Little Murders

Beginning on September 1, the Criterion Channel will be streaming Little Murders, Alan Arkin’s 1971 debut film from Jules Feiffer’s adaptation of his own play, as part of “New York Stories,” its 63-film series centered on New York City. The film has been exceedingly hard to come by both on DVD and on streaming channels, so this is a good opportunity to catch up on one of my favorite films from the 1970s. Roger Ebert liked it too upon its release in 1971:

One of the reasons it works, and is indeed a definitive reflection of America’s darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain. Most movies create a temporary sort of democracy, a community of strangers there in the darkened theater. Not this one. The movie seems to be saying that New York City has a similar effect on its citizens, and that it will get you if you don’t watch out. … Arkin makes Little Murders so much of a piece, so consistent on its own terms, that while you’re watching it, it doesn’t even feel like satire: just real life, a little farther down the road.

I wrote about Little Murders here about five years ago; lightly edited, that essay is below.


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 1971 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. (A 1969 theatrical revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, had enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.) 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 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, a family-centered meditation on the violence and social conflicts in New York City, American culture, and, perhaps, elsewhere.

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 (Marcia Rodd), 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:

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 2020s. 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.

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 disastrous 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 surprisingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and 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.

“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 extremely funny, 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, though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.

Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective; his performance is below.

Down memory lane to the corner of 13th and Pine

All cities have their landmark bars — in New York they might include McSorley’s and the Cedar Tavern, for example, not to mention Pfaff’s; the latter two are with us no more — but unquestionably one of Philadelphia’s is Dirty Frank’s. We’ll be taking the kids down to Philly sometime in the next few weeks, and if we manage to swing by Frank’s, I’ll be introducing the third generation of the Hunka family to this cash-only watering hole.

My father first started going there in the 1950s, I believe, about twenty years after its opening on November 8, 1933, in the wake of Prohibition. In the 1950s, as in the 1980s when I spent countless evenings and much of my salary at Frank’s, the bar was a vibrant heterogenous mix of humanity. This was largely due to its location. Frank’s had been located just around the corner from the offices and presses of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin at 13th and Filbert Streets, though by the time I started frequenting the bar the paper had closed. (I myself worked for a Philadelphia legal newspaper at the time, but alas never managed to join the nearby private Pen & Pencil Club, an omission I’ll always regret.) But this didn’t stop the many newspaper writers from gathering regularly at Frank’s; many were the times I saw Philadelphia Daily News columnist and later acclaimed novelist Pete Dexter nursing a club soda at the end of the bar, or Clark DeLeon collecting anecdotes and stories for his regular column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Frank’s was just around the corner as well from the University of the Arts, so in those days it also attracted its share of budget-conscious painters, sculptors, and others. In fact, it still does; the north wall of the bar is an informal “Off the Wall Gallery” featuring the work of students and local artists. A few years ago Drew Lazor described the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything clientele of Dirty Frank’s in Vice:

In truth, Frank’s has always had a “type,” but the profile was not built using banal criteria like sex, race, religion, education or income. It instead takes a shine to individuals who can’t be neatly filed into the natural order, and don’t wish to be — a “crossroads for errant individualists,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it in 1982. … “Dirty Frank’s is an American melting pot with drinks,” the Inquirer wrote in 1973. “Its clientele includes sanitation workers, lawyers, students, dropouts from virtually anything, artists, clerks, poets, reporters, straights and occasional gays, blacks and whites, adventurous post-teeny boppers from the Northeast and a beloved old man who always wears a blue beret.”

During my time there the bar was occasionally closed down by the health department; it was a dive bar, after all. Then as now there was a Pennsylvania law that all bars serving alcohol also had to serve food; Frank’s tried to get around it by keeping a can of tuna, and a can opener, behind the bar to display to any visiting liquor board inspectors. (It didn’t work.) At some point in the distant past, a sign above the bar offered “MEATBALLS” as a menu item, but more recently some wag had vandalized the sign to read “RATBALLS.” I lived just across the street from Frank’s, and on one occasion the manager asked to borrow my vacuum cleaner to tidy up before a health inspector’s visit. And, of course, the men’s room urinal was kept constantly stocked with ice cubes to keep any noxious aromas from creeping too far into the main room.

I don’t want to go more deeply into my own history; the history of the bar speaks for itself, anyway; Dennis Carlisle has a more comprehensive narrative of Dirty Frank’s at Hidden City Philadelphia.

For me, most of Frank’s appeal (apart from its low prices) was that it was a “melting pot with drinks” — Frank’s welcomed a panoply of individuals from all walks of life, urging them to relax, to drink, and to talk — especially to talk, to share anecdotes and observations, and just as importantly to listen. (And, I should note, laugh — for all the virtues of Frank’s jukebox, it came in a distant third after talk and laughter as elements of Frank’s soundscape.) Those who sat at Frank’s bar and at the tables surrounding it disdained one’s identification with one’s own cultural group and valued, more than anything else, individuals and their contributions to the communal dialogue. That it was located in Philadelphia is revealing: as Peter Thompson noted in his book Rum Punch and Revolution, Philadelphia taverns were where American democracy was first hammered out in the colonial era. Through all of Dirty Frank’s existence, its drinkers and talkers reflected the spectrum of human experience and demonstrated that, at least at the bar, it was possible for a wildly diverse community to find liberty and freedom in talk and conversation and laughter: in one small way, a dream of America itself.

Patrick Sky

Among the first LPs I purchased for my new turntable were the first few albums by the folksinger Patrick Sky, who left us just a few weeks ago at the age of 80. The New York Times obituary is here.

Back in 1979, John Pfeiffer strolled into my Bard College dorm room bearing a copy of Songs That Made America Famous — maybe the most scurrilous folk album of the era. Said Rolling Stone upon the album’s belated release in 1973:

Sometimes a record comes along that so affronts common decency, so offends public morality, and so insults established canons of taste that its very appearance understandably prompts cries of outrage, shock and indignation. Veteran folk minstrel Patrick Sky’s latest opus is just such a record. … Such a record belongs in every American home; enjoy it while you still can.

Sky’s album was a series of songs not atypical of the black humor of the era, the expression of an impatience with sanctimony that we could still use today. Some of them, like “Our Baby [Died Last Night],” were just offensively silly. But two of the cuts — “Child Molesting Blues” and “Bake Dat Chicken Pie,” Sky’s cover of a 1907 song by blackface performers Collins and Harlan — suggested that folk and roots music weren’t entirely a gentle traipse down Nostalgia Lane, but were potentially minefields. The “folk” weren’t entirely innocent nor bucolic; you could get your leg blown off that way.

Before 1973 Sky was one of the more popular and talented of the musicians to come out of the New York City folk revival (praised particularly by Dave Van Ronk, who wrote the album notes for his first few releases), and in later years he devoted himself to the preservation of the uilleann pipes, an Irish instrument not unlike the Scottish bagpipes. You can see him perform one of his signature songs, “Many a Mile,” at a 2013 concert here. (Don’t miss his comic reference to Oscar Wilde’s comments on bagpipes at the top of the song.)

Sky, like yours truly, was a great fan of W.C. Fields, with whom he shared a sardonic nasal twang. In a 1964 concert he covered W.C. Fields’ “song,” “The Fatal Glass of Beer,” which first appeared in Fields’ 1933 short subject of the same name. You can hear it below.

A little something for Father’s Day

Currently sitting in a room nearby are boxes containing a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO turntable with a Sumiko Rainier cartridge; this’ll be powered by a Pro-Ject PhonoBox S2 phono preamp, running into a Sony STR-DH190 stereo receiver with Bluetooth capabilities. These, as well as a Bluesound Node 2i wireless music streamer and a Cambridge Audio AXC35 CD player, will be run through a pair of Polk Audio TSi400 speakers — that is, once I move into my new apartment this weekend; and because no post of mine is without cliché, I’ll be setting these up on Father’s Day as a little testosteronic gift to myself. (A tip of my hat to Crutchfield Audio, which guided me expertly through the minefield of entry-level audiophila.)

I was started on this when I paid a recent visit to a local stereo equipment store, curious about what kind of turntables and speakers they’re making these days. After a salesman set up a Rega Planar 3 and a pair of speakers, he sat me down on a chair and told me to listen, and listen I did, as I hadn’t in years. I won’t go so far as it say it seemed as if the musicians were there in the room with me. But I’ll go almost that far.

As keen readers of this site are aware, this is only another anachronistic interest of mine, to go along with American popular music of the turn of the century, as well as Mark Twain’s writings and that steadfast pillar of American culture, comics. Next year I’ll be turning the corner of six decades and am getting crankier by the minute. Over the pandemic I’ve been listening to a lot more music than I used to, and I’ve also become much more of a grumbler about the poor quality of sound reproduction on iPhones, iMacs, iEarpods, whatever, and am somewhat astonished that as the music industry seems to be doing just fine in this era of streaming and enthusiasm continues to run high for whatever music the culture produces, the quality of this sound reproduction is awful — tinny, without a wide listening spectrum, and cold to the aural touch.

I haven’t set the system up yet, but thinking ahead I bought a few vinyl LPs and a few days ago showed them to my children, 11- and 12-years-old, slipping the LPs from their sleeves and explaining that the music resided in the microscopic grooves of the record — that it’s not encoded on microchips. This was a bit of a revelation to them, and I explained that back in the Neanderthal Age in which I grew up that’s how you listened to music: either that way, or you’d turn on this thing called a “radio” (sort of like Bluetooth, except hundreds of thousands of people could listen to it at the same time, creating an invisible audience of listeners instead of private, exclusive enjoyment). Or, of course, you could make your own music, sing or play an instrument. I suppose what I missed about vinyl LPs was the warmth of the listening experience; the tactile quality of handling (carefully, carefully) the records, dropping a needle on them and hearing the result of that tactile experience come through the speakers. Not unlike the tactile quality of handling the pages of a book contributes to the reading experience. It’s somehow warmer; more human; and, what’s more, it’s concrete: It’s something you can see and touch, essential in this world of continuing digital dissipation and ephemerality.

Of course all these things age: vinyl LPs collect dust and imperfections, books can tear and yellow. But the digital world seems little better; when file formats change, files become unreadable, nonsense; and there’s bit rot to contend with.

Too, the content of vinyl LPs and books is less manipulable than their digital counterparts: you can’t just call up Word or Audacity and cheerfully begin to mess around with words and music. I have to admit I rather like keeping my grubby little hands off the books I read and the music I listen to, granting a little more respect to their creators rather than believing I can either (a) improve these things myself or (b) override the original creators’ intention just to suit my own pleasure.

I’m not enough of a Luddite to dismiss the digital sound world entirely, hence that Bluesound streamer and the CD player, and I’m sure they’ll sound great through those Polk speakers too. But they won’t match the experience and the ritual of placing an LP on a turntable and easing the tonearm over the opening grooves. It is said that a part of the enjoyment of marijuana is picking the seeds from the leaves and crafting the thin joint from thin cigarette paper: the high itself is the reward. I don’t think that vinyl is much different, really. That musical experience is the reward. And I’ll know more about it myself on Sunday.

 

The analog road

Waiting for me at home: The Yamaha FG800.

In my increasing dotage, my interests have been turning more towards the analog forms of the past: I’m planning to purchase a turntable and perhaps even a real tube pre-amp soon (and I could use all the advice on this that I can get), and regular readers here will note a somewhat dispiriting emphasis on the entertainment of the past: silent film, even old-time radio on occasion. I’ve just dusted off my old acoustic guitar as well — it’s been a few years, but it draws me ever on nonetheless. I wrote about it in May 2019 under the title “Less Than Zero”; you’ll find that below; and I’ll probably write more about this tendency soon. As a wise man once said, sometimes when you’re too far down the wrong road, the best thing you can do is to turn back.

I could probably use a little advice on how to play the damn thing, but let’s take it one step at a time.

Older forms of popular music never die; they just get festivals built around them. The 33rd annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, kicks off in Greensboro, NC, on May 18, and the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will be held in just a few weeks in the birthplace of classical ragtime, Sedalia, MO, beginning on May 29. They also become enthusiasms for cranky individuals like myself. (See here and here, for example.) A few years ago Marilyn gave me an acoustic guitar, hoping to encourage me to take a more personal and practical interest in this music, and since then I’ve tried to get myself up to speed so that I could play at least some of it myself. It’s been hard to find the time to practice, alas, which I confess I regret.

Taking up the guitar in my mid-50s has been accompanied by a series of challenges, many of them time-oriented but some of them somewhat psychological as well. Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus published Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, a memoir of sorts about learning the guitar as an adult, in 2012. Marcus set out to discover whether the brain (specifically his own 38-year-old brain) remained plastic enough to acquire the knowledge necessary for developing musical or linguistic skills past childhood, the optimal age for beginning musical and foreign language education. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that, by the end of his project, he was unembarrassed enough to be able to play the guitar in public.

And good for him. But I’m 20 years older than Marcus was when he picked up a guitar again for the first time, as the saying goes. And I have my doubts that I’ll ever be able to play the Piedmont-style kind of ragtime guitar that I most enjoy. Piedmont blues grew out of ragtime; as the Wikipedia page for the music helpfully summarizes:

Piedmont blues (also known as East Coast, or Southeastern blues) refers primarily to a guitar style, the Piedmont fingerstyle, which is characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to ragtime or stride piano styles. … What was particular to the Piedmont was that a generation of players adapted these older, ragtime-based techniques to blues in a singular and popular fashion, influenced by guitarists such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis.

As much as I enjoy listening to this music, it’s also primarily a music to be enjoyed in live performance. Ragtime primarily circulated and was disseminated through sheet music and, less commonly, piano rolls; although the Piedmont blues became popular some years later via recordings and radio, it remained primarily acoustic in an age when musicians were increasingly going electric. This — and the fact that the music was often taught, performed, and shared in more intimate community venues, such as living rooms and front porches — meant that live performance is perhaps the best, and in some cases the only, way to enjoy this music, both in its performance and as an audience. All music creates particular soundworlds. Ragtime and Piedmont blues styles create a soundworld of plain elegance and often melancholy; of simple joys and more complex hesitations. Not a bad soundworld, these days, for someone like me to live in.

I don’t get to either Sedalia or Greensboro very often. Fortunately here in New York there’s the year-round offerings of Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music. And I have lessons every once in a long while with an excellent teacher. But listening to more and more of this music these days inspires me to step up my game a little bit, and writing this post, too, is a way of encouraging me to learn the guitar with a little more attention and constancy. Malcolm Gladwell thinks I have to spend 10,000 hours before I become genuinely adept at playing this kind of music. But if I practice often enough, maybe I’ll be able to become a little better than zero. At least I’ll be trying.