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In Print: Paul on Mazursky

The Seventies couldn't have asked for a more empathetic chronicler of the human condition than filmmaker Paul Mazursky

Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 12, 2011

In Print

Paul on Mazursky

by Sam Wasson
Wesleyan Books, 348 pp., $35

A five-time Oscar nominee hardly qualifies as unsung. And yet, ask a youngish film nerd to name the Seventies' most significant filmmakers, and Paul Mazursky probably wouldn't make the first breath. That may be because he didn't traffic in material as baroque or bullet-riddled as Scorsese or Coppola, and he worked almost exclusively in the marginalized medium of comedy. But what tender comedies they were: The Seventies couldn't have asked for a more empathetic chronicler of the human condition. In an astonishing run of films from 1969 to 1978, Mazursky freeze-framed the fast-moving zeitgeist – from married couples wanting a piece of the sexual revolution (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) to man and woman freshly stung by divorce (Blume in Love, An Unmarried Woman) – and made wry, intimate films about the whole life spectrum, from the brash 20s (the autobiographical Next Stop, Greenwich Village) to the philosophical 70s (Harry and Tonto).

Mazursky has a lot of stories to tell about his hyper-productive Seventies output and his later, somewhat lacking filmography – 1989's Enemies: A Love Story, an uncharacteristic picture, was his last masterpiece – and in this collection of transcript interviews, he comes off as avuncular, mostly unruffled by years in a cutthroat business, and very, very funny. Film scholar Sam Wasson, on the other hand, is at first an irritant, overinserting himself into the narrative. (Admittedly, I had some leftover rancor regarding Wasson's last book, the well-researched and otherwise engaging Fifth Avenue, 5AM: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, which was ruined by his excessive psychologizing and too much personal license with what he called "factual re-creations"). But as Mazursky warmed to Wasson, so too did I; ghosting alongside Wasson's work of scholarship is a curiously touching relationship between interviewer and interviewee.

Take this exchange, in which Wasson tries to get Mazursky to comment on the "humanitarian instinct" in his films. Mazursky replies:

"Sammy, I don't know. I know for this whole book you've been trying to get me to tell you what I think about my life and my work, but the fact is, when I sit down and think about it, I'm afraid it's going to freeze my mind in a way that makes me think that I can't do something because it 'isn't me' – whatever that means. I don't even know what me is."

The moment is a compact, perfect portrait of the undersung artist: a spitfire, a soul-searcher, and – now in his early 80s – still in thrall to the creative process.

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