The Ex-Girlfriend Experience: How Coming Apart Came Together


Coming Apart is a 110-minute film shot in a single apartment, almost entirely with a static camera, mostly pointed at a sofa in front of a mirrored wall, which reflects the larger room. And would you believe it is dynamic?

This is attributable in part to Rip Torn, starring as Dr. Glazer, a psychiatrist who has left his pregnant wife to take a pseudonym, “Glassman,” and a room in an estranged girlfriend’s East Side building. The studio becomes a laboratory for his experiment in self-analysis: Slouched before a camera concealed in a modern-art tchotchke, Glassman hosts a revolving cast of available ladies, unknowing co-stars, frequently unclothed—as is he. Joann (Sally Kirkland), a former patient, is a recurring guest, more unraveled with each visit—as is he. The interludes move from detached and bemused to simmering to violent, including a train-wreck orgy. In the ominous final slo-mo image, Joann stalks the apartment alone, accessorized with see-through panties and a pistol, the ambient rock riffs now slowed to a death-dance dirge.

Released in 1969, Coming Apart was the first of only two feature films made by Milton Moses Ginsberg; BAM is showing both in the coming days. Ginsberg sat down with me at a sidewalk café on the Upper West Side—this despite former Voice film critic Andrew Sarris’s pan of Coming Apart. “I was a little wary of meeting you,” he says, “but you sounded charming over the phone.” We discussed Ginsberg’s subsequent career frustrations, including a film with Harvey Keitel and Isabelle Huppert that never materialized after Coming Apart‘s belated Paris debut in 2004; his currently under-way short film, “Kron”; the circulating theory of Camus’s murder by the KGB (“What bullshit”); and, above all, the history of his most famous work.

Raised in “a small town upstate called the Bronx” in the shadow of the Jerome Avenue El, Ginsberg majored in literature at Columbia, then stalled: “Trying to write the Great American novel, I couldn’t get past the Great American first sentence.” Thankfully, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura converted Ginsberg to cinema, and after apprenticing as an editor, in which capacity he still works today, he made Coming Apart for next to nothing over three weeks in February ’69.

Ginsberg’s film, almost revanchist amid sexual revolution, tapped into a darkening-of-the-counterculture moment. Though influenced by Andy Warhol’s head-game movies, and by Valerie Solanas’s assassination attempt on Warhol just weeks before he began the script, Ginsberg says the real catalyst of his project was much more personal.

Ginsberg recalls a troubled, on-again off-again relationship with “a dead ringer for Monica Vitti,” who’d finally quit him to get married. “And I went fucking crazy. . . . One day—and by then I’m living on Madison Avenue, across from the Whitney—I look out the window. And there she and her husband are. Pointing up at me. And they start to laugh. I mean, we’re getting into Dostoevsky territory. There they are, laughing at me. And I become so fucking incensed . . . that I move into their building, Kips Bay Plaza, and make a film about a guy who moves into his old girlfriend’s building and makes a film about himself doing it.”

Torn was fresh from two Obie wins for controversial stage productions, and a filmed brawl with Norman Mailer on the set of Maidstone. (“He never meant Mailer any harm whatsoever, but was trying to do something to save the movie, which was beyond redemption.”) He had, then, the right madness for Ginsberg’s project—and the chops for its artful raggedness. Coming Apart‘s volatile spontaneity was the result of tremendous preparation: “I wrote where an actor would breathe into some of the scenes.”

When Coming Apart opened on Halloween, Ginsberg waited outside the Cine Lido on 48th Street. “People are coming out of the theater, and I go over to this guy and I say, ‘How was the movie?’ This is my focus group. And he says to me, ‘Piece of shit. Don’t waste your money.’ A young couple comes out. I say, ‘How was the movie?’ The guy says, ‘It’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.’ The girl says, ‘We saw it twice.’ ” Today, it is no more likely to leave a viewer lukewarm.