course it’s funny” is often a phrase used to encourage audiences to see a play that presumably has a darker core — and it’s usually wrong. But in this case it’s right. Little Murders is an extremely funny play, with gorgeous setpieces like the first meeting of Alfred with Patsy’s parents and the wedding ceremony itself. Somewhere about three-quarters into the film (and the play), though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. It’s a remarkable piece of work, with standout performances from Elliott Gould as Alfred and Vincent Gardenia (who should have been given an Oscar or two for his performance, which is one of the most textured I’ve seen in this context) and Elizabeth Wilson as Patsy’s father and mother, but also memorable cameos from Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland, and Doris Roberts. (The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.)
And screw Godard. Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective that makes Joe Orton’s Truscott look like Lenny Briscoe; I doubt Godard would have been nearly as effective. Arkin’s cameo is below (and, again, actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):