In 1971 with a budget just under $100,000 Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer crafted an absurd masterwork of vicious intensity. Little Murders is less a narrative film than a relentless parade of crazed rants. Eliot Gould asked Jean-luc Godard to direct the film but by the grace of god Godard lost interest and spared us all. Never having directed before Arkin stepped up and the rest is history.
This film is full of great performances but its the supporting cast that get some of the greatest soliloquies. Vincent Gardenia plays a deranged conservative patriarch and delivers several impassioned speeches about what is wrong with America’s youth today. The diatribes are a senseless melange of cliche’s, truisms, and nonsense all of which sound completely familiar. Alan Arkin who plays a disheartened detective vomits up an amazing parody of an Agatha Christie reveal speech that degenerates into an incoherent anxiety attack.
In comparison Gould only gets to wander the absurd world he inhabits like a completely broken zombie who has lost all will to not only live but to make sense of anything. His costar Marcia Rodd yells at him and reproaches him and cajoles him but Gould remains flaccid and impassive, a self described “apathist.”
Each character and each soliloquy pointedly ridicules an institution. Many characters appear for only one scene just so they can perform this attack. Donal Sutherland makes a cameo as a priest and skewers religion and marriage. John Randolf and Doris Roberts play Goul’s parents and makes a mess of psychology. Together they explain “Kline speaks of the coupling of early Oedipus wishes with the fear of castration. The child’s desire to possess the mother’s feces.” Lou Jacobi plays a judge and gives the cliche “my immigrant parents had it hard but they were good people!” speech.
I can’t resist transcribing one of Vincent Gardenia speeches.
“We need a revival of honor and trust. We need the army. We need a giant fence around every block in the city. An electronically charged fence! And anyone who wants to leave the block has to get a pass, and a haircut and can’t talk with a filthy mouth. We need respect for a man’s reputation. Tv cameras! That’s what we need, tv cameras in every building lobby, in every elevator, in every apartment, in every room. Public servants who are public servants! And if they catch you doing anything funny to yourself or anyone they break the door down and beat the shit out of ya. A return to common sense. We have to have lobotomies for anyone who earns less than ten thousand a year. I don’t like it, but its an emergency. Our side needs weapons too. Is it fair that their side has all the weapons? We have to protect ourself, and steel ourselves. Its freedom that I’m talking about damnit! Freedom!”
The movie just remorselessly barrels over you in a storm of entropy. There is nothing you can do but relent and that of course is the final solution in the film. The family gives up and simply joins in the madness. In this way it prefigures Sidney Lumet’s Network. Both Network, and Little Murders are absurd and both have nihilistic endings where there is no choice but to surrender. As consumers we have a million options when it comes to breakfast cereal or toilet paper the only option we don’t have is not to consume. In his now famous speech Howard Beale the network anchorman yells,
“We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!
We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.
It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”
True to the absurdist position these two films offer no redemption, they don’t even offer a looming apocalypse, they just point to the absurdity of the culture we have created and show us how we continually slog through bullshit, oppressed by our own invention.
Its this cycle of invention and submission that is at heart of problem. We create god and he then demands our submission. We create laws and then we are punished by them. We create race, gender, and nationalities and then slave in service to them. Its the belief that these institutions are anything other than human folly that the absurdists point to. In Network, television is the great equalizer. Government coups, and race riots are the same as airfreshner and Bugs Bunny. We create television and television recreates our lives as meaningless spectacle.
In Little Murders the only solace Gould’s character has is his camera. Through its lens the world seems distant and quiet. The camera turns him into an aloof observer. This detached observer, this Nero, is unperturbed by what he encounters. Gould is mugged and beaten on a regular basis but he is resigned to it and does nothing but hum while receiving the blows. Its not that he accepts it he just doesn’t fight it. Its the same with the love that he is forcibly bludgeoned with by his girlfriend. Every time she yells that she loves him he gives the same answer, “I don’t know what love is.” Love or hate its all the same to him. Its all absurd.