Tag Archives: paul mazursky

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.

Advertisements

Goodbye, Jill Clayburgh

I remember Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman.

As Erica Benton – a New York woman coping with life after divorce – she conveyed a calm, even serene intelligence uncommon in American movies. Naturalistic and sensual, Jill Clayburgh appeared to be both brighter, and more striking, than our own friends and family and at the same time, exactly like them. That’s how she managed to be so effective as Erica Benton, who, in Paul Mazursky’s essential film of 1978, conveyed the experience of divorce quite plainly, in modern and very real terms. It’s that rare case of a polemical film free of polemic.

Part of what made – and continues to make –Mazursky and Clayburgh’s interpretation of the experience so resonant is that it didn’t read as an interpretation. They didn’t have an angle. They didn’t cop to “dramatizing” the situation with clearly defined, movie-made conflicts and resolutions. Nor did they get wrapped up in ideas or values. They just gave it to you. As the film’s tagline says, “She laughs, she cries, she feels angry, she feels lonely, she feels guilty, she makes breakfast, she makes love, she makes do, she is strong, she is weak, she is brave, she is scared, she is…an unmarried woman.” That’s it. The only thing Mazursky wants is for us to feel.

Perhaps that’s what makes the loss of Jill Clayburgh so personal. Remembering the film is not like remembering a movie, but like looking back on a conversation with someone you used to see a lot of. Someone you saw through a difficult time (God, that was a while ago! I wonder how she is? I keep forgetting to drop off the coat she left at my apartment.) Were Jill Clayburgh a movie star, or a conventional beauty of the kind we see too much of today, she would not have had that effect, and An Unmarried Woman would feel more like something we saw than something that happened to us.

A few years ago, I had a chance to speak with Ms. Clayburgh about the film, namely about how she and Mazursky managed to evince that feeling of happening to us. “I don’t know,” she said. “Think of the women and the way they dressed. I mean, you know, when you think of women getting together now in film, and I won’t say what, but they’re all dressed to the nines. Who the hell are they dressed for? They’re all so chic! We all looked good, but we weren’t done up. We were just…wonderfully…in our own characters.” That’s what lent the movie, and Clayburgh’s performance, the force of the zeitgeist. Wading in truthfulness, trusting integrity of observation, they happened to catch a wave. “There was something about Erica that was so interesting because she didn’t ask for any of this,” she added. “Feminism was in the air, but it hadn’t trickled down. It was a bit rarified. That makes Erica very vulnerable and kind of…I don’t know…like someone you know.”

I know her and I miss her.

Notes for a Blogpost on The Kids Are All Right

On a plane, hours delayed. Exhausted, but must write something about this heartening, misshapen movie.

Moment to moment the love shone through, and in a picture about love, that’s what you want. Still, could have used a bit of smoothing out. Naturalism no excuse for lumpiness. Why so long here? So short there? Why so little of that character and so much of that one? Why inject three-act arcs in into an honest, anti-Hollywood affront to the well-told story? (Also, lessons to be learned from Mike Leigh. When characters are given strong enough intentions, they can meander a little.)

However. Many howevers. However: points for things we’ve never seen. New ground broken? Lesbians watching gay porn and other bold (gratuitous?) sex scenes. Grownup fucking, but childish attitudes (slack filmmaking, or thematically relevant? Too late to decide.) Another however: Annette Bening’s thoughtful performance (however within however: tonally out of sync with the rest of the picture, as if she stepped out American Beauty. Yes, good, but turn down volume.)

Bit of context. Descendant of Mazursky. California liberals asking, “How much cool is too much?” cf. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Well observed local ephemera: Acai, Whole Foods, compost, give strong sense of time and place. How many movies pick settings that matter? Kudos.

Beating a dead hobbyhorse: Julianne Moore. I told you it was hype. Next to Annette Bening her deficiencies are easier to spot. Annette is a listener, a reactor, makes strange and memorable choices. Understands her relationship to the satire. Julianne too often playing attitudes. Blase, etc. Do we really know who she is? Feel what she fears? Want what she needs?

In the end, these people live. Though the drama is limited to a few situations, many of which are not explored to satisfaction, one comes to know the family intimately. One could imagine the movie going on indefinitely, just as losing twenty minutes may not have affected much. Bening’s work is crucial. She pumps the blood. Without her, you have skits tied together with frayed strings.

Share

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!

Share

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.

She Could Be a Farmer in Those Clothes

The good news is Amy Heckerling is back and she’s reteaming with Alicia Silverstone. The bad news is, it’s vampires.

According to Screen Daily, “Vamps tells the modern-day tale of two female vampires who live it up in New York until love enters the picture, when each has to make a choice that will jeopardize their immortality.” Jesus. More of this?

I’m trying to have faith that despite the material, Heckerling and Silverstone will alchemize, and turn this nonsense into the kind of sweet-tempered parody they made of Clueless. No one needs to be reminded that Clueless, which celebrates its fifteenth birthday this year, was one of the most popular comedies – critically and commercially – of the nineties. Even today, just about everyone agrees that it’s good. But I’m not sure we’ve even scratched the surface. It’s actually really good.

Today, looking back on the film, it’s clearer than ever that Clueless, more than being merely funny, was profoundly attuned to its cultural moment, that Amy Hecklering had the shrewdness to see, often on a subatomic scale, everything that was ridiculous about Cher Horowitz and her little world, as well as the sensitivity, on occasion, to lend her an empathic hand. At its best, it was almost like being in a Paul Mazursky movie. Hecklerling has that kind of eye. Even a figure like Jeff Spicoli, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, is, like one of the characters out of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, drawn with a lunacy commensurate with total seriousness.

Pauline Kael, writing about Mazursky’s, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, could have been writing of Hecklerling when she observed, “What made his earlier films so distinctive was the acceptance of bugginess as part of the normal – maybe even the best part of it. In his films, craziness gives life its savor. When Mazursky makes fun of characters, it’s not to put them down; quite the reverse – the scattier they are, the more happily he embraces them.”

Heckerling sees teenagers from both sides; to her they are half-Twilight, half-American Pie. So you see, she may be onto something really good in Vamps.