Tomorrow (January 31) and February 1 as part of their series Far Out in the 70s: A New Wave of Comedy 1969-1979, the Film Forum will be showing the screen version of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders (1971), directed by Alan Arkin. I highly recommend this film to one and all — and have done ever since I first saw it many years ago.
Little Murders was Feiffer’s first play and it flopped on its Broadway debut in 1967. Then it had a successful London production (because they’re much smarter over there) and then Arkin re-staged it off-Broadway in 1969, and that production was a hit. What had changed? Between 1967 and 1969? Come, come, now you’re not as new as all that. Feiffer’s absurdist play was about the breakdown he saw in America, originally inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the University of Texas shootings of 1966, and the escalating violence in Vietnam. He saw an increasingly brutalizing culture, where all bets were off. In ’67 people weren’t seeing it yet. After the RFK and MLK assassinations, and shootings of others like Andy Warhol and George Wallace, the Tet Offensive, the riots happening all across America and Europe, and so forth, audiences were seeing it, and responding at the box office.
The wild thing is, while the movie version is truly in tune with its own time, it was also clearly ahead of its time. It’s VERY “New York in the ’70s” — it doesn’t just talk about crime and violence, but also the breakdown of other municipal and social systems. Garbage piles up in the streets. The power keeps going out. Obscene phone callers harass people. And people are indifferent to one another. The thing is, Feiffer had exaggerated for satire, for comic effect. But now we are beginning to get closer to his nightmare vision. We’ve had a quarter century of bombings and mass shootings. And since Trump took power, for the first time our government and social structures seem to be breaking down. And one can envision other aspects of the dystopia coming true in the not-too-distant future. Power and communications failing? I totally can anticipate that happening, especially if we continue to disenfranchise the workers who keep stuff like that going. The social compact is ripping apart like rotten fabric.
While it speaks to our time as much as to the Nixonian/ Inflation-Riddled/ Rotten Apple ’70s, this movie is always going to be a cult favorite, I fear. It’s not for everybody, but I hope to grow the cult. After all, the action of the film is disjointed and dream-like, but no more than say, the films of David Lynch. Elliot Gould plays this passive guy, a photographer, a limp dish rag of a man whose strategy for dealing with muggers is to let them exhaust themselves beating him up. Marcia Rodd (a highly visible character actress in the 1970s and ’80s) plays a controlling young lady who brings him home to the folks, hilarious neurotics played by Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson. Gould’s own parents, who scarcely register his existence, are played by John Randolph and Doris Roberts. Donald Sutherland has a show-stopping moment as a far-out, long haired hippie priest. And then Arkin himself arrive to steal more scenes, as a twitching, stuttering, exhausted homicide detective named Lt. Practice. In the end, Gould decides to stick up for himself and start being a “man”, which is not a happy ending, for it involves picking up a long-range high powered rifle and randomly shooting people from his in-laws’ window.
That may not be a laugh-riot where you come from, but it’s sobering, and that’s the intention, and it’s why I tell everyone I know to go see it. It’s playing at 4:20pm in the afternoon, so play hooky from work and see it. See what I mean? Social breakdown! Tickets and more info are here.