Reviewing ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’ Not Knowing if Nixon Won


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
November 9, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 45

films in focus
by Andrew Sarris

By the time you read this column you will know the results of the 1972 election. You will know who won and by how large a margin, and everything you read will be colored by that knowledge. But as I begin writing this column on the Wednesday before the Tuesday of November 7, I have no idea whether McGovern will pull the upset of the century or whether Nixon will sweep back in on the landslide of the century. We, my readers and I, are thus out of emotional synch by at least a week of recorded history. If I knew already what was going to happen on November 7, I would be in a different mood than I am in at this moment of composition, and I would probably write a very different column. What you are reading therefore is the transcription of a voice from the past, the recent past perhaps, but the past nonetheless. I mention the matter of this time gap between my writing and my readers not to push The Voice deadline closer to publication, but rather to explain my sense of time lag when I look at supposedly “Now” pictures like “THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS.”

That is to say that whereas it takes me about a week to transfer my thoughts from the typewriter to the newsstand, it may take a film-maker a year or two or more to transform mental images into movie images. By that time the mood that inspired a movie into being may have been completely dissipated. I have a feeling that something of the sort has happened in this instance to make “The King of Marvin Gardens” look like last year’s Sunday supplement on alienation and anomie, and sound like a blast of sour trumpets for the American Dream. I don’t know if I would ever have liked this movie too much, but I suspect that it would have looked less strange and out-of-date back in 1967 or 1968 or 1969 or even 1970 when it was only a gleam in the minds of director Bob Rafelson and scenarist Jacob Brackman. Somehow, nothing is so stale as the recent past.

Still, I can see why it seemed such a clever idea to shoot the film in Atlantic City in the winter. Atlantic City: the home of the Monopoly streets, the decaying vacation resort, the last stand of the oldsters, and the last dregs for the blacks. What better setting for the derisive absurdism of Amerika? Add to the soured-over setting a preoccupation with male siblings, a theme reminiscent of the fraternal ping-pong in the Bob Rafelson-Adrien Joyce “Five Easy Pieces.” Also a post-Salinger belief in the moral and aesthetic edge of some sensibilities on others. We might even resurrect the old Bertrand Russell routines with irregular verbs for the occasion: I am all together, you are authentic, he is self-centered, or we are beautiful, they are plastic. A grammar for the late ’60s.

With his fragmentary frenzy as a film-maker, Rafelson falls almost too neatly into the post-Fellini Hollywood school which has enrolled also Mike Nichols, Paul Mazursky, and Ulu Grosbard with very mixed results. The major thrust of this school is directed against the conventional mass-entertainment movie. Unfortunately, the masses have largely deserted the movie houses for the television screens. And at the same time most critics have developed more historical awareness than they know what to do with, and so they dump the excess on film-makers who profess to be new and revolutionary. It’s unfair, really. Even “Le Sacre du Printemps” was not all that new and revolutionary. We are caught her in the impasse between reasons and excuses. When we like a movie, we can mention the “influences” on the director. When we dislike a movie, the “influences” become “steals.” It is no crime to be influenced by Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, or Truffaut, or, for that matter, by Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Welles, or Walsh.

Thus the big problem with “The King of Marvin Gardens” is not that Rafelson saw too many Fellini movies, but that in casting Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern as the two fraternal leads he provided more angst than any movie could digest. And since “The King of Marvin Gardens” oscillates hopelessly between catatonia (Nicholson) and megalomania (Dern), the audience is left stranded on a lonely sandbar of alienation. There seems to be a gap in the movie between what its makers feel and what they choose to communicate to the audience. I say seems to be because the two mystifying female onlookers (Ellen Burstyn, Julia Anne Robinson) at the spectacle of brotherly bathos seem to switch their moods as often and as capriciously as their underwear. Ellen Burstyn is as pointlessly wasted here as Billie Whitelaw has been in just about everything she has done since “Charlie Bubbles,” and the misuse of these two sensual intelligences is characteristic of a tendency in too many movies of the past decade to lose all contact with the Other. This is the darker side of what has come to be mislabeled as auteurism, but is really nothing more than the distorted vision of the unconnected ego.

One of the best moments in the film demonstrates what is so singularly lacking in so much of the rest of it. Jack Nicholson’s David Staebler does a moody kind of monologue on a Philadelphia FM station. In it he describes how he and his brother once allowed their grandfather (Charles LaVine) to choke to death on some fishbones. When David goes home there is his grandfather, hale and hearty, taunting David and amusing us with a croaking-choking imitation. What is beautiful about this joke is its expression of the simultaneous defiance and complicity possible in a relationship that has survived all the ravages of time and memory. Unfortunately, there is no comparable exchange between the two brothers, and not even the hint of the possibility of such an exchange between the men and the women in the film. Instead there is nothing but rasping and tearing all through the proceedings until finally one of the brothers has been killed, and the other trudges home where the grandfather is screening old home movies showing the two brothers on the beach long before when their sandcastles were more safely made of genuine sand and yet I was emotionally distracted because I was too aware that Rafelson was being too self-consciously cool by not moving in on this otherwise corny invocation of the past from way out in left field instead of moving in forcefully as Hitchcock had done in “Rebecca” in the sequence in which Olivier is showing the wedding movies and we close in on two levels, in the film within a film, and in the film itself, though it is a boner of sorts for an unattended movie camera to affect a tracking shot, but nonetheless Hitchcock, classicist that he was and still is, chose to confront a powerful emotion (lost love in this instance) head-on instead of lying back with feigned subtlety for the benefit of the middle-brows. Besides, the home movies come far too late in “The King of Marvin Gardens” to make up for the lack of expressive feelings in an enterprise of such fashionable obfuscation.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]