skip navigation
Cult Movie Picks - June 2012
Remind Me

The King of Marvin Gardens

Every New Wave has its myths and legends, and arguably the paradigmatic tale of the American New Wave is the arc of BBS Productions. Beginning, unlikely enough, with the success of the manufactured teen-pop absurdity of The Monkees television show, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson's mini-empire expanded in the heartbeat of Easy Rider (1969), a low-budget project beginning as a quasi-Corman biker film with pretensions toward social profundity and, it was thought, little chance of doing more than earning its low six figures back. A stunning 10,000% box office return later, BBS was riding the Yankee Wave as pointman, splitting the difference between John Cassavetes and Arthur Penn, and defying the already-dissolving wisdom of Hollywood by making money with small, cool, despairing slices of Fringe America that never resorted to violence or action, but instead took the nation's pulse in a time of cataclysmic unease.

The films, most famously Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971), strove to out-neo-realist the neo-realists, reflecting the French and Czech yen for grit, natural light and off-screen life, paving the way and inspiring imitators from Martin Scorsese and Monte Hellman to Sidney Lumet. (Lumet, like many, didn't make movies the same way after 1969 as he did before.) Quite suddenly, after some 65 years of conscientiously mustering implausible daydreams, Hollywood was in the truth business, and it seemed that American movies had finally grown up. Easy Rider could be taken as a bit of cool wish-fulfillment, but Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces cut deeper across American grain, with Jack Nicholson's Nowhere Man, caught between high culture and wage slavery, between desert and mountains, between rebellion and self-pity, becoming the new decade's iconic pilgrim, identifiable to all age groups. Thus, the follow-up film took everyone by surprise: Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) didn't pretend to speak for any generational Zeitgeist, nor did it express a national open-highway restlessness, nor did it even capitalize on Nicholson's newly-famous swagger. Instead, the film plumbed a musty, creepy corner of all-American dead-end-ism, telling a kind of frustrating truth to a 1972 America that had just grown to like their homegrown existentialism with a little more road-movie wistfulness and a lot more "freedom."

The first thing we see is Jack in shadowy close-up, dryly telling a childhood story about his grandfather keeling over while choking on a fish bone. Only after six uninterrupted minutes do we realize that Nicholson is in a broadcast booth, storytelling on a Philadelphia radio show, after which he returns to his family manse and his very alive grandfather, irritated by the fictional story. We know immediately that this is an America where nothing is quite as it seems, or exactly what we're told. Nicholson's David Staebler is just as lost as Five Easy Pieces' Bobby Dupea, but he's no extrovert - everything for David is kept under a tight pot lid, Nicholson's wary lizard eyes taking everything in but showing us nothing. The man's self-restricted mini-universe of semi-truth is upset with a call from his jack-rabbit older brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), who's been arrested in Atlantic City.

David's journey into the dusty, desolate layers of off-season A.C. is beautifully conceived; the city's elliptical identity, mysterious underworld, barren tourist locales, and sense of last-resort desperation perfectly reflecting Jason and his headful of get-rich-quick schemes and delusions, and David is the pilgrim traversing both obscure wildernesses. (Critic J. Hoberman called it "an end-of-the-road movie.") Like life as a grifter or mob-connected real-estate mogul in any derelict resort town (we're pretty sure Jason is the former, but only a little luck and gall could make him the latter), the film involves a lot of waiting, as Jason and David negotiate equally ill-defined relationships with the floozie hangers-on team of Sally (a tawdry Ellen Burstyn) and Jessie (the rather ghostly Julia Anne Robinson, in her only film), who may be stepmother and stepdaughter, or not, but who are in some sort of unmentionable sexual competition, and who are both just as stuck on the edge of civilization, waiting for the American Dream in the rambunctious, unstable person of Jason to make good on its sky-high promise.

Jason has a big tropical-island sales deal up in the air, which David knows very well might just be a fat daydream and nothing more (except that the local mob and some Japanese investors are in on it, somehow), and so The King of Marvin Gardens is actually about the barely articulated history between the two brothers. Their parents are barely mentioned; what we glean from the actors' masterful physical interfacing and what they don't talk about amounts to a locked closet full of family secrets, all the more powerful for not being catalogued and explained for us. Of course in the process the situation between the four characters is in a state of collapse, as David seems to have imperceptibly quaffed Jason's pipe dream Kool-Aid, Sally dissolves into a full-on character meltdown, and the impossibility of Jason's plans becomes more and more apparent.

This was the Nixon era, after all, when disillusionment was the watch-word for every generation, and the American brand had lost its certainty and left its natives wandering. Movies that nailed down the nation's psychosocial crisis weren't hard to find. Inspired and iconic every step of the way, right up to when David impulsively rummages through Sally and Jason's nightstand and finds, ominously, a vibrator (Hollywood movies' first?) and a loaded handgun, The King of Marvin Gardens is as eloquent as any '70s film, and would be an overlooked masterpiece just for its amazing and heartbreaking final shot, a home movie within the movie, of two boys at the beach, left to run off its projector.

Producer: Bob Rafelson
Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Jacob Brackman (screenplay); Bob Rafelson, Jacob Brackman (story)
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Production Design: Toby Carr Rafelson
Film Editing: John F. Link II
Cast: Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), 'Scatman' Crothers (Lewis), Charles LaVine (Grandfather), Arnold Williams (Rosko), John Ryan (Surtees), Sully Boyar (Lebowitz), Josh Mostel (Frank).

by Michael Atkinson