Signs of the times

Paul Mazursky's art lies in his topical films about the modern American landscape

Like other Gotham-based directors (Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet), Paul Mazursky is a New Yorker who often makes movies (often about other New Yorkers), but that's pretty much where their similarities end. You can look at practically any scene--sometimes any frame--from an Allen, Scorsese, or Lumet picture and instantly peg its director. To recognize Mazursky, you need to listen. Mazursky has never been much of a visual stylist; his films tend to have a flatness to them, a casual storyteller's composition. The images on the screen seem calculated not to distract you from the content of his characters' lives. As a result of his fluid lack of pretense, Mazursky has never achieved the superstar status of his contemporaries. His solid, respectable output, from goofy comedies to topical dramas, betrays a personality less concerned with being an auteur than a journalist--an astute observer of social conditions, and one of its drollest commentators.

Mazursky's principal strength has usually lain in giving a filmic voice to contemporary social issues without getting hung up on "art." He makes a commercial product, one the masses can embrace and the critics can enjoy, too. His first film as a writer-director, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, was considered one of the raciest (and funniest) satires of the late 1960s. (It also introduced Mazursky to the festival circuit, opening the New York Film Festival in 1969.) In the same way that The Graduate employed the comfiness of the upper-middle-class as the backdrop that radicalized their children, B&C&T&A used the same cocoon as the jumping-off point for what should radicalize the parents. Mazursky explored their sense of yearning for what they feared they were missing--what a "generation" only 10 years junior to them seemed to be reveling in: sexual liberation, a cozy familiarity with amorality, and a refreshing lack of shame.

Mazursky was poking fun at the sexual revolution as much as celebrating it--B&C&T&A is set in Southern California, so Mazursky has an outsider's contempt for his subjects--and that may clue you in to the key to his ethos as a director. By perpetually turning out films at the cutting edge of topicality, not to say newsworthiness, Mazursky has often sacrificed enduring popularity for the immediate gratification of being "first" at something. Most satires suffer from seeming outdated in the long run, after the issues they skewer gain currency and what was once viewed as scathing seems tame by comparison. (Network is a notable exception, a satire so avant-garde that only now can we accept its cynicism about television programming and the softening of the American mind as almost a documentary.) Such is the life of all journalists--old news is no news, and editorialists like Mazursky depend as much on their subject matter as they do their own talent. When he tackles conspicuous consumerism--as he did in the garish, pastel-intensive Down and Out in Beverly Hills or the immigration comedy Moscow on the Hudson--you see his view of America is not as melting pot, where everyone becomes like everyone else, but stew pot, where people of different backgrounds try to connect but rarely do. Oddly, when he has chosen to mine the fields of his own life for his comic inspiration--either as a young Brooklynite (Next Stop, Greenwich Village) or as a filmmaker (Alex in Wonderland, The Pickle)--he seems self-indulgent, and his reputation suffers. Maybe his style requires a larger dose of objectivity. Surely there are few who would deny the merits of his three best films: Harry & Tonto, An Unmarried Woman, and Enemies, A Love Story.

Harry & Tonto might be characterized as Mazursky's first change-of-pace film, a road picture about an elderly pensioner (Art Carney, in an Oscar-winning turn) and his placid pussycat. Through its episodic format, Mazursky peels away a subtle outrage of modern culture: the alienating effect of growing old in America. The irony is that all the people Harry meets--all much younger--are more screwed up that he is; in Carney's gentle hands, Harry stands in sharp relief to his self-absorbed daughter, his weakling son, and a host of others. Over the course of his cross-country travels, we see Harry as an everyman: father, counselor, lover. Dignity has often acted as an unseen character in Mazursky's movies, from the puppylike desperation of Blume in Love to the treatment of the homeless in Down and Out to the quest for authentic self-respect in An Unmarried Woman, but never before or since has he extolled the virtues of dignity as simply as he did in Harry & Tonto.

Probably Mazursky's most significant contribution to film and society is his groundbreaking comedy-drama An Unmarried Woman. Just as B&C&T&A prefigured the hang-ups that naturally followed the sexual revolution, An Unmarried Woman gave shape to the victims and beneficiaries of women's movement with clarity and depth. Jill Clayburgh played Erica, a comfortable upper-middle-class housewife whose husband (Michael Murphy) leaves her after 15 years of marriage. The breakup of a relationship was one of those topics that was rarely the focus of movies until the late '70s, and An Unmarried Woman changed that--it was The Goodbye Girl with bite. You never doubt for an instant the complexity of all the characters. The scene where the husband confesses his infidelity to Erica still stands as some of the finest acting you'll ever see. Murphy is tearful and pained at having to tell his wife he loves someone else more, and Clayburgh gives the kind of reaction that only a great observer of people could conceive: She's hurt, shocked, and angry, but unsentimental--disgusted as much by his self-absorption as she is mortified by the prospect of being a middle-aged divorcee. (She walks away from him, reeking of contempt, then promptly vomits on a lamppost when she's out of eyeshot.) Erica is one of the great female parts in movies of the past half-century: contemporary, strong, and not wholly a victim. Erica is defensive and abrupt and frequently unlikable--in short, very human. (Long before Waiting to Exhale, Erica destroyed her husband's belongings.) The final image of the film showcases Mazursky at his best: Erica, who has been having a relationship with an artist, turns down his offer to live with him. He leaves her on the sidewalk holding a giant-sized painting, and drives off. Erica, the model of an independent female, grabs the painting between her full armspan and struggles to carry it all the way home through streets of New York. What a perfect metaphor for womanly independence--a surrealistic shot of a woman on the brink of being blown away like a kite, gamely grappling with what life has dealt her. Although nominated for a best picture Oscar, it lost to The Deer Hunter; apparently the Academy was more interested in confronting the demons of Vietnam than the those of daily life.

Enemies is Mazursky's most daring and individual film, and it capitalizes on one of his favorite themes: the adjustment of the outsider to the new world he's been thrust into. Here, that character is a Jewish immigrant, Herman (Ron Silver), who moved to America in the years following World War II. Although exquisitely costumed and designed, it is primarily a story about people, and in dealing with morals and interpersonal dynamics that cross cultures, it succeeds beautifully. The best scenes are the comedic ones dealing with Herman's "accidental" polygamy--married to one wife before the war (Anjelica Huston), he married his bland gentile savior (Margaret Sophie Stein) more out of boredom and a sense of duty than for love, all the while stoking an affair with the sultry Mosha (Lena Olin). When his first wife reappears and his mistress demands marriage, Herman's life becomes a comic (and tragic) interplay of emotions. Mazursky has always been an actors' director, and cajoles good work from Silver and Stein, but Huston and Olin carry the movie. Huston looks like she stepped out of a page from Look magazine--her carriage, demeanor, and style fit perfectly in a somber period piece. As the smoldering Mosha, Olin's beauty belies great sensitivity. Mazursky's adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer novella resonates largely because the characters are so delicately observed, and because he knows how to showcase a great performance.

That a film like Enemies was even possible after a fiasco like Moon Over Parador, a cumbersome, unfunny spoof about an actor impersonating a banana-republic dictator, is something of a mystery. That Mazursky would follow it up with lightweight rubbish like Scenes from a Mall is incomprehensible. But there's no denying that Mazursky has made a number of pointed and popular comedies along with some failures, though some have suffered from overstatement. Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a liberal remake of Jean Renoir's classic Boudu Save des Eaux, heralded the career renaissance of both Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss. They played the Whitemans, a crass nouveau riche couple who rescue a suicidal homeless man (Nick Nolte) from their swimming pool. Renoir was a brutal critic of the bourgeoisie, and Mazursky might have been asking too much to invite comparisons. Mazursky is a much noisier presence in film than Renoir, so it's no small wonder that his pictures often contain such brash displays as fireworks, carnivals (Parador), and circuses (Moscow on the Hudson). (Sometimes it's not clear whether he wants to be Renoir or Fellini; Alex in Wonderland was essentially an American take on 8-1/2.)

In recent years, Mazursky has concentrated more on acting, appearing in such films as Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and 2 Days in the Valley. (His basic actor's persona is as the abrasive agent, yelling into a cel phone, "Yeah, well, you tell him for me he's a putz!") It would be a shame if he has lost the desire to direct--maybe he's just waiting to be inspired by a new, ridiculous aspect of the technological age. That's the journeyman life of the social critic: Sometimes the topic you chose warrants lampooning, and sometimes audiences are left scratching their heads. Thankfully, Mazursky's ratio is more than merely respectable. His films have added immeasurably to the ways in which we look at ourselves, our society, and our institutions. He's actually made a difference. And how often can you say that about a movie director?

Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice, Tempest, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Enemies, A Love Story are all screening at the Festival. Mazursky will be presented the Great Director award by Molly Ringwald on Saturday night, after the screening of Tempest, in which she appeared.

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