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Who Wants to Die for Art!?!: Reflections on a Meta-Film Sub-Genre: Part VI
𝘓𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘔𝘶𝘳𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘴: The Family That Shoots and Kills People at Random From Inside Its Barricaded New York Apartment as Society Crumbles Around Them, Stays Together
This installment of “Who Wants to Die for Art!?!” will be the first of the series to investigate a film that is as prescient as it is meaningful. Admittedly, describing a work of art as “prescient” can often reduce it from a multifaceted creative expression to a one-trick soothsaying act. To take a classic text as an example, Franz Kafka’s posthumously published The Trial (1914-1915/1925) may have predicted forms of totalitarian oppression that arose later in the twentieth century, but to make this prediction the novel’s exclusive or even primary artistic merit is to ignore or overlook its richer philosophical, religious, and autobiographical complexities.
Dystopian fiction especially lends itself to the “prescient” label: “How perfectly it envisioned our current reality!” is the simplistic statement so often applied to this type of work. And with such an application we often lose sight of how and why an artist saw on the horizon what few others even imagined. Okay, so somebody foretold the future — but why did they think it would take this particular form, according to this particular trajectory?
In the previous installment of this series I looked at the philosophical implications of The Day of the Jackal, a mass audience-targeted political thriller that subtly and subversively depicts its assassin antagonist as the ultimate underground artist. In Jackal the titular assassin’s various devious crafts allow him to evade detection within a surveillance society as he plans (and comes within a hair’s breadth of successfully executing) the murder of a head of state. The Jackal’s mission is art minus representation, his creative and ingenious machinations in service of a direct assault on the Real as opposed to a sublimation through socially sanctioned entertainment. Due to the enormous consequences of his intended actions the Jackal must conceal his true identity, and in maintaining anonymity past the point of his own life the Jackal leaves the viewer with the eerie sense that even though he has failed his mission and met death at the hands of his nemesis, nonetheless he has proven the epistemological and existential vulnerability of the almighty State.
For all its brilliance, The Day of the Jackal is not a prescient work of art. A film of its moment, Jackal captures the late-’60s/early-’70s ascension of the assassin, as well as various extreme underground movements, as major political catalysts during a period of worldwide tumult. Neither of these trends have continued into our time — the assassin has been replaced by the terrorist (a killer of innocents, not heads of state), while violent unrest from the underground has been mostly replaced by media warfare waged by partisan political factions through duplicitous disinformation campaigns. Meanwhile, the surveillance state not only remains intact but has become emboldened and embedded in our lives to a degree that George Orwell could have only dreamt of. Made only two years before Jackal, and like that film inspired by the same social phenomena, Jules Feiffer and Alan Arkin’s Little Murders (1971) was also concerned with expressing contemporary anxieties surrounding “random” violence but pointed toward a future that present-day viewers will recognize as disturbingly similar to their own.
Feiffer’s stated inspiration for writing his absurdist dark comedy (initially as a play) is fascinating in its illumination of his work’s core themes. Feiffer claims he was driven to create Little Murders after the assassination of President Kennedy: “Which was odd,” states Feiffer, “because I wasn’t a big fan of his; he was the first actor in the White House. And then when Oswald was shot, I thought there is a madness going on. And because of my politics, I saw that madness in Vietnam, too. So the motive of the play was the breakdown of all forms of authority — religion, family, the police. Urban violence was always the metaphor in my mind for something more serious in the country.”
As so often occurs when artists explicate their work, the asides are often more interesting than the Big Ideas. Feiffer’s antipathy toward Kennedy as “the first actor in the White House” hints at a larger antipathy toward the power of representation, in this case via mass media, to eclipse the Real: a man whose primary talent lies in the realm of performance and make-believe should never hold a governmental position — and certainly not that of Leader of the Free World — in which he assumes responsibility for bettering and protecting the real lives of real people. Implied in Feiffer’s motivations for writing Little Murders is the feeling that Kennedy’s inability as a representational performer to meet his Real responsibilities (in Cuba and Vietnam, not to mention the United States of America) was ironically counteracted when the Real collided violently with the President in the form of a sniper’s bullet on November 22, 1963.
It’s not a coincidence, then, that the protagonist of Little Murders is an artist who comes face to face with the Real through a shocking and senseless assassination. Alfred Chamberlain (Elliot Gould) is a photographer and “devout apathist” who staves off the Real by mediating the world through his camera lens. Indeed, Alfred specializes in photographing piles of excrement — he can encounter and take in the Real in all its ugly rawness, but only via aestheticization. Alfred’s dependence upon artistic mediation for processing reality is mirrored by his emotional numbness — especially when dealing with life’s more unpleasant aspects, as when people repeatedly beat him in public — and he possesses no strong passion for anything beyond his photography (and sleeping).
When Alfred meets cute with Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) the viewer at first expects this woman to break him out of his vicarious existence by encouraging a confrontation with and acceptance of the Real, but Patsy is quickly shown to also keep the Real at bay, albeit through methods diametrically opposed to the ones Alfred employs. Whereas Alfred mediates the Real through art, Patsy mediates the Real through social convention, and in the first section of the film she cajoles Alfred into various activities (sports, sex) and rituals (dining at home with her parents, who are even more conventional than their daughter) with the aim of integrating him into the body politic. Patsy’s obsession with adhering to societal convention is mirrored by her emotional falsity — she counteracts the discomforts and indignities of life by pretending she feels good about them, a repressive “papering over” of real feelings that accords with her work as an interior decorator.
Alfred eventually, though reluctantly, agrees to marry Patsy, but as a compromise he insists that a minister of the “First Existential Church,” Reverend Dupas (Donald Sutherland), conduct the ceremony. Dupas’s speech to the couple and the wedding attendees is exceedingly lengthy, but it’s worth quoting in large sections because it so directly, hilariously challenges Patsy’s reliance on social conventions and rituals to keep the Real at arm’s length:
“You all know why we’re here. There’s often so much sham about this business of marriage. Everyone accepts it: ritual. That’s why I was so heartened when Alfred asked me to perform this ceremony. He has certain beliefs, which I assume you all know; he is an atheist, which is perfectly all right, really it is. I happen not to be, but inasmuch as this ceremony connotes an abandonment of ritual in the search for truth, I agreed to perform it.
“First, let me state to you, Alfred, and to you, Patricia, that of the two hundred marriages that I have performed, all but seven have failed. So the odds are not good. We don’t like to admit it, especially at the wedding ceremony, but it’s in the back of all our minds, isn’t it: how long will it last? We all think that, don’t we? We don’t like to bring it out in the open, but we all think that. Well I say, why not bring it out in the open. 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. …
“Still, if [a marriage] does not [work out], well, that’ll be all right, for don’t you see, any step that one takes is useful, is positive, has to be positive because it’s a part of life, even the negation of the previously taken step is positive, that too is a part of life. And in this light, and only in this light, should marriage be viewed: as a small, single step. If it works, fine! If it fails, fine; look elsewhere for satisfaction. To more marriages, fine, as many as one wants, fine. To homosexuality? Fine! To drug addiction? I will not put it down, each of these is an answer for somebody. For Alfred, today’s answer is Patricia. For Patricia, today’s answer is Alfred. I will not put them down for that.
“So what I implore you both, Patricia, and Alfred, to dwell on, while I ask you these questions required by the state of New York to “legally bind you” — sinister phrase, that — is that not only are the legal questions I ask you meaningless, but so too are the inner questions that you ask yourselves meaningless. Failing one’s partner does not matter. Sexual disappointment does not matter. Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful. Nothing can destroy, if you do not see it as destructive. It is all part of life, part of what we are.”
Ever fearful of the Real, the wedding attendees react to Dupas’s speech with outrage, and the ceremony descends into violence and chaos. As a result, Patsy demands that Alfred plumb the roots of his emotional isolation and numbness by reconnecting with his estranged parents and discovering how their treatment made him the detached blank of a man he is. Alfred does so and realizes that his parents are eerily similar to him — they possess no emotional life and no ability to process the Real except through artistic, philosophical, and psychological conceptualization.
Alfred returns to Patsy at a loss — he doesn't know how he can make the marriage work and feels that her desire to change him into an emotional being so he can become a normal member of society is like attempting to draw blood from a stone. After a long conversation, however, Patsy finally convinces Alfred to change. The dialogue between the characters at this point of the film is extremely significant:
Patsy: And what’s your first feeling?
Alfred: It’s sort of distant.
Patsy: Don’t be ashamed of it.
Alfred: It’s worship.
Patsy: Of god?
Alfred: Of you.
Patsy: You’re doing fine. My lover. My hero!
Just at the moment when Alfred is about to abandon his ability to buffer the Real through representational mediation, but just as he’s about to abandon this inclination for Patsy’s socially-approved possessiveness and conformity (here in the form of “worship” of, rather than love for, another person), the Real bursts through: a sniper from a nearby apartment assassinates Patsy. Horrifically confronted by the Real, Alfred returns to his previous numbness and his previous mode of processing the world through art.
Soon after Patsy’s death (as well as a spate of subsequent assassinations or attempted assassinations that occur all around him) Alfred photographs Central Park (starting with a large pile of horseshit), and with the film’s first point-of-view shots we see the world through Alfred’s camera. Another, less daring film would end here — perhaps not a happy ending, but a safe ending in which the protagonist returns to the comfortable limits of representation in capturing the self-destructive society that has led to his ruin. Not Little Murders, however. After the Central Park sequence the film switches abruptly to a scene in which Alfred returns with a sniper rifle to the shuttered apartment of his in-laws so that they can all gleefully — nay, ecstatically — pick off passers-by on the streets of Manhattan. If you can’t beat the Real through murder, then join the Real through murder — this is what Alfred and his in-laws choose in lieu of the ersatz security of artistic mediation (for Alfred) and social conformity (Patsy; the in-laws), and in making this choice together they are bonded by blood.
It’s interesting to note that all of the film’s murders — not only of Patsy, and not only of the Newquists’ long-deceased eldest son, but also of three hundred and forty-five New York City residents over the past half-year, as statistically cited by the institution-revering Lieutenant Practice (Arkin) — remain unsolved. This makes murder in the world of Little Murders all the more poignantly representative of the horrifying nature of the Real, since the Realness of death and of homicide cannot be understood through the distinct motives of the murderer, cannot be explained by the various forces and influences of culture and society, and cannot be mitigated in profoundness and intensity by any other sort of ideological or theoretical interpretation.
And yet it would be a mistake to criticize the film as a denial or circumvention of the sociological roots of homicide. Feiffer and Arkin, the film’s director, have clearly positioned Little Murders as a satire that on a basic level mocks the thin veneer of civilization that barely contains or masks its population’s savagery. On a deeper and more important level, however, the film mocks the Real as an individualistic pursuit. The Day of the Jackal and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), another recent object of study in this series, position their central artist (or artist-surrogate) characters as, respectively, the Last of the Self-Sufficient Warriors and the Last of the Romantic Idealists. The moral depictions of these protagonists differ substantially — Jackal takes an amoral stance toward its egoless assassin and Lovers ascertains the ethical integrity of its “pure” creative vampire — but they nonetheless hold in common a view of mainstream society as a thoroughly falsified arena of endeavor that must be eluded and abandoned, or else eluded and destroyed, for the artist to approach the Real. In contrast, the individualized or isolated rituals of Little Murders’ characters only cocoon them from the Real, even as their numbed (Alfred on his own), co-dependent (Alfred and Patsy as a couple), and neurotic (Patsy’s family) behaviors betray a core hollowness and malaise.
This is why Reverend Dupas’s sermon acts as the film’s centerpiece — he advocates a full acceptance of reality, and thus the Real, at the expense of any ideological or philosophical system that would place that reality in service of constricting justifications and values. The riot that Dupas provokes among the wedding attendees points up just how dangerous is his existential approach toward reality, just as it portends the full-scale societal breakdown that occurs later in the narrative. Feiffer and Arkin’s vision of that breakdown is unique in that they refuse to make it an event against which Alfred or any other character asserts his individual moral surety or iconoclastic artistic purity. Alfred and Patsy’s family don’t set themselves apart from or place themselves in opposition to the violence that has erupted all around them — instead they enter into it, using it as the apocalyptic occasion by which they can finally accept the Real on its own terms, not their own.
Where’s the artist, or artistry, in all of this? Indeed, it appears that Little Murders altogether eschews the ostensible nobility of art for the genuine madness of the Real — and, considering Alfred’s dubious creative proclivities, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that the film eventually jettisons art along with every other trapping of conventional society. Even the self-immolating climax of Pierrot le Fou aestheticized its titular protagonist’s suicide, which was brought on by his failure to reconcile art and the Real. Little Murders, however, ends on a brutally artless note as Alfred and his in-laws celebrate in bloodthirsty joy after a successful assassination. Rather than the romance of doomed artistry as enacted by Pierrot, Jackal, Lovers, and every other film thus delineated by this series, a frightful, hive-mindish anarchism becomes the culminating point of Feiffer and Arkin’s portrait of American society.
Less than a stone’s throw from the psychotic violence that seems to daily tear at the seams of contemporary America, this anarchism is so disturbingly, intensely Real that it leaves no place for the individual, artist or otherwise — become part of the collective insanity or get steamrolled by it. Exposing the artifice of isolation and the isolation of art(ifice), the violent anarchism of Little Murders forces us into its insatiable maw, if not to make us willing participants in atrocity than to make us recognize how feeble and phony our responses have so far been in face of the daunting Real. In Little Murders, art — itself included — provides no sufficient response to chaos and barbarity, at least not in an America ruled by traumatic violence that is too communal to be held back or made sense of by individual, romantic creativity.
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