The King of Marvin Gardens: A Killing

On Film / Essays — Nov 27, 2010

The New Jersey resort town of Atlantic City provides the backdrop for two distinctive films made at opposite ends of the seventies: Bob Rafelson’s 1972 The King of Marvin Gardens and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, released in 1981. That decade saw tremendous changes in the fabric of the city—changes that one could say were prefigured in Rafelson’s film, only to be confirmed, with documentary precision, by Malle’s. For in 1976, in a bid to reverse an economic decline that had been advancing since the Second World War, the city got a state referendum passed to legalize gambling—making it only the second city in the United States with this distinction. The massive old hotels, with their upmarket names (the Shelburne, the Marlborough Blenheim, the Ambassador, the Chalfonte, the Ritz-Carlton), were either demolished or turned into casinos. It is against the background of such an establishment, for example, that much of Malle’s film unfolds: its heroine, a wannabe croupier played by Susan Sarandon, holds down a waitressing job in the oyster bar of one of these vast indoor palaces.

Similarly, although set in the city’s pre-legalized-gaming days, The King of Marvin Gardens is also, in its way, about gambling. The film’s principal protagonist, Jason Staebler (Bruce Dern), has established himself there, along with a pair of slightly ambiguous girlfriends, hoping to make a killing in the property market. As the city has declined, the ownership of its real estate has loosened up, and there are chances for a shrewd businessman to carve out lucrative deals for himself—if he’s up to it. Something about Jason, alas, tells us that he is no Donald Trump, the real-life property magnate whose fortune was based at the time on these very changes. There is piquancy in the fact—central, somehow, to the feel of Rafelson’s film, and part of its curiously suggestive symbolism—that the different districts of Atlantic City, including Marvin Gardens, are known to the American public as squares in the game of Monopoly. Without nudging the viewer too much, the photography of László Kovács captures the city as a playing board. Massively there then, in their civic solidity and confidence, their erstwhile bourgeois prosperity, the famous hotels along the boardwalk are, from another perspective, simply theatrical facades—subprime Monopoly pieces to be bartered and thrown around between speculators with the lightness of a beach ball. What is the weight of the American dream? And what is its substance? These are some of the questions the movie touches on.

The King of Marvin Gardens emerged from an altogether excellent period in American filmmaking, a sort of interregnum between the decline of the old Hollywood studio system and the rise of the new. The second half of the seventies famously saw the birth of the modern blockbuster, with such movies as Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) leading the way. Yet the first half of the decade, before these changes were institutionalized, was full of quirky, individualistic movies that give you a much more compelling picture than the later films do of the reality of the time, in all its fascinating complexity. The King of Marvin Gardens is a key film in this context, taking its place alongside other important movies of the late sixties and early seventies that emerged from BBS (and its precursor, Raybert), the independent production company that Rafelson cofounded with industry insider Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner. It was the third film that Rafelson directed himself, after Head and Five Easy Pieces, and it comes near the end of the BBS story. Indeed, it might be better seen as part of another grouping, a 1970s Rafelson trilogy, along with Five Easy Pieces and the later, non-BBS Stay Hungry (1976). Together and in retrospect, these works are sufficiently different from one another not to feel repetitious but sufficiently similar to suggest a point of view, a take on the world, an artistic vision that has not always been credited to this director. All three films, of course, are “minor” works, in the sense that they were conceived of on an intimate scale, and produced on relatively low budgets. Yet what most strikes the viewer now, in addition to their delightful modesty, is the sheer range of sociological reference that Rafelson managed to pack into them. Five Easy Pieces is set in California and the Pacific Northwest; The King of Marvin Gardens thousands of miles across the country, on the Atlantic seaboard, in the depths of winter; while Stay Hungry takes us, with its own kind of uncanny precision, to the world of Alabama and the Deep South. They are “only” little films, as I have intimated, but in a way, the whole of America is present in them.

Like Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens portrays a conflictual relationship between two brothers of strikingly contrasting personalities (much more centrally in the latter, of course). Yet whereas in Five Easy Pieces Jack Nicholson plays the bohemian half of the pair—the rebel, the ne’er-do-well—here he takes on the role of the introverted and uptight younger brother, whose task in life, psychically conditioned by the family background, is to rein in the anarchistic exuberance of his more worldly and enthusiastic elder sibling. As David Staebler—provincial talk-show host, would-be poet and philosopher of the nighttime airwaves—Nicholson delivers a more than adequate performance; when does he ever not? But the real fire in the film comes from Bruce Dern’s Jason. It is an amazing turn all around, and not only because of the intrinsic skill and energy of the actor. It is surely also because the movie itself is so well written. The dialogue, by Jacob Brackman, crackles with wit, and at the same time, structurally speaking, there is a sort of openness about the way the story unfolds that is altogether rare in the American mainstream. We are far from the realm of genre here; on the contrary, we are in the realm of character and psychology. That may seem a perverse way of putting it, for in a way the film is “just” a comedy, its ironic potential lying, as in comedy it always does, between what the characters may be hoping to get out of life and what—because of their various ineptitudes—they will be forced in the end to put up with. Still, turned only a few degrees clockwise, this is also the recipe for tragedy, and The King of Marvin Gardens is indeed a dark, pessimistic movie. The idea that drives Jason is to buy a remote island in the Pacific, where he and his companions henceforth will be able to live the life of Riley—patently over the top as an ambition, and a fit subject, perhaps, for a satire on human pretensions. But though in one way the premise of the film is broad and extrovert, in another way it is subtle and Chekhovian. The movie encompasses these two possibilities of interpretation simultaneously, through an attention to tone, to nuance, and to sudden shifts in psychological register that is altogether authoritative.

A word should be said about the women characters, and the actresses who play them, because they, too, are part of the charm of the film and a major gauge of what I am calling its subtlety and sophistication. There are two of them, older and younger, and they are in ambiguous relation to each other: Are they mother and daughter? Or are they in some curious way lovers? Both are attached to Jason, although throughout the film, our unpredictable hero seems to be trying to off-load the younger one onto his brother—as a reward, or a bribe, for cooperating with him. The wonderful Ellen Burstyn plays Sally, the older of the pair, while the role of the soubrette, Jessica, who turns out in fact to be Sally’s stepdaughter, is taken by Julia Anne Robinson, an actress whose sole appearance in movies this was; two years later, she died tragically, in an apartment fire. I have come across comments that speak of her acting as wooden, but I have to say that, for me, she is an absolutely luminous presence—a fascinating counterpart, both in type and frail physical beauty, to the Susan Anspach character (the older brother’s music-loving girlfriend) in Five Easy Pieces. One of the most memorable sequences of The King of Marvin Gardens is Jessica’s tap dance under the spotlight during the private Miss America pageant that the group puts on to pass the time (there is a hint of Waiting for Godot in the plot of this film). Undoubtedly, Robinson walks the walk here. The whole masquerade is carried off with style and cheek—aided, to be sure, by the charm of a smiling Nicholson, acting as host of the ceremony, for this is one of the rare occasions when David can be seen to loosen up a bit, and to shed his habitual mask of tortured morosity.

Yes, he is a morose fellow, this literary younger brother of Jason’s. Evidently, something has gone wrong in the past; he appears to have spent time in a psychiatric institution, though he is reluctant to come out and admit it. (Typically, Jason is more forthcoming about the time that he has spent in jail.) The film, in general, seems to me to have a miraculously correct level of backstory, those little details that convince you the characters have come from somewhere—that they possessed lives before the film started, and that the particular episode you are looking at is set within the durée of a complete human life. This gets us back to the movie’s subtlety and understatement. The corroborating details must be there, but they mustn’t be too many, and they must be insinuated almost without viewers’ noticing them—for instance, during the great quarrel that erupts when the group are packing their bags to leave the hotel, Jason holds in his hands a couple of miniature athletic trophies, testimony to some valued physical prowess of his youth.

And here one should say something about Rafelson as craftsman. Like the other two films in the trilogy, The King of Marvin Gardens is very confidently edited—which is perhaps only another way of saying it is very confidently shot. Rafelson knows exactly how to mount a scene, to move seamlessly from medium shot to close-up, or to hold on a particular framing for emphasis; nor does he forget to provide us, when necessary, with those little, but vital, silent inserts (what the French call temps morts) that go to make a film’s cadence and thoughtfulness. One could take the scene where the band of parading majorettes suddenly scatters at the sound of a whistle, and the camera moves back into extreme long shot to reveal, like an impressionist painting, the scurrying figures against the backdrop of the boardwalk and the icy wintry ocean. Or the moment at which, having descended from the cable ride above the city, David is briefly left on his own, without his brother. No dialogue here is necessary, only the clanking of the cable machinery in the background. David looks upward and frowns. Immediately, there is a communicated sense of interiority, of reflection, of melancholy that is absolutely part of the movie’s distinctiveness.

It happens that Bob Rafelson was the first American movie director this writer addressed himself to professionally when starting out as a young film critic in the seventies. Up until that time, my main interest had been in European art-house cinema—in a way, it still is. But where film is concerned, American cinema can never be ignored; it is so obviously at the center of all reflection on the art. What strongly drew me to these three movies in general, and to The King of Marvin Gardens in particular, was the sense communicated of personal, existentialist freedom. On the surface, this may seem paradoxical, because two of the films, after all—Five Easy Pieces and this one—resolve themselves in impasse and violence. But in another way, it isn’t: Rafelson’s films speak up for the idea that in American society, everyone is entitled to invent themselves. The dream, so to speak, is always valid—even if it crashes in flames. Such a view of life seemed to me, back in the seventies, very different from the British position, where, traditionally, the class you are born into tends to be the one you remain in. Rafelson’s attitude toward the idea of self-invention, of “living the dream,” of escaping from class, struck me then—and still does—as tremendously open and democratic. The trilogy of movies he came up with may be characterized as extraordinarily nonjudgmental. Here are these interesting people, they seem to say. Take them for what they are. Enjoy (as well as their melancholy) their uncontrollable zest for life. They are the crooked timber of humanity.