Thursday, 11 July 2013

the king of marvin gardens (w&d bob rafelson, w. jack brackman)

The opening is so masterly, establishing such a potent link between its star and its audience, that perhaps it comes as no surprise that the film which then follows fails to live up to it. The opening is Nicholson telling a dark, unlikely story about his grandfather. He's speaking on the radio, something we do not initially realise, and the bond between actor and public is mesmeric. The film then opens up to reveal his down-at-heel life, shared with the same grandfather. Nicholson is charismatic and damned by his unknown demons. It looks as though the movie will be a follow-up to 5 Easy Pieces, another gripping character study. 

But then it takes a jagged turn, switching to Atlantic City, where Nicholson's brother, Bruce Dern, is just getting out of prison. Dern is a freewheeling, on-the-make hustler, with dreams of setting up his own enterprise in Hawaii. He's involved with the local crime syndicate and also has a curious ménage a trois with his unhinged girlfriend and her kooky little sister. The plot thickens, to such an extent that it soon curdles. The problem soon becomes apparent: the filmmaker was attempting to create a character who was even more charismatic than Nicholson. As a result, Nicholson's story becomes marginal, a lost canon never given the chance to detonate. The narrative becomes more and more episodic, leading to its melodramatic finale. 

This might be a metaphor for the fate of Rafelson himself. An enormous talent who made one masterpiece and was involved in the making of many more, but also someone who began to believe the story was about him, rather than the tales he had to tell. His film is riddled with hubris: the masterpiece that might have been. As Raging Bulls Easy Riders recounts, his own life became the drama. Perhaps Nicholson's own later career reflects Rafelson's, as the implication of the actor's persona alone became the basis of his character, superseding anything the script might have to say. Jack became 'Jack', a comic book version of the profound, sensitive actor he once was. The ego at times appearing to overpower his innate talent. 

Ironically, this film fails through being one of the few to ever underplay Nicholson's potency. Opening the door to speculation about the curious male dynamics that must have existed between director and his star. Did Rafelson set out to emasculate Jack? It seems perverse to have an actor of his power and then consciously not only seek to contain that power but even trump it through the older brother figure of Dern. In short, The King of Marvin Gardens ends up being a more interesting film as a result of the sub-narratives and back story than it does as a film in its own right. 

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