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Little Murders

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I happened to mention to someone yesterday that I had written my previous post about dog poop, and that person exclaimed, “Oh, like Elliott Gould in Little Murders. He plays a photographer who has made dog poop his subject.”

I had never seen Little Murders, a 1971 satirical film directed by Alan Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his original play. The movie featured cameos for Donald Sutherland and Alan Arkin and starred Elliott Gould and Marcia Rodd as Alfred and Patsy, a pair of mis-matched lovers. When I looked it up, I just had to watch the whole thing, and it’s all available on YouTube, albeit in 16 installments.

The installment I’ve included above occurs early on in the film and features Albert meeting Patsy’s family and explaining his career choice to them. It’s a great little mini-commentary on the commercial art world. It also distills the main conflict of the first half of the movie—the fact that Alfred is a devoted “apatheist,” whereas Patsy wants to inspire him to feel again and to “fight” against a world gone sour. It’s a classic “optimist” vs. “pessimist” argument, and makes fun of both extremes. It is striking, however, that, at least for the first half of the film, Alfred, though the pessimist, seems more at peace and more sanguine than the passionate, smiling Patsy, who spends a lot of time yelling and pushing at him.

Little Murders is set in the time it was made—the early nineteen-seventies—when New York really seemed to be at low ebb. The dark atmosphere that can’t keep Patsy from waking up with a smile is filled with random murders (including that of one of her brothers), assaults in the street (Alfred is regularly beat up), power black-outs, frequent threatening anonymous phone calls, and the constant wailing of sirens. Patsy has to take Alfred out to the country to teach him to have fun.

But it’s also a time of social upheaval. When Patsy and Alfred decide to marry, they have to cast about to find a minister who will agree not to mention God in the ceremony, and it ends up taking place in a broken-down shell of a church with sitar music as accompaniment and the “outing” of Patsy’s brother, Kenny, as gay. Donald Sutherland, as the minister, delivers a hilarious talk about marriage, which I include below to honor my recent anniversary.

After that, the film takes a darker turn. It becomes the kind of comedy that doesn’t make you laugh. It’s funny, but painfully so. I won’t include any spoilers, but the latter part of the film (segment 14) includes a speech by Patsy’s father that seems more relevant today than ever, at least because of the contrast between how it must have been received then and how we live now. It’s a speech about how crazy the world has gotten and how he wants his freedom back—through the use of video surveillance and a system of fences around the block and IDs required for passage in and out (we didn’t really have the term “gated communities” back then). At the time, I’m sure that struck everyone as hilarious—to invoke security measures as a return to freedom—so it struck me now that now we actually live in that very state. We have given up our privacy for our safety and can no longer think of the possibility as humorous and far-fetched. It’s reality.

No doubt that’s a sad trade. Little Murders, however, notes other trades we’ve been willing to make. The characters in the film in the end are all corrupted by the violence around them, and the satire points to the absurdity of “fighting” in order to be happy, perhaps even of a certain kind of limited happiness (as expressed by Patsy’s mother at the very end). It doesn’t provide any easy answers to the conundrum, and this is one reason why it is such a fine piece of satire, which, in spite of its obvious time-limitations, still has a lot to offer.

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