Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
This week we reach the end of the Criterion BBS Productions box set, which you can and should read the history of HERE before you read on. Coming to the end, I feel like this last movie should include some thoughts about the box set as a whole, so you’ll find those underneath the write up of today’s movie. Also, be sure to check out the schedule at the bottom, and maybe read a few of the movies in between Head (which now seems so long ago) and today’s film. It’s been quite a journey, and I’m happy that people have come along for the ride. Your normal Criterion schedule resumes next week! I’m ready to get the hell out of the 70s, myself.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Bob Rafelson, of Head and Five Easy Pieces fame, directs this story about two brothers, David (Jack Nicholson) and Jason (Bruce Dern). Estranged, David lives in the dream world of late night radio, until he gets called to a ramshackle pre-casino Atlantic City by Jason to help bail him out of trouble with both the law and local gangsters, and to help smooth talk a land deal that will hopefully net them both riches and control over what they hope will one day be a real estate boom town.
I’m dumping out all the plot stuff all at once because to be perfectly honest I actively dislike this movie, and a lot of it has to do with that plot. That is almost the entirety of the movie, stretched out over two interminable hours of quiet moments with people trying and failing to make deep personal appeals to each other as they circle the drain of existential crises with the backdrop of 70s urban decay. It’s the flip side of Five Easy Pieces, which managed to reveal human moments without sacrificing humor or plot, and managed to become one of the gems of this box set. King of Marvin Gardens, on the other hand, manages to be perhaps the worst movie of the set: dull, without even the good grace to be an interesting mess of a failure like Drive, He Said or A Safe Place.
The reality is that the movie has potential, mostly centered in Nicholson being the subdued acting powerhouse that he was throughout most of the early 70s. The film opens with a dimly lit, intense soliloquy about childhood and his feelings for his brother, which manages to paint a more nuanced relationship in five minutes than the rest of the film does as it spins out in complete dysfunctional navel-gazing. Part of this has to do with Dern and his character, an obvious con-man who spends the entirety of the movie bouncing from one bad business deal to another, always looking for some sort of angle or break, always complaining about how circumstances beyond his control have kept him down, and always passing the buck to his brother or his girlfriend Sally (Ellen Burstyn).
Burstyn continues to be the shining star of these movies, playing an aging beauty queen who knows that she’s rounding the bend on being able to twist men to rush to support her. Jason is the last in a long line, undoubtedly increasing in compromise as she went along, and now even he seems more interested in her stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), who already seems to be growing into the beauty that Sally used to be. As she blossoms, she seems more than ready to hitch her wagon to Jason’s rising star, leaving Sally to suffer with an increasingly sympathetic but avowedly disinterested David.
And all of this takes place with the backdrop of a rundown Atlantic City, only years before an actual land development and casino boom pushed people like Donald Trump into fame and fortune doing the same sorts of things that Jason couldn’t get off the ground. The boardwalks and hotels all are shot to evoke the board game Monopoly, who took Atlantic City landmarks as its setting, with the characters drifting down the cold, empty beaches and streets in a vision of American splendor in decline. The whole movie unfolds this way, with people crashing in otherwise deserted hotels and dining in empty ballrooms. It evokes a lot of mood, but there simply isn’t enough happening on the surface to back it up.
Some Final Thoughts
Ultimately that’s been the declining arc of these BBS movies, though. What opened with energy and excitement and creative explosions with Head and Easy Rider quickly devolved into a sort of nostalgic Americana that struggled to make sense of the decades that had come before and the dim sense that the crest of counterculture that arose in the 60s and began to fan out into popular culture with the movies of the early 70s was already starting to be consumed by the studio system that was gobbling up these breakout writers and directors and stars to prop up the waning studio system.
The problem with that, though, is that film is inherently more interesting when it’s not being self-reflective about film and instead about the broader reflections of life. Certainly as film geeks and cinephiles we all enjoy when things get a little inside baseball—nobody’s going to complain when a director smartly homages classic film, or manages to take ideas and fuse them into a new cultural paradigm. But ultimately film needs to be about more than film, and when the BBS films were unleashed into cinemas they were rife with creativity and yearning to say things that movies weren’t saying.
By the time the energy had poured into those early films, what was left was a vastly different cultural landscape and a sense that audiences could accept more from more voices. That helped grow cinema, and it’s no surprise that after a relatively light cinematic 60s in America 70s cinema gave us wave after wave of films that are still considered defining classics of the art form. I know the BBS films weren’t the first of those, and maybe they weren’t even the most defining of them, but they ushered in an independent sensibility that trickled throughout all of Hollywood as the decade wore on.
More than the individual films, then, this is the legacy of the films in this box set when taken as a whole. A historical document of a time when the course of American films changed irrevocably, in ways that we still feel the effects of today when independent films and mid-tier studio fare struggle to carve out niches defined not through star power or high concept story-by-committee, but through a focus on acting and drama, on small versus large, quiet versus loud. These are the foundations of popular, formal independent film in America, and taken on the whole they cover much of the width and breadth of what you will still see in your local art house theaters even in 2012. So despite their age, and despite the unevenness with which they all achieve their goals, ultimately it’s as a collective that they shine the brightest: the story of a time and a place, worthy of witnessing and understanding.