"Those guys in the park, they said 'Hey, fat-face! 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."
So says New York City denizen Elliot Gould in Little Murders (1971) a picture that underscores (and underscores with a pen held by trembling hands that rips paper to shreds) how scary the 1960s and early 1970s were. And times are still scary. The world is still scary. Our minds are still scary (why are so many people dosed on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills?). The picture is not just a time-capsule looking at a more paranoid era, it extends further by resonating just as powerfully today -- audiences will feel just as nervous and confused. Not by questions like, where is this going? But... why do I feel so unhinged? It taps directly into all those soft spots -- the vulnerable fears, the isolation we often feel in large cities. Or in wide-open spaces as well. That scary idea of, are we safe anywhere? And are we even safe from ourselves?
Little Murders plays like a twisted valentine to the varied anxiety and free floating existential angst felt while enduring hard, violent, New York City. So director Alan Arkin had quite the challenge on his hands when he decided to direct what would turn out to be an impressive, pitch-black screen adaptation of Jules Feiffer's stage play, a disastrous production that only lasted seven days in its initial 1967 run (crazy).
The movie fared better, though not by much, and has remained a deserved cult item since its release. Expressing the unease and understandable neurosis ending the 1960s (Feiffer wrote the play partially in response to the Kennedy assassination), the picture merges comedy, violence, romance and anxiety with a jangling wit that makes viewers increasingly unsettled, putting them on the precipice of cinematic nervous breakdown. In a brilliant turn by Elliott Gould (at the height of his Gould-ness -- no one has ever been or ever be like Gould), he plays a photographer and "apathist" who allows violence upon himself. He's not a coward, he views it as his choice, which in its own loopy way, is dissecting just what "being a man" is supposed to mean anyway. As he says, "If they're that unformidable, why bother to fight back? It's very dangerous. It's dangerous to challenge a system unless you're completely at peace with the thought that you're not going to miss it when it collapses." Good point.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend (played by Marcia Rodd) receives daily obscene phone calls from unknown perverts. The disparate lovers get married (for whatever reason) but happiness isn't their future as their personal problems increase and New York becomes even more violent and dystopian. Arkin bravely paints broadly here, with standout performances (Donald Sutherland is especially memorable as a hippie minister and Vincent Gardenia is hilarious, yet complex as Rodd's conservative father), witty, lacerating monologues and terrific comic set pieces (the first meeting of the family is brilliantly anarchic, creepy, weirdly touching and hilarious) that pile up the movie's absurdities and yet, oddly realistic understanding for the anxious.
And when Alan Arkin shows up as a bizarre detective Lt. Practice, he utters this doozy before bolting out the door: "We are involved here in a far reaching conspiracy to undermine our most basic beliefs and sacred institutions. Whose behind this conspiracy? Once again ask yourself who has the most to gain. People in high places, their names would astound you! People in low places, concealing their activities beneath a cloak of poverty! People of all walks of life, left wing and right wing. Black and white. Students and scholars. A conspiracy of such ominous proportion that we will never, never know the whole story and we'll never be able to reveal all the facts! We are readying mass arrests. I am going to see that you people get every possible break. If there is any information you would like to contribute at this time, it will be held in the strictest confidence!"
That above diatribe is morbidly humorous but it doesn't sound dated in the least. I think I've heard words like this spoken on late night talk radio while the host nods in agreement and listeners wonder if the feds are monitoring their Wi-Fi. Practice is still around, With that, the disturbing Little Murders is something of a masterwork and a cultural panic attack of a movie -- a panic attack we're still enduring today.
"I want to do what I want to do LADY! Not what THEY want me to do!"