The final frame: brothers building castles made of sand.

Film Three-Quarterly: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

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I watched King of Marvin Gardens many, many years ago, when it was a VHS rental from a video store (remember those?) I had very little memory of the film, apart from Jack Nicholson’s opening monolog and the one he records later in the bathroom, which I used for a mixtape (remember those too?)

So it was a delight to watch this again and see the film for the “first” time. Bob Rafelson had made several films with Nicholson up to this point, most famously two years before, Five Easy Pieces, which, similarly, many can’t remember save the diner scene.


You could trace a line from the lonely landscapes of neo-realist Italian films like The Bicycle Thief through this film and onward to Louis C.K.’s Louie, with its narrator’s befuddlement at a surreal city which is constantly throwing him off center. There’s looks that Nicholson’s David Staebler gives throughout that reminded me of the current show, and Rafelson’s exceedingly dry humor would not be out of place in the later seasons of Louie.

I had forgotten so much about this film: Bruce Dern as David’s con artist brother Jason, Ellen Burstyn as one of his two girlfriends, Sally, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and poor Julia Anne Robinson as Jessica, the younger of the two. And how could I forget that Scatman Crothers is in it, seven years before he would meet up with Jack Nicholson, this time wielding an axe.

But mostly I had forgotten that the film is an elegy to crumbling Atlantic City, shot in the off season, cold, all the former glamor rubbed off, all fading glory and empty ballrooms. We know that any business deal that Jason is proposing will come to naught precisely because of where the story is set.

Okay, so let’s look at the structure of this tragedy and if it in any way it follows the F3Q pattern. The film is 103 minutes total, so our quarters are at 25.75 mins, 51.5 mins, and 77.25 mins. What happens at these moments?

Quarter One: "I must admit I looked suspicious with a crowbar in my hand."
Quarter One: “I must admit I looked suspicious with a crowbar in my hand.”

By the time we get to the first quarter we have met all the major players, first David, then his grandpa (who acts as a sort of bookending character to the film), Sally, Jason (who David helps get out of jail), Scatman Crothers’ gang boss Lewis, and Julia. After the four check in to the Essex Carlton, our quarter scene comes where Jason, slightly drunk, welcomes David back into the “Staebler Brother Renaissance” and explains away why David found him in jail, dropping two other women’s’ names in the story that aren’t the women he’s with. Jason drinks a Bloody Mary, David sits calmly with a glass of milk at his side. In the next scene, Jason lays out a map an explains his scheme to build a hotel/casino on small Hawaiian island. (I’d argue that this is really the quarter scene, but that the lounge scene above is the first time the two brothers really talk together in private.

At the middle of the film we’ve already seen how pretty much all of Jason’s plans have been built of flimsy lies, while he cajoles David to follow his ideas. Jason hints that he is trying to set up David with Jessica, though mostly as a reward for helping him in his island dream.

The Middle: "You can't let it go downhill."
The Middle: “You can’t let it go downhill.”

The middle scene is lovely long take as the brothers ride a fairground ride whose car spins around a 360 view of Atlantic City while slowly descending. Descent is already a movement familiar from the opening credits where David journeys home by subway. Here Jason talks about Atlantic City and how it’s fallen from its 1930s glory, but he’s also talking about the fantasy relationship he thinks he has with his brother.
“Let that be a lesson to us…we can’t let it ever go downhill,” he says about the new island…as they descend. David humors him: “Anybody litters, we deport ‘em.” It’s one of the few moments of the film where the two approach a parity. As this is a tragedy, this is about as good as its going to get for the two.

Final Quarter: "Oh! Aren't we chi-chi?"
Final Quarter: “Oh! Aren’t we chi-chi?”

In our final quarter, we got a long scene between Jessica and David, punctuated at the end by a distraught Sally, who has now cut off her blonde locks as punishment to herself. She’s realized that Jason is casting her aside ever so slowly for her step-daughter Jessica. She’s now going to fade away like Atlantic City, unless…

David’s character is a depressive, as only a story-telling radio DJ can be, and he has been hanging around for several reasons, and none of them are about Jason’s scheme. One is to find new material for his monologues, and the other is this very slim chance that he will get to sleep with Jessica. But David is such a black hole, and drones on so much that Jessica is not attracted to him. In this scene, she shuts David down, explaining her relationship and history with Sally and directly rebuffing his advances: “Do you think you’re the only one who’s entitled to be selfish?” she retorts when he critiques her menage a trois with Jason. (David’s approach is that of the White Knight, trying to “save” Jessica from Jason.) The scene ends with Jason leaving with both women, even though Sally is on the verge of insanity. David stays behind.

The scene makes sense as the final quarter “dark night of the soul” if we see it as a goodbye to all of David’s small desires: he doesn’t understand these people, especially his brother, and he’s sure not going to wind up in bed with Jessica. Now all he has to do is extract himself.

That won’t be easy, and now Rafelson begins to wrap up the storylines and threads he’s been weaving the whole time: the gangster that’s been following Jason around, the gun in Jason’s room, a meeting with Lewis which explains what’s really going on with Jason, and Sally’s anger and madness. It’s one of those endings that comes as a surprise, but on second or third viewing reveals itself as inevitable. The film constantly gives us new information about all the previous scenes and motivations of the characters. It’s a bit like a mystery novel.

There’s much more to this masterful film.It produces such a melancholia even when it’s amusing us, as intangible as a dream that we forget upon waking, but whose mood affects us all morning.

Lastly, does this film prove the F3Q theory? We have one main character who is passive and reactive, and a brother/antagonist who is active. For David’s journey, it’s an arc of connecting, joining, and then trying to extricate, trying to return to the state in which he began. But fate has other ideas and he returns home broken.

At some point, we’ll look at Five Easy Pieces and see if Rafelson’s other film shares a similar structure.

The final frame: brothers building castles made of sand.
The final frame: brothers building castles made of sand.

THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS
1972Directed by Bob Rafelson
Written by Jacob Brackman and Bob Rafelson
Edited by John F. Link

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