Tag Archives: bob & carol & ted & alice

Real, Funny

Flipping through the index in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — a book about the rampage of sex, drugs and revolution in Seventies Hollywood and Hollywood in the seventies — one discovers that “Mazursky, Paul” has only two page numbers after it. (Scorsese alone takes up six lines.)

At the time, Mazursky’s status as one of the decade’s reigning directors was an item of popular and critical consensus, but by the early nineties, the tides had turned. The Pickle (1993) was panned, and Mazursky’s subsequent efforts, though intermittently wonderful, did not live up to the work of his New Hollywood golden age. These days it seems like many cinephiles and even some critics have simply forgotten Mazursky’s films, full stop.

But back then (way back), in the American cinema’s most formidable post-war decade, Mazursky was untouchable. So much so that Time magazine critic and Film Comment Editor Richard Corliss could confidently predict:

Paul Mazursky is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations…. Mazursky has created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness. 

Mazursky’s pictures were explicitly, almost aggressively, enmeshed in the here and now (or from the vantage of decades passed, the then and there). Remember the psychedelic brownies? The suburban orgies? Remember the gurus, the shrinks, and the Rodeo Drive fetishists? They’re all there. Chronicling these shifts in the cultural ethos, Mazursky has preserved the changing passions of the American middle class in a kind of comic formaldehyde. The films were prescient, honest, and always hilarious.

Nearly forty at the time of his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Mazursky was some ten years older than the fresh batch of younger iconoclast directors. That fact understandably clashed with the then-popular image of directors as studio-lot rebels and insurgents of style. Mazursky, by comparison, seemed like an old-fashioned romantic and unreconstructed classicist. Like Frank Capra, he had an open heart but a satirical squint. Like Jean Renoir, he never let jokes get between him and the hard truths of his characters. And unlike most New Hollywood filmmakers, Paul Mazursky, part hippie, part father, had perspective andtendress. There was no other Hollywood writer/director with such a generous admiration of human foible, no other American auteur so shrewdly attuned to the cockeyed truths of how we love.

How could such an accomplished film-maker have slipped by?

Please continue reading reading excerpts from my new book, Paul on Mazursky, at Altscreen.

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Happy 80th Birthday, Mazursky!

Yesterday, the filmmaker Paul Mazursky turned 80. 80!

I’ve never shied away from an opportunity to write about this man’s work (for example: what I wrote here), but today I thought we would hear from Paul himself. Coincidentally – or maybe not coincidentally – I happen to be in the midst of editing Paul on Mazursky, my massive interview book with Paul, so I’ve been inundated with more hilarious Mazursky material than I know what to do with (really, I have to make cuts, and I just don’t know what can go…).

Yesterday I was revising my chapter on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and came across the following terrific anecdote. Let me set it up for you: it’s the first shot of the first day on Mazursky’s first movie. He’s panicked.

Mazursky: Charlie had been nominated for sixteen Oscars, and won one [A Farewell to Arms, 1932]. He was sixty-seven years old. He wore a shirt and tie everyday. No blue jeans or sneakers. A gentleman. He did a great thing the first day working with me. Before shooting began, I was full of confidence. I had shot rehearsals for two and a half weeks and before the movie began, I had shown much of it to Charlie and about ten other people. Since there were no fight scenes or chases they could see seventy or eighty percent of the movie right in front of them. They were on the floor. I knew it was going to work! So, you see, I was very confident when the first day of shooting came around. I had it all in my head. As I hit the set – the interior of Esalen – I saw the entire cast of extras facing me. “Good morning, Paul! Good morning! Hi Chief! Hello Chief! Where do you want to start, Chief?” The whole movie went out of my head. I thought, “I don’t know what the fuck to do.” Charlie says to me, “You know Paul, I think there’s a really good shot on top of the crane.” I had never been on a crane. I said, “Okay! Let’s take it!” And then they tied me into this crane – I don’t like heights. He sat down on one seat and I sat down on the other and we went way the hell up, looking down on the set of the interior. Charlie said to me, [Low, gravelly voice] “There’s no shot from up here, Paul. I just thought we could talk about what to do in the scene. Let’s start with an establishing shot panning past the crowd and get a few close ups of our stars and then we’ll begin doing twos and threes to cover.” I told him I thought that sounded great, and then I shouted out, “Take us down please, we’re ready to shoot!” And I got cocky in a minute. And we did it and it works.

Wait, just one more.

This one’s about Shelley Winters and the filming of Next Stop, Greenwich Village.

Mazursky: You could talk about technique, you could talk about casting, you could talk about many, many things, but it all adds up to dishwater in the end when you’re talking about that unknown thing, that mysterious thing that makes certain people great. They have an instinctive understanding of what’s going on in the role. And they have charisma. Shelley could even be sexy. It’s hard to find it sometimes, but it’s there. I don’t know anybody else who could have played the part as well as she did. She was very demanding about what she wore and props. In that scene when she brings Larry food, Shelley demanded that I use actual Ratner’s rye bread. I had given her a loaf of regular commercial rye bread, but she wanted the real thing. She went nuts. The crew was staring at me, waiting to see what I was going to do. So I took the bread, opened it, smelled it, and said, “That is a Ratner’s rye if I ever smelled one!” and then I said, “Shelley, I find it difficult to believe that you, who studied at the Actors Studio, can’t find the right sense memory from your past.” That’s when she said, “Of course I can!” And away she went.

Mazel Tov, Mazursky! Happy Birthday!

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The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Manohla is on her game this morning. Her review of The Back-Up Plan is a sad reminder that romantic comedy continues to scrape up against the dank, dark bottom of the Hollywood barrel.

For any number of reasons, the genre that was once typified by It Happened One Night and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has fallen farther than any other. With the possible exception of the Hollywood musical, which has a very good excuse for its dissolution (end of studios, end of resources), the decline of the romantic comedy is undoubtedly the most grievous lesion on the lumbering zombie that has become popular American film.

Blindfold yourself, spin around twice, and land a finger anywhere on Manohla’s review and you’ll find a reason why. Go ahead, try it. I did:

“The Back-Up Plan” is innocuous and unmemorable, and pretty much looks like a lot of sitcoms do. It will scale down well on your television, a medium that was made for close-ups of characters sharing and caring.

Right. A large part of the problem is that romantic comedies all look the same. Action films, epic dramas, science fiction adventures – these films are practically all look, and as such, jump whole hog into visual style, varying their aesthetic from prequel to sequel and back to prequel at the rate of a fourth grader trading baseball cards, and almost to a shameful degree, as if it were a cover for their lack of original content. Then there’s the romantic comedy. They all look the same. Bright, evenly distributed light, easy-going medium shots, and no sudden movements. But this is not cinema – this is the anesthetic aesthetic of the convalescent hospital. “Don’t worry, Grandpa! You won’t feel a thing!”

It seems silly to speak of aesthetics when discussing the genre responsible for films like The Bounty Hunter and 27 Dresses. I can already hear cries of “They’re just meant to be entertaining,” as if the doctrines of comedy and thoughtlessness were intended to go hand in hand. But I can remember a time – a time before I was born – when style was entertainment; when Annie Hall was funny not just because of its “entertainment” value, but because Woody Allen found a visual correlate for the searching, elastic mind of Alvy Singer; when a film like A Shot in the Dark, which never aimed higher than gut-level, could be as committed to boffo laffs as it was to widescreen framing; when The Apartment, which has more laughs than a whole season of romantic comedies, allowed its bitterness to come through black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle.

True, these are masterpieces, but the same could be said for all sorts of other, lesser films made before Hollywood gave up on its once favorite genre. The only reason I don’t mention them here is because they don’t make the point as forcefully. But I assure you, they make the point. Watching Soapdish again the other night, I saw it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered it, but I didn’t mind. With its vigorous camera moves and robust palette, the film had the feeling of a low-calorie Almodovar movie, and in my book of damn good efforts, that wins it a hearty handshake and a slap on the back.

But Soapdish was released twenty years ago. What am I going to see tonight?

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Americans Have Feelings Too

A friend just sent me a link to this video, a tribute to filmmaker Paul Mazursky. “Well,” I thought, “it’s about time.”

Paul Mazursky’s nearly twenty films as writer/director stand alongside those of Woody Allen as American film’s most sustained comic expression of the 1970s and 1980s. Though unlike Woody, whose milieu is predominately intellectual, Mazursky’s people are so raw, and so baffled by their own emotional tumult, their sincerity comes across as forcefully as their ridiculousness. This makes films like An Unmarried Woman and Blume in Love very difficult to classify, but all the more relevant; in that place between funny and feeling, there is an inner world, uncharted by contemporary Hollywood, where the joke is vital, yes, but never at the expense of character truths, of the hearts and minds in play. If laughter is always warm in Mazursky, it’s because it comes from this place of empathy, and not – as is the case with today’s comedies – from distance. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Mazursky brings you into a love relationship with his people.” We are not better than Mazursky’s people because we are Mazursky’s people.

Way back, in one of the American cinema’s most formidable decade, Richard Corliss had a sense of what would come. “Paul Mazursky,” he wrote, “is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations….Mazursky has created a  body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.” And Andrew Sarris, on the occasion of Lincoln Center’s 2007 eleven-film tribute, wrote, “Mr. Mazursky is a testament to the sheer depth of American mainstream movies way back (it now seems) in the days when directors – and Mr. Mazursky in particular – knew how to be funny and adult at the same time.” “The great thing about Paul’s movies,” Mel Brooks said, “is that they never seem to be made up. They seem to spring from life.” It’s true. It’s very, very true.