Friday, February 27, 2009


Last night the WHC featured a well-paired double feature I couldn't resist: John Cassavetes' Husbands (1970) and Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973). Both films feature a trio of men and the dynamic that evolves amongst them during what could be called 'a bender.' In the Cassavetes film, the fun begins after the funeral for the fourth member of the jolly band, but is prolonged when the three buddies, Harry (Ben Gazzara), Gus (Cassavetes), Archie (Peter Falk) go to London together: Harry because he's just become estranged from his wife, the other two as moral support. In Ashby's film, two 'lifers' in the Navy, 'Badass' Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and 'Mule' Mulhall (Otis Young) are given the detail of escorting young kleptomaniac Meadows (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouith, MA, where he will be incarcerated for eight years.

In other words, the boys in Husbands bond as one of their number is 'sprung' -- first, from life, via death, second, from wedlock via an erratic path of self-indulgence and occasional violence. While the boys in Detail bond while trying to introduce self-indulgence to one of their number who is about to lose all freedoms.

The guys in Husbands are a bit older; settled, married, family men, so the need to let loose is simply a given. We do see Gazzara trying to make amends with his wife -- which features her pulling a kitchen knife on him, and him slapping and man-handling both his wife and mother-in-law -- but otherwise the families are simply in the background as the world forever in the periphery of whatever husbands might be doing at the moment. What makes the film so appealing is the naturalness of the actors -- Falk, Gazzara, and Cassavetes are friends and their interactions seem spontaneous, much of their dialogue at times feeling improvised, the way real friends josh each other, take exception over trivial things like certain verbal or facial expressions, bond affectionately on moments just as fleeting, and generally create a collectivity that unites them against the world, even if, among themselves, there is real doubt and a lot of uncertain longings. Gazzara's Harry is the most 'troubled' -- in the sense of dissatisfied with his life, but also in the sense of having a personality that seems to bristle simply because that's his nature. Falk's Archie is the funniest; his efforts to pick up women, particularly an older, 'madam'-looking woman in a casino in London, would be simply sad if he weren't somehow so likeably incompetent. Then there's Cassavetes' Gus who is fascinatingly mercurial in his interactions; there's the sense that his patience is always being tested, always on edge, which translates into a feeling of his intense attachment to these fellows, despite everything. The film is wise, wry, knowing, affectionate but clear-eyed, showing us the kind of hollow underbelly of the midlingly successful breadwinner of the period without a lot of posturing about it. It feels like spending time with guys you might find drinking in any bar in town at any time. In the end you know them a bit better for having drunk with them and gone to the places they go, and for having seen them 'behind closed doors' with the women they pick up in London, but you don't really know them that well because they really don't know themselves or each other all that well either.

The guys in Last Detail are thrown together by chance and necessity, which gives the film more immediate drama right from the start. Neither Badass or Mule wants to be on the detail, and Meadows is a clueless, pathetic, but goofily likeable klepto who is facing a harsh reprimand simply for trying to rip off a polio collection box. But Nicholson's Badass, noticeably shorter than Mule and the towering, gawky Meadows, as the somewhat stereotypical sailor looking for a good time, is a telling portrait of a man's man, trying to do a decent job of older mate showing the youngun a good time: telling, because Nicholson exposes us to Badass' masculine bragging, his manly charm, his sense of the thrill and allure of violence, his love of drinking, his savvy sense of his place in the world, his generous feelings toward his charge, his pity for the boy mixed with his disgust at the boy's docility toward his fate, and even his schadenfreude at the hapless kid's plight. The moment of insight comes when Badass tells Mule that the kid won't run off because, deep down, he's glad he's going to jail. Out in the world anything that would happen to him would be mostly bad; now, the worst has already happened and that's a relief. The moment of truth comes when Meadows tries to run off in the 11th hour, his growth beyond the pathetic victim Badass read him as, correctly, having occurred under Badass' tutelage.

Both films show us something about the dynamics of male bonding: in Husbands, because these men have families, the bond is based on asserting a hold upon the identity of guys free to do what guys want to do -- drinking, sports, gambling, picking up girls. In Last Detail, the bond is the Navy: it makes Badass and Mule equals, if not friends, and it makes their sympathy with Meadows not personal so much as institutional: he is the uncertain young recruit they might have felt in themselves once upon a time, or at least is a type they have seen before, only now they can try to intervene, to show him what life is all about: getting drunk, going to a party, going to a whorehouse, and so on. The party is the funniest part: there, a number of vaguely counter-cultural early '70s types clash memorably with the working-class bluntness and social allegiances of Badass and Mule. There the greenness of Meadows is to his advantage because he's a type who could be recruited for anything, such as the Hare Krishna chanting he picks up in a New York temple and which acts as his entree to the counter-culture party.

What both films manage is avoiding the 'bittersweet' tag that often lands on such efforts to present both the harshness and the affection of such interactions. Both are better than that in refusing the kinds of moves toward ersatz emotional catharsis (aka sappiness) that have become de rigeur in American movies in the Spielberg era. In that sense, both films kindle a nostalgia for '70s indies: both Cassavetes and Ashby were outsiders to the Hollywood system, treating its execs with disdain and avoiding the kinds of 'improvements' that would spell bigger box office. And that fact also creates a bond between a certain audience and these aging boys.

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