Variety reports that filmmaker Paul Mazursky died yesterday at the age of 84. The writer/director of such essential Seventies films as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman, Mazursky was also a lively, if only occasional performer whose first screen role was in Kubrick’s Fear and Desire.
There’s a pretty big place in my heart carved out for Mazursky. His films weren’t perfect – they were unprogrammatic to the point of messiness – but that was an essential part of their charm. He used the medium of film to ask the big questions: What does it mean to be human? An artist? A husband? A mother? What responsibility do we have, to ourselves and to others? Shakespeare’s the one who first tapped out “to thine own self be true,” but so often Mazursky’s films circled back to that idea, poked it with a stick, and found something funny and melancholy and true to say about the human condition.
In May, I programmed a series for the Austin Film Society about creative block that included Mazursky’s 1970 film Alex in Wonderland. (I’ll be honest – it went over like a lead balloon with the audience. Too dated, too hippie, too self-indulgent. I still like it.) Below is an excerpt from my program notes, devoted to the very special run of movies Mazursky made in the Seventies. One of them, An Unmarried Woman, is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it tonight. It’s terrific.
Coppola. Scorsese. Lucas. Altman. Allen. Ashby. Malick. Bogdanovich. Cassavetes.
When the story of American filmmaking in the Seventies is told, Mazursky typically gets bumped to demigod status in the pantheon, an afterthought to his more celebrated contemporaries. Was it because he was a decade older than most of the New Hollywood crowd? Or because his peaceful private life wouldn’t feed the tabloid machine? Because his films weren’t always reducible to tidy loglines? Or because he made humane, inquisitive comedies about domestic life?
Whatever the reason, Mazursky got a raw deal. In less than ten years, he directed BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969), ALEX IN WONDERLAND (1970), BLUME IN LOVE (1973), HARRY & TONTO (1974), NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE (1976), and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978). Not a gangster opus or space opera in the mix – instead, movies defined by an ongoing interest, even enthrallment, with what it means to be a human, curious and confused.
Hereʼs another theory why Mazursky – a five-time Oscar nominee – is too often skipped over: His Seventies pictures both reflected and challenged American culture in the moment they were being made, which by necessity time-stamped them. Four decades after that exceptional and diverse run of movies, they can seem dated to modern audiences. Funny, searching, never didactic, these films explored monogamy, divorce, aging, race, womenʼs lib, and the eternal struggle to make a soulful, authentic statement as an artist. (NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE was a period piece, inspired by Mazurskyʼs own experiences as a budding boho in the Fifties, but its treatments of abortion, suicide, and sexuality were at the time progressive for a studio picture.) While these films are in many ways timeless, itʼs hard not to wince now at Alexʼs sincere but clumsy desire to dramatize “the black dilemma” in ALEX IN WONDERLAND, or BLUME IN LOVEʼs infamous rape scene (which was controversial even upon its release, at least with feminist viewers). But as tin-eared as some of these moments may play now, thereʼs still something not just admirable but electrifying in how Mazursky retuned the domestic comedy to catch counterculture vibrations. Time and again, he went out on a ledge in his films; it feels unsporting not to join him there.
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