"Are you really so down on people, or are you just being fashionable?"
To feel is to fear. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that, so just consider that a brief reminder. There are a lot of other great things you get from feeling, but fear above all else is the nagging, guiding sense of self preservation that keeps us moving through life.
Filmed less than a decade after Kennedy's assassination and only three years after the disastrous 1968 election, Little Murders is an artifact of a different world, but one that can't help but question just to what ends the survival instinct makes a difference. In the face of random, unchallenged chaos, does surviving matter? And doesn't 'surviving' imply that the chaos will end?
Not that we can't have some fun down our merry path to nihilism. The film begins with the story of Alfred (Elliot Gould), a photographer who coasts through his life on a healthy cushion of indifference. He meets Patsy (Marcia Rodd) after she rescues him from a group of thugs-- only to have the thugs start attacking her. He darts off, and, once she escapes too, she lambasts him for leaving her after she saved him. He shrugs. That was her choice to save him-- he really didn't care either way.
"Those guys in the park, they said 'Hey, fatface! What are you staring at?' If I told them I wasn't staring at them, they would've beat me up for being a liar. And if I told them I was staring at them because I wanted to take their picture, then they'd beat me up for being a cop. So I told them I was staring at them because they looked familiar, and they beat me up for being a fag. There's no way of talking someone out of beating you up if that's what he wants to do."
Patsy becomes obsessed with Alfred, and makes it her mission in life to unearth some semblance of emotion from under his ossified layers of apathy. It's not an easy task, and as we watch the two traipse through a variety of romantic situations-- riding horses, watching sunsets, swimming-- Patsy grinds him down to the point that he finally admits that he trusts her. Very nearly.
She introduces him to her parents and brother. They've lost a child before, and while being as WASPy as New Yorkers can be, are also prematurely stuck at the point where he passed on. Patsy's desires to change Alfred stem from a juvenile need to be challenged by bending a man to her will.
That's when she decides the best way to do this is by marrying him. Alfred refuses to participate in a ceremony that preaches any sort of religious undertones, infuriating everyone, including a judge who flies into a rage at the mere idea of separating God from marriage. They finally come upon unconventional Reverend Dupas (Donald Sutherland in a wonderful cameo), whose hippy dippy church is welcome to all sorts of 'freaks', since it essentially views marriage as an interesting thing to try out. From his ceremony:
"Why does one decide to marry? Social pressure? Boredom? Loneliness? Sexual appeasement? Love? I won't put any of these reasons down. Each in its own way is adequate, each is all right. Last year, I married a musician who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating. Please, don't be startled, I'm not putting him down. That marriage did not work. But the man tried. He is now separated, still masturbating, but he is at peace with himself because he tried society's way."
She decides the best and only way to break through to Alfred is to get him to go to his parent's and ask them how long he's been the way he is. This turns out to be a pretty good idea, as we soon discover that Alfred's parents barely remember him. In fact, they seem fairly chuffed that he's even returned. Realizing that his own disassociation to the world is because he thought that no one really cared, Alfred finally seems ready to come to grips with his own emotions, and Patsy is waiting there. But then...
Directed by notably eccentric actor Alan Arkin (one of my favorites, too, if that explains how I ended up watching this), Little Murders was based on a stage play by Jules Feiffer, a writer most well known for Carnal Knowledge, one of the most brutally ugly examinations of the male libido that exists.
Little Murders is a great deal funnier but also incrementally more disturbing. Arkin does a great job of allowing his film to grow slowly more claustrophobic, as the film's New York setting slowly but surely closes in on Alfred and Patsy despite their romance. Police cars lurk in the foreground, and thugs roam the streets while the crowds of people sit in terrified disassociation.
The most famous shot of the film is that of Alfred, covered in blood, riding across town in the subway. Only one man even seems to recognize that he's present and, upon noticing that no one else is reacting, returns to ignoring Alfred. There's something undeniably frustrating in seeing this and similar scenes through the rest of the film, as it presents a mad world as perpetual and unending. Feiffer modulates through government, marriage, laws, families, society, and love, and finds it all sorely lacking.
Little Murders is incisively cynical, insisting that no matter how many layers of civilization we try to force upon ourselves, all it takes is one unfiltered idea for it to collapse. It's a strange, darkly funny and horribly nihilistic film. I can't help but to admire that sort of honest pessimism deeply.