THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972)
This was one of the last BBS films released and was as quietly innovative as EASY RIDER was loudly provocative. Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson combined as they had before in the ground-breaking partnership that produced FIVE EASY PIECES the year before, and many later projects, in a piece reflecting casting revelations and unique directorial style.
We open on a bespectacled, sombre Nicholson unfolding a tale in a semi-darkened room. We have no idea of location and yet for the next five minutes in a single take, we are held hypnotised by his peculiar monologue about his relationship to fish and his grandfather. It feels like a confessional and yet we don’t know why he tells it or to whom. Some way in, a red light blinks, distracting him to his irritation. We then discover in a wider shot that he’s actually a radio show host, albeit one with a perplexing niche - what is his show’s purpose? Rafelson wrote this monologue in real-life for an English course, and its disturbing fictional allegation of childhood complicity in family murder caused his teacher to recommend him for a remedial class due to suspected mental instability.
Nicholson’s performance as David Stabler is a revelation. Awkward, introverted and downbeat, his role is more like that typically taken by Bruce Dern, who Rafelson deliberately switched with him so that Dern would equally challenge himself as his brother Jason, a wolfish, shady wheeler-dealer with grandiose schemes. The two contrast well in a way that seldom would be tested in future. Rafelson also experiments with style a great deal in the filming, asking Lazslo Kovacs to shoot all the external scenes in static camera shots that disorientate the viewer slightly and place each actor in a specific image. On a beach scene in Atlantic Scene, Dern for example would be filmed against a promenade backdrop while Nicholson would be against the waves but at a different spot altogether - framing the former as a visionary and the latter all-at-sea perhaps.
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS is also another chance to see the great Ellen Burstyn at work, delicately earning sympathy as a woman recognising that the clock is ticking on the viability of her looks and that her wagon is hitched to the unreliable Jason with tragic consequences. She sees herself supplanted by her step-daughter Jessica (Julia Ann Robinson), ‘You’re the meal ticket now’. As the group act out a fanciful Miss America pageant, the younger model is literally put centre-stage under a rented spotlight. (This is also notably the only point where Nicholson allows a lightening characteristic flambouyance into his role, which audiences would come to rely on all-too-much later in his career) Burstyn is tender and extremely poignant as she takes the law and a gun mistaken for a water pistol into her own hands and her mind unravels at the result.
The film ends cyclically with these awful events reduced to another of David Stabler’s monologues on his show. Nicholson allows vulnerability to crack his introverted case as he channels his life into his medium on-mic. Maybe his one consolation and indeed his program’s purpose is that his listeners are unseen and so some form of private catharsis can be gained in public.
BBS’s body of work was an integral part of the early 70s shift in tone to explore unsafe, challenging creativity - and without succumbing to pat, rosy fakery in its conclusions, this approach was often echoed elsewhere in film culture as my blog will illustrate repeatedly.