(or, Depressing Films of the Early 1970s, #4: The King of Marvin Gardens)
A couple of immediate impressions, in reverse order...
Mainly: Atlantic City in the wintertime of 1972 looks for all the world like the elephant’s graveyard, the place where the American Dream of unending postwar prosperity went to meet its final resting place. The aging tourists line up for the photographer along the boardwalk. The tourists are old enough to remember the boardwalk and the City’s glory days. They line for the photograph in the shadow of the hotels along the boardwalk, the hotels which also once knew – if not hosted – those long-gone glory days, their flanking facades a persistant motif throughout the film, themselves lined as a backdrop before the camera of cinematographer László Kovács. Autumn years all around, for nearly everything and everyone. For the pensioners, for the hotel owners throwing in the towel and putting the whole kit & kaboodle up for sale, perhaps even for the enterprising young hustler who wanders onto the scene and thinks that maybe there's an opportunity of a lifetime to be wrung from it all.
But initially, before any of that: You’re confronted by the fact that It’s a bold move to begin a film with a full six-minute monologue. With a tight close-up of a face floating in darkness, pensively spinning a morbid tale. Especially when that monologue – in lieu of any other contextual prompts – at first appears to be some sort of confession, the sort of confession that usually only turns up in the course of a group therapy session. It’s only well past the five-and-half minutes that the viewer is given any sort of clue as to what’s going on.
David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is a writer living in Philadelphia, residing in mid adulthood at home with his elderly father. It’s difficult to tell what sort of writer he is exactly, aside from being a somewhat dark and dejected Jean Shepherd type – sending his stories out over the airwaves of a local radio station between 2-3 AM, relating them to whoever’ll bother to tune and listen during such lonely hours. But it’s clear that his life is cloistered and hermetic; a life devoted or resigned – we gather – to a peripheral existence.
Or so it's been up until the night he receives a call at the station during a broadcast. It ends up that the call is from his older brother Jason, to whom he hasn’t spoken with in a number of years. As it turns out, his brother is summoning him. Jason (Bruce Dern) has a new enterprise in the offing, he's in the process of taking over an Atlantic City hotel that was recently put on the auction block by its owners. "The Essex Carlton – the Oldest and Finest Accommodations on the Boardwalk." And Jason wants David to aid in the venture – to help him bring the deal to a close, with handling the outgoing management as things change hands, with the wheeling and dealing of roping in investors. And Jason also wants his younger brother to share in the eventual reward of the enterprise.
Thing is, it soon becomes apparent that Jason didn’t swing the deal on his own, but has instead fallen in league with some questionable business associates – organized crime, by all appearances – to help him leverage the purchase. What's more, David arrives to find his brother holed up in one of the hotel’s suites with a pair of female companions – the older Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and the much younger Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), the latter apparently being the former’s stepdaughter by a previous marriage. Jason's not sure what's going on between the three, about the exact nature of the sexual relations involved, and he’s fairly sure he's better off not knowing.
Throughout, David remains skeptical about many of his older brother’s boasts and claims, if not about the business venture as a whole. Still, he wants to be a part of it – maybe for the sake of joining the larger world that Jason inhabits, maybe with the hope of reviving the fraternal ties and ambitions of years-gone-by, maybe both. Despite these misgivings and the feeling of being a peripheral latecomer to the whole affair, David plays along at times and finds that he actually enjoys the opportunity of walking in someone else’s shoes – enjoys, for instance, playing the role of co-owner and pitching the hard sell to a pair of potential Japanese investors over dinner. But at other times his doubts aren’t so easily shaken; at which point Jason harangues him for his chronically sadsack demeanor, his defeatist pessimism, his pragmatic caution and his chronic lack of faith. Even though, as soon becomes apparent, Jason is blithely sailing into treacherous waters.
The King of Marvin Gardens followed Rafelson's prior film Five Easy Pieces by two years. The two films share some common elements. László Kovács served as cinematographer for each (except, thankfully, the second time around the editing is more thoughtfully paced, allowing Kovács’ framing of scenes ample breathing room). Each traffics in a certain kind of fatalism, a white male protagonist – both played by Nicholson – who suffer from a form of arrested development. Plus, Rafelson has Nicholson scripted to do a crying bit as a penultimate scene for each film. Five Easy Pieces fared much better upon its release and over the years that followed. Most everyone knows the famous diner scene. But a fair amount of that film is bound to feel a bit hollow to later generations – with Nicholson's muted Brando-isms driving home the echoes of an era-specific solipsistic narcissism, a type of "anti-hero" that was so exclusively male and indulgently privileged. If Five Easy Pieces' Robert Dupea "always moved around a lot...before things got bad" in some existentially-adrift sense, The King of Marvin Gardens' David Staebler suffers an opposite fate – never straying, staying put; whether out of inertia, fear, a sense of familial obligation.*
The film has its share of remarkable scenes. One involves a mock Miss America pageant staged in a massive abandoned ballroom, with David onstage acting as master of ceremonies as he crowns Jessica the winner, while Sally provides the soundtrack on the ballroom’s organ, with Jason standing by as the occasion’s audience of one. Another involves Jason breaking out a map of a Pacific island he has his eye on for his next big paradise-seeking scheme. The two brothers sitting crouched over the map on the hotel room floor, the scene echoing both the lost fraternal bonding and the dreams of their youth in the way that it also visually hints at the "Monopoly" reference of the film's title.
Perhaps more central is the sequence in which the two take a morning ride in a skybucket, surveying the skyline and the facades of Atlantic City from above. Indulging the idea of establishing their own kingdom, they wryly mutter back and forth...
JASON: "This place was full high-class until about 1930, until you could hop a plane to Bermuda for the weekend."
DAVID: "Yeah,...and look at it now."
JASON: "Let that be a lesson to us. I promise you strict control. ...We can't let it go downhill. That's why we won’t let anyone build on less than 10 acres. And no poker-ino. No frozen custard."
DAVID: "No salt-water taffy. And if anyone litters – we deport 'em."
As Jason says, shortly after welcoming David to Atlantic City, "Our kingdom has come." But as the tale unfolds, it offers the rejoinder: "Think again."
For what attention the movie received, Ellen Burstyn's performance received high critical marks. In retrospect, 'Scatman' Crothers should get an honorable mention for what was probably the most interesting and unexpected role of his film career. As far as the leads are concerned: Nicholson, as the glum and dejected David, playing very much "against type," and doing quite well with it. But his character is only a second stinger to his older brother Jason. Which brings us to Bruce Dern, who arguably hands in the film's best performance. Habitually glad-handing, occasionally hectoring, endlessly persuasive and on the make, Jason’s the type of aspiring alpha-male whose dreams run long, whose self-assurance never flags, whose bullshit just never quits. And Dern wears the character like a hand-tailored suit throughout.
Like a number of American films that came out between the years of 1972-1975, there's a bleakness and desperation to The King of Marvin Gardens that was in some ways reflective of its time. The off-season, economically depressed entity of Atlantic City being easily taken as a metaphor for the state of the U.S. economy – of the cognitive dissonance or dread that resulted when the country’s postwar prosperity had clearly begun to wane. A momentum that was previously thought unbreakable clearly grinding to a halt, dissipating. All of which is bolstered by frequent allusions to the earlier decades recur throughout the picture -- to glamorous eras long past, remote in time. Off-handed remarks about "a Sunday supplement color photograph of Johnny Unitas scotch-taped to the wall," or about how "Woodrow Wilson used to stay here." **
But as a couple of critics have pointed out, the film might also be an allegory for the New Hollywood – with Atlantic City and its diminished grandeur standing in for the Tinsel Town of old. Rafelson was, after all, one of that generation of young filmmakers who stepped up to wrangle opportunities when Hollywood discovered that its traditional wares – its genres, stars, and formulae – of prior years were failing to put an adequate number of asses in theater seats. ***
Fair enough. But the setting returns us to the first interpretation, which in this context dovetails with the second. It’s the off-season, and a pall pervades the film. The skies are often – almost incessantly – dreary, low, closed. Shabby or decrepit, but at best a bit dingy and faded; with the boardwalk at one point being dismantled by a work crew, plying it apart for a long-overdue renovation. Philadelphia looks even less attractive – often wet and dark, its architecture offering an off-putting mix of the claustrophobic and jaundiced Victorian (complete with extensively "lightened" woodwork) alternating with the starkly urban. In this respect, the film might not just be an allegory of New Hollywood or of the fading of the American golden years, but something of a frontier fable. A frontier fable in which a newly ascendant West Coast – culturally, politically, and economically empowered – looking back at the Old World of the East Coast, at that second cradle rocked out of, and effectively reads its elder the last rites.
* A prime, and perhaps telling, difference: The parents in the former film are a foreboding presence. In the latter film – absent, never mentioned, with the grandfather being the only remnant of any prior family homelife.
** Atlantic City, however, would soon experience a turnaround. This came about when the state of New Jersey allowed casino gambling onto the premises by way of a voter referendum in 1976. Which is ironic, in light of Jason’s remark in the dialogue cited above. And doubly so, seeing how the global economic meltdown of recent years has demonstrated, that sort of thing is (at best) only a short-term solution.
*** But "New Hollywood" would ironically prove to be short-lived, little more than a brief interlude of some several years. In the latter half of the decade, the shift toward the Hollywood on the present would start to take hold, ushering in the age – or the return, more accurately – of the big-budget, high-entertainment blockbuster. Like many of his colleagues and peers, Rafelson would increasingly find himself having to make concessions with the studio system, having to agree to pictures that were less personal and auteur-ish, more bankable and commercially viable. As it turned out, The King of Marvin Gardens would be the final film he was allowed to direct with a minimum of studio oversight and interference.