One and a Half

Paul Mazursky could never figure out why his second feature as director, ALEX IN WONDERLAND, was so unpopular. True, it has good things in it. But it has no reason to exist. There’s a kind of hubris to Mazursky, an erratic minor talent (not a knock: I LOVE erratic minor talents, we need more of them), in essentially remaking Fellini’s EIGHT AND A HALF from the viewpoint of a Hollywood filmmaker with one hit under his belt. Just as he’d later remake JULES ET JIM as WILLIE AND PHIL and BOUDOU SAVED FROM DROWNING as DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS. And isn’t HARRY AND TONTO kind of a spin on UMBERTO D?

AIW seems to be composed almost entirely of gratuitous non-scenes, people hanging out and not progressing anything. Whereas OTTO E MEZZO has this looming set and this looming start date, the urgent knowledge that Guido MUST make a film, even if the film has deserted him. In ALEX, Donald Sutherland wanders about being weirdly surly and doesn’t agree to make anything. Mazursky himself plays a scene which lets us look inside MGM circa 1969/70, which is fascinating to me, but the scene itself has no real dramatic motor or satiric bite. Time and again he surrounds Sutherland with grotesques and weirdos and Sutherland still comes out of the scene seeming like HE’S the one being satirised. It’s strange, whenever I’ve seen Sutherland as a hippy, he’s been the most passive-aggressive and obnoxious guy onscreen. And yet Mazursky loved him. Was it mutual?

Fellini turns up — the result of the most assiduous wooing by Mazursky. He wanted the maestro in his film just to prove that he wasn’t ACCIDENTALLY remaking 8 1/2. And that is literally all the scene does.

Ellen Burstyn plays the director’s wife and reportedly modelled her perf on Betsy Mazursky. Which is worrying, because the marital conversations are all fraught, with Sutherland snippy and Burstyn frowning, confused and browbeaten. And yet Mazursky managed to stay married to the same woman from his early days of obscurity, past his huge first hit, and beyond this, his huge first flop, and on to eventual death decades later. That has to be a successful marriage, and by Hollywood standards a wondrous one. If you die married, it was a success, right?

Mazursky set out to shoot dream sequences as pastiches of other directors’ work, but they all seem like Fellini to me. One, with Jeanne Moreau and a fairy coach, might be Jacques Demy, but confusingly she’s singing tunes from JULES ET JIM.

I have a photo of myself with Jeanne Moreau and it’s a lot like this: she doesn’t look as good as you’d like, and I look really fatuously pleased with myself.

The big Vietnam fantasy is pretty impressive, and could have made a simple point well: by restaging Nam on Hollywood Boulevard, the film could be asking “How would YOU like it?” But Mazursky throws in Sutherland grieving his murdered (in fantasy only) family — a rehearsal for his DON’T LOOK NOW angst-face — men in tuxes dancing on burning cars, some random guy seemingly raping some woman — the camera crane with a Sutherland doppelgänger directing the whole thing — pedestrians going past as if nothing were happening — a gaggle of Hare Krishnas — and Hooray for Hollywood on the soundtrack, and then Jeanne Moreau passes through, still singing…

Mazursky has made the small blunder of thinking her can do what Fellini does (even CANDY has a passable Fellini pastiche) but the far greater mistake of thinking he understands HOW and WHY Fellini does what he does. Which nobody understands.

Still — we get some nice images…

      

 

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15 Responses to “One and a Half”

  1. It’s a mess but a very understandable mess following the smash success of “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” He got to do what he wanted. Unfortunately what he wanted wasn’t very interesting. Paul was a very dear man. “Next Stop Greenwich Village” is his best. But I’m also fond of his “Tempest.”

  2. Paul had a famous table at the “Farmer’s Market” where every Sunday he and a bevvy of old Jewish writers and directors would sit around swapping stories. A shame he never made a film about that.

  3. Even in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”, a film I admire very much, Fellini’s influence is in evidence, especially in the transplanted to Las Vegas “8 1/2” processional finale and even its ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus enhanced aerial shots, which are certainly a California transplantation of the opening Christ statuary shots from “La Dolce Vita”.

  4. Yeah, the ending of B&C&T&A is slightly questionable on the basis that All Fellini Hommages Are A Bad Idea.

    Mike Hodges was able to borrow Felliniesque design ideas for his criminally-underseen Squaring the Circle, and that worked great because he was clearly using the right tools for a specific job.

    Ken Russell, uniquely, could pull tricks that ought to seem Felliniesque, and were indeed influenced by Russell’s admiration for FF, but emerged as Pure Russell.

    Stardust Memories recycles 8 1/2 with some skill and class, but I still say NO.

    Mazursky talks a lot about his love of markets in his autobiography, influenced by his childhood in Brooklyn.

  5. Altman was touched by Fellini, apparent in Brewster McCloud but there it doesn’t seem Fellinieque. Scorsese is also much influenced by Fellini, apparent especially in Wolf of Wall Street, but he’s also not really Felliniesque.

    But it does point to a larger issue about that is that directors don’t seem very influenced by Fellini anymore. I mean since the 90s, arthouse movies globally are affected by extended long-takes and slow movies and a strong realist bent: Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami and their own school, and I don’t thin any of them are influenced by Fellini and certainly no one major these days.

  6. Well that’s goo because Fellini is PERFECT all by himself.

  7. Still Todd Haynes pays homage quite well in the black and white sequences of “I’m Not There.” He even rebuilt the giant white chair that Barbara Steele perches on to put on her shoes.

    (Note the use of Nino Rota music in this clip)

  8. One last Fellini tribute (complete with onscreen credit) is Gene Wilder’s “The World’s Greatest Lover”. Very uneven, but I had one favorite scene: Wilder’s drunken wannabe encounters the real Valentino. As Valentino helps the staggering drunk walk, he can’t help but turn it into a tango.

  9. Wilder’s post-Young Frankenstein work was beyond uneven. Frustrating, as one badly wanted to like anything he did. And couldn’t.

    Yes, Haynes is a talented pasticheur, if that’s a word. And the Fellini sequence somehow seems just what’s called for, although the Fellini-Dylan connection is pretty tenuous for two such twentieth-century colossi, if that’s a word.

    Fellini’s approach requires MONEY, so it’s not surprising the arthouse of today doesn’t go there… except maybe Matthew Barney?

  10. Your stills make the movie look positively tantalizing (the traffic jam a la Toby Dammit and the row of priests a la Roma – a film I’m not a fan of, but that fashion show is one of my favourite sequences of all time). In the list of Fellini imitations, Santa Sangre may be my absolure favourite

  11. There’s Sorrentino’s the great beauty…

  12. Alex is also one of those films so lacking in shape that its ending comes as a mighty “HUH?” and I can imagine vocal dissatisfaction being expressed by cinema audiences when the film effectively runs out. Something that NEVER happens with Fellini, even in his most narrative-free works.

    Sorrentino, and maybe Matteo Garrone, are keeping the gaudy flame alive.

    Jodorowsky resembles Ken Russell in that his Felliniesque phantasmagorias are also uniquely personal and distinctive.

  13. Don’t forget Paul’s work as an actor. He was one of the gang in “The Blackboard Jungle” and played a very significant role in Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire.” At one point in “The Shining” Shelley Duvall is watching “Blume in Love” (one of Pau’s best) on television. Paul asked me “Why do you think he did that?” I told him it was Stanley’s way of saying “Hi Paul!”

  14. Yes, why not advertise your pals’ work?

    I never knew that’s what she was watching.

    He talks about Kubrick extracting money from his drugstore-running uncle to fund F&D. And there’s a tantalising glimpse of the alluring Toba Kubrick.

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