FLIPPING THROUGH THE INDEX in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — a book consumed with the rampage of sex, drugs and revolution in Seventies Hollywood and Hollywood in the seventies — one discovers that “Mazursky, Paul” has only two page numbers after it. (Scorsese alone takes up six lines.) At the time, Mazursky’s status as one of the decade’s reigning directors was an item of popular and critical consensus, but by the early nineties, the tides had turned. The Pickle (1993) was panned, and Mazursky’s subsequent efforts, though intermittently wonderful, did not live up to the work of his New Hollywood golden age. These days it seems like many cinephiles and even some critics have simply forgotten Mazursky’s films, full stop.
But back then (way back), in the American cinema’s most formidable post-war decade, Mazursky was untouchable. So much so that Time magazine critic and Film Comment Editor Richard Corliss could confidently predict:
Paul Mazursky is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations…. Mazursky has created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.
Mazursky’s pictures were explicitly, almost aggressively, enmeshed in the here and now (or from the vantage of decades passed, the then and there). Remember the psychedelic brownies? The suburban orgies? Remember the gurus, the shrinks, and the Rodeo Drive fetishists? They’re all there. Chronicling these shifts in the cultural ethos, Mazursky has preserved the changing passions of the American middle class in a kind of comic formaldehyde. The films were prescient, honest, and always hilarious.
Nearly forty at the time of his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Mazursky was some ten years older than the fresh batch of younger iconoclast directors. That fact understandably clashed with the then-popular image of directors as studio-lot rebels and insurgents of style. Mazursky, by comparison, seemed like an old-fashioned romantic and unreconstructed classicist. Like Frank Capra, he had an open heart but a satirical squint. Like Jean Renoir, he never let jokes get between him and the hard truths of his characters. And unlike most New Hollywood filmmakers, Paul Mazursky, part hippie, part father, had perspective and tendress. There was no other Hollywood writer/director with such a generous admiration of human foible, no other American auteur so shrewdly attuned to the cockeyed truths of how we love.
How could such an accomplished film-maker have slipped by?
The Dickensian bounty of characters in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)
PART OF THE PROBLEM, I realized, was Mazursky’s tenuous relationship to the medium itself. Screening his nearly twenty films, I at first saw a casual, seemingly haphazard style. The long, wide shots seemed aimless, undiscerning, even uncinematic, as if the camera had been set down in the place of least resistance and left to run, and run, until the film ran out. With formal issues sidelined, it seemed difficult to speak about his movies empirically, a problem that was only compounded by genre. The tone in Mazursky’s work is so mercurial, fluctuates so unpredictably, that no label seems adequete; “comedy” is too reductive, “dramedy” too innocuous, “dark comedy” too bitter. And Mazursky’s films, so heavily rooted in their time and place, are the opposite of timeless; the time-capsule storyworlds can seem inaccessible to contemporary audiences.
But my initial aspersions have to be recast. Cinema per se is only one part of the cinematic experience. Mazursky’s camera is only a facet of his expression, not, as was the case with the great craftsmen, its touchstone. “With Mazursky’s films,” James Monaco wrote, “what you see is what you get, and you either respond to it with admiration, even con amore, as I do, or you do not.” If a Mazursky feels emotionally unstable, then Mazursky, true to the tenets of human comedy, is doing his job. If a picture seems dated, all the better; it means the director’s anthropological comb was fine-toothed enough. If his depictions of bourgeois life are more forgiving than critical, it’s because Mazursky’s comedies won’t tolerate anything harsher than affectionate laughter.
No other work evokes the sexual discomfort of the late sixties as comprehensively as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Perhaps because Mazursky never deﬂates his characters’ tense situations by moralizing them into submission. Rather, he lets their confusions run carefully amok, and allows their emotionally awkward moments—stumbling blocks on the way to be new interpersonal territory—to persist, even encouraging them to continue on (and on) long after the conventional Hollywood scene would have ended. No one is neglected in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976). The Fifites Greenwich Village-set film is a Dickensian bounty of urban life. Every character gets the full Mazursky treatment. Leads and supporting players are distinguished only by the amount of screen time they get, but each could ﬁll out an entire movie. Andrew Sarris called An Unmarried Woman (1978) “the best American ﬁlm I have seen in years.” It’s also a head-on gaze, crystal-clear, into a real woman’s face. Jill Clayburgh’s Erica is not a female fantasized into existence by Mazursky; she’s no ingénue, gal Friday, kitchen wife, drama queen, or femme fatale. She is none of them because she is all of them.
If we laugh (and we may not), we laugh in recognition. Mazursky’s people are drawn to everyday scale, tailored less to life on screen than to life as we know it. They aren’t them. They’re us.
Jill Clayburgh is An Unmarried Woman (1976)
“CAN THE MIDDLE CLASS handle all the freedom it’s now being offered?” Mazursky once asked. “Does anybody really change? My pictures are about a reaction in the United States against and to authority, a re-assessment of social values, of moral values, of how people live.” Scene length, digressive story maneuvers, and contrapuntal tonality all play a part in his aesthetic of freedom, producing a feeling of spontaneity—but only a feeling. Contrary to appearances, Mazursky’s films are not improvisational, only made to look that way. It’s all in the script.
Mazursky’s knack for character and dialogue has been recognized (he’s been Oscar-nominated three times for Best Screenplay and once for Best Adapted Screenplay). But what would emotional and intellectual freedom be without physical freedom? Few have celebrated Mazursky’s subtler penchant for physical humor.
As Pauline Kael wrote about Mazursky:
His directing style is based on the actors intuitively taking off from each other. He does something that no other American movie director does: he writes, shapes, and edits the sequences to express the performing rhythm—to keep the actor’s pulse. As a result, the audience feels unusually close to the characters—feels protective toward them.
Mazursky’s film form, I saw, was a direct expression of these freedoms. Even tone had the freedom to change. Extending scenes past the point of narrative necessity, Mazursky would keep the camera rolling just to keep the points of views shifting. Think what you’re watching is funny? Wait. Think it’s sad? Keep waiting, because in the realm of human comedy, where everyone is human and therefore empathic, nothing is funny or unfunny for long, and there is always another side.
Sam Wasson is the author of Paul on Mazursky, a newly published collection of interviews with the director. He is also the New York Times Best Selling author of Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman; and A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards. Wasson is currently working on a full-scale biography of Bob Fosse.
The films of Paul Mazursky are playing at 92YTribeca Aug 10, 17 and 24. The series is co-presenteed by Alt Screen.