Criterion Files #550: ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’ Explores What Remains of an Old Hollywood

By  · Published on August 10th, 2011

Bob Rafelson’s highly underrated The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) works as something of an unofficial sequel to his beloved previous film and the rightful centerpiece of the BBS Story, Five Easy Pieces (1970). After the “farcidelia” of Head, Rafelson’s second film could not be further from its opposite in tone, aesthetics, and overall relation to the counterculture, whose narrative absence is used to great effect in the latter film.

It wasn’t until Rafelson’s third film as director that his identity as a filmmaker started to solidify through his continued exploration of themes shared between films. Like many filmmakers of the New Hollywood generation, Rafleson possessed symptoms of the self-conscious auteur, but the similarities between Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens go far beyond surface connections that denote a consistent cinematic personality behind the camera in terms of themes and style, but instead point to a rare kind of filmmaker altogether during New Hollywood or any era.

Rafelson’s America

New Hollywood was arguably one of the most class-conscious eras in movie studio history, stacked with relentless depictions of strife at the hand of a competitive and unforgiving modern landscape in pantheon mainstays like Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Taxi Driver (1976). But rather than explore the violent portrayals of suffering attendant in these more famous films, Rafelson’s work is gentler in that it instills neither pity for nor fear of his characters. Rafelson’s protagonists struggle, but seeing them as victims requires a condescension and distance that the filmmaker clearly isn’t interested in.

There’s a remarkable specificity to working class life in Rafelson’s films. As Mark Le Fanu points out in his essay accompanying the set, there is a remarkable adaptability to geography present in Rafelson’s work, and with these changes in location his specificity is consistent, making viewers feel as if the two hours they share with these characters are simply a drop in the bucket in which we are given brief access to one moment in a fully detailed and complex life. Whether journeying from the sparse vistas of the southwest to the beautiful foggy woods of the Pacific northwest in Five Easy Pieces or traversing the crumbling icons of the northeast Atlantic coast in The King of Marvin Gardens, Rafelson embeds a degree of familiarity that one would think he grew up in every corner of America and could thus attest to a vision of an entire nation with autobiographical understanding.

Atlantic City By Way of New Hollywood

The films produced by BBS weren’t simply standout films made by Americans through a major American studio during a renaissance in American filmmaking, but they were films profoundly about America. A blatantly obvious point, to be sure, but one that becomes rather meticulous when considering what the set accomplishes as a whole, as the film featured within are both specific and exhaustive in their inspection and critique of America. Each of these films utilize the specific space of their story to comment on profound changes shaping the country as a whole.

The Atlantic City captured by The King of Marvin Gardens might make for a footnote in some record of the city’s history, but never a major chapter, so it’s compelling that the city’s strange interval period is captured here with such a strict attention to its dilapidated attractions, its empty restaurants, its noisy rides, and its dusty hotels occupied by old men and women hanging on to its (and their) glory years. The Atlantic City of 1972 was defeated by competing sources of leisure, far from its populated height in previous decades portrayed nostalgically by premium entertainment like Boardwalk Empire. This is also the Atlantic City that wasn’t quite how we know it today, as the Las Vegas of the northeast, as gambling had not yet been made legal to save it from slow and embarrassing ruin.

Admittedly, Rafelson likely had no idea what would come of Atlantic City, but one can’t help but be fascinated in getting the chance to peek at this historical interval, with Rafelson infatuated with depicting every corner of it, and the subtle, low-rent beauty his characters share that encapsulate for the film (as indicated by its titular Monopoly allegory) a continued tragedy playing out in the futile grasps for a dead American Dream depicted here.

But looking back at this interval period of Atlantic City also provides the opportunity to similarly look back at New Hollywood not as a creative peak in American studio filmmaking, but as itself a brief and strange interval between one dominant form and another. As Atlantic City is reduced to remnants of its former self, with its memories lingering as ghosts in the cracking walls, the glory of Hollywood’s old studio system lingered through the late 1960s and the 1970s. After all, what we think of as New Hollywood hardly represented the only types of movies being made at this time. Actors and filmmakers from the old era still worked, but the magic was gone. So these new, young, challenging artistic voices emerged not as a replacement, but to take the reigns until something shiny and new inevitably took hold. And in 1975 and 1977, with the release of Jaws and Star Wars, something new did. The first films of Spielberg and Lucas might more accurately be termed New Hollywood instead, for they embodied the renewed version of the old implied in this term. What BBS accomplished has no term that captures it completely.

That BBS (and, by association, New Hollywood at large) fell apart was less a story tragically cut short than it was an event clearly inevitable to all involved. This is why the team involved with BBS was so prolific in such a short period of time. They knew it was a rare opportunity that likely wouldn’t last. While many filmmakers and performers survived and even flourished from the mid-late seventies blockbuster era that has since exponentially defined Hollywood’s narrow contemporary function, the transition out of the New Hollywood interval was not without its casualties. For example, Hal Ashby’s career – and life – ended only a few years after the 1970s did. While Rafelson’s fate wasn’t quite as tragic or dramatic, he certainly peaked early as this era was remarkably suited for his aesthetic and thematic sensibilities. Instead of bemoaning the loss of the brief New Hollywood era, understanding this time instead as a brief interval makes me thankful that the right people just so happened to be making films during this brief window of opportunity in American film history.

The Book is Dead

While Bruce Dern’s Jason Staebler could very well be an incarnation of Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea somewhere down the road, Rafleson made the shrewd decision of giving Jack Nicholson the less charismatic role, as his nebbish and reserved artistic intellectual brother David, a character directly against Nicholson’s type in this or any other decade. David uses his late-late-night radio show as the medium for his own autobiography because, as he expresses to himself by himself in Atlantic City, that nobody reads and the book is dead:

“Goodbye written word. I have chosen this medium to talk about my life. Not because it is worthy, but because it is hopefully, comically unworthy.”

Nicholson’s justification for radio as an art form sums up the quintessential “Rafleson character” as an antihero who needs to be onscreen precisely because he is an unworthy protagonist. But more importantly, it encapsulates the cruel nature the passage of time has to most art. David’s radio show is broadcast to almost no listeners and is likely not recorded. Rather than use the implied “permanence” of the written word David has chosen the ephemeral route, allowing his art to both exist and not exist in the same moment. David knows his art will likely be forgotten if noticed at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy of being made. This may have been the mantra of those who took incredible risks at BBS, but thankfully their art wasn’t lost in the soundwaves.

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