Jules Feiffer’s Movie: Resisting Voice Internecine Warfare Long Enough to Appreciate It


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February 18, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 7

Films in Focus
By Andrew Sarris

The Village Voice has distinguished itself over the years by the casualness, some would say eagerness, with which it allows its contributors and even its mainstays to be knifed in the back. I myself have taken a poke now and then at those of my colleagues who have chanced to irritate me, not to mention the matter of my spectacularly unhelpful reviews of the movies of Norman Mailer, a spiritual father and fiduciary support of the Voice. Nat Hentoff and Paul Cowan have had their books torn from their bindings by rampaging reviewers carted into The Voice from the outside, and the Letters column seems to exist solely to scourge The Voice staff.

Even new stockholder Carter Burden has taken his lumps from his irrepressible employes. Indeed in what other publication would a couple of staffers sign an open letter attacking one of their own colleagues on a subject as murky as the Mafia.

As it is, I felt almost guilty about the kind treatment two of my earliest books received in these pages. But true to its tradition, the book review department imported an outside gun from the badlands of academe to make my latest masterpiece bite the dust, and so now I feel just like one of the gang at The Voice. I believe that it was Samuel Johnson who observed that an author would rather be attacked than ignored, and The Voice seems dedicated to the proof of that proposition. I suppose the antithesis to The Voice is The New Yorker, the authors of which are lovingly encased in velvet and never exposed to the slings and arrows of outraged readers. Far be it from me to criticize a sybaritic existence I know only second-hand, but I must say The Voice provides emotional compensations for a writer through the immediacy of its impact on the reader.

Still, even by the however justifiably sadistic standards of The Voice, I doubt that anyone has ever been as cavalierly treated as Jules Feiffer, this paper’s brightest and most precious ornament, indeed its most indispensable feature. I know I must be exaggerating somewhat, but it seems to be that “LITTLE MURDERS” has been perpetually panned in these pages ever since it first opened on Broadway in 1967. In Feiffer’s case, however, more is involved than mere incestuous infighting. We all know Feiffer so well by now from his cartoons that we tend to oversimplify the aesthetic dynamics of his flight from strip to stage and now to screen. I would be more impressed by complaints about Feiffer’s lack of flow and continuity and structure in other timely works of our time. More to the point is Feiffer’s relative lucidity in a theatre adrift on a sea of ambiguity.

And now the movie. How good is it? Well, it is at least 5000 times better and funnier than “The Owl and the Pussycat.” The cast is exemplary, with Marcia Rodd being especially scintillating as Feiffer’s awe-inspiring vision of the irrationally New Yorkish girl who never knows how to give up, no pathetically mad housewife she. The manic spectacle of a household held together by its emotional contradiction is comically more convulsive than anything I have seen since Preston Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan Creek.” And there is also more mood and mystery than Feiffer is usually given credit for in the space between one panel and the next. It is not so much that Feiffer has attempted to expand the vision of his comic strips into a play and a movie as that there has always been more to the comic strips than we realized.

Still, “Little Murders” does have problems even though I tend to prefer Feiffer’s problems to Neil Simon’s solutions. (At this point in their careers, it is proper to speak of Feiffer as the auteur of the movie version of “Little Murders” and Alan Arkin as the metteur-en-scene.) Arkin has been criticized somewhat for opening up the action so as to show that external world of which the besieged household is so terrified. But I think the problem goes much deeper than a stylistic tactic, no less deep in fact than Feiffer’s own essentially homeless psyche. Feiffer is not really capable of imagining the ultimate comfort of a smugly, snugly middle-class existence. He has no atavistic attachment to rugs, chairs, shelves, appliances, wallpaper. Spiritually he cannot really stay put, perhaps because he has never been forced into a rhythmic pattern of getting out of the house.

It is only people who are forced to leave their sanctuaries who long to return, and there is no longing of this kind in Feiffer. Hence, the weakest link in the play was the supposed conversion of Alfred Chamberlain from an apathetic wanderer to a passionate homebody after the senseless slaying of Patsy by an anonymous assassin. Elliott Gould’s movie Alfred doesn’t even go through the motions of conversion, preferring instead merely to extend his apathy to a kind of aimless criminality. Hence, when Alfred ventures out into Central Park, something snaps in the film, something that can never be put together again. What happens is that what we see in Central Park is not so much our problem as Alfred’s (and Feiffer’s). But the earlier instances of taking the play outdoors work for me simply because the dialectical relationship of Alfred and Patsy (Gould and Miss Rodd) draws me into Feiffer’s consciousness in a way Alfred alone never can.

I won’t go into the clinical implications of pushy, idealistic heroines being killed off in Feiffer’s plays, but the passing away of Patsy is fatal to “Little Murders” in that her particular life force is a more important subject than even the ultimate apocalypse that awaits us all. Her sang-froid in answering heavy breathers on the phone is worth a million doomsday declarations. But what Feiffer has taken away, he has given us in the first place; a dazzling vision of courage and intelligence at war with the absurdities of our age. As for the violence itself, I feel that Feiffer is on somewhat weaker ground when he attempts to lump together anarchy and authoritarianism in one neat bundle of absurdism. We simply cannot blame every mugger and assassin on Nixon and Agnew.

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