Divorcing Paul Mazursky

New Hollywood auteur Paul Mazursky built a career on honest, daringly frank discussions of sex & romance, an ethos he established as early as his 1969 Free Love breakout drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Although that film’s exact themes of marital fidelity & intensive psychotherapy continued throughout his work as his career developed, he did adapt those preoccupations to the changing times as he aged. Our current Movie of the Month, Mazursky’s late 70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, for instance, depicts the fallout of the Free Love movement once lauded in his previous work, demonstrating how the breakdown of traditional marriage & sexual fidelity left many women socially & financially isolated in desperate need for feminist independence in their new sexually “liberated” world. Even that update could only remain fresh for so long, however. As America entered “The Age of Divorce” in the 1990s, the dissolution of the traditional marriage became more of a norm than an anomaly, and Paul Mazursky updated his own ruminations on the subject accordingly. Whereas the jump from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to An Unmarried Woman marked an advancement in Mazurksy’s maturity, though, the next chapter in this reflections on the evolving nature of divorce found him devolving in the opposite direction, both as an artist and as a thinker.

Admittedly, the declining allure of Mazursky’s fidelity dramas is somewhat attributable to the real-time aging of his characters. The turn-on sexual energy of performers like Natalie Wood & Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and even the confident adult sexuality of Jill Clayburgh ten years later in An Unmarried Woman only enhance those films’ themes of sexual & romantic experimentation. By the time Mazursky aged along with his characters into the 1990s, his work stopped being a relatably prurient rumination on a tantalizingly taboo topic and started to feel like walking in on your parents mid-coitus. In 1991’s Scenes from a Mall, Mazurksy updates his divorce-drama template with the middle-age players Woody Allen (a known sexual abuser) & Bette Midler (who is always fabulous, but still). Watching Natalie Wood talk her uptight hipster friends into an impromptu orgy or watching Jill Clayburgh dance alone in her underwear to Swan Lake is one thing. Watching Woody Allen go down on Bette Midler in a public movie theater is something else entirely. The only small consolation of this updated dynamic is in finally seeing Allen pursue a romantic partner who is somewhat age-appropriate a concession that’s only soured by watching Midler be degraded by sharing the screen with the monster and the gag-worthy visual of the two performers making out at length in remarkably thin underwear.

Lack of genuine sex appeal is only one small factor in the declining quality of Mazurksy’s divorce-drama ruminations, though it is a glaring one. The larger problem is the broadening of his humor and the erosion of his search for honesty. There’s an impressively subtle, delicate irony to the hipster parody of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that carries over into An Unmarried Woman (although broad caricatures like the sausage-gnawing caveman artist Charlie does test its boundaries). By the time Scenes from a Mall arrives, Mazursky is deploying all the subtlety & restraint of a feature-length All That sketch. Wood Allen’s midlife crisis in the film is signaled by a ponytail, a surfboard prop, and an affair with a 25-year-old. His main comic foil is a recurring mime gag performed by Bill Irwin. Cross-eyed nutshot reactions, a rapping Greek chorus, and Marusky’s own cameo as a Freudian pop psychologist are all distinctly broad & cheap in a way that feels below the director’s stature. That line of easy, goofball humor is also directly at odds with the literary stage play structure of the piece, as Scenes from a Mall is largely a Before Sunrise-style indie drama following a single, complex marital argument over the course of one afternoon, practically in real-time. The result is an incongruous tone one that demands you both take its romantic & sexual conflicts dead seriously but also bust a gut when the LA douchebag punches the mime for being a pest.

For what it’s worth, Mazursky does maintain a sliver of the honest, daring discussion of marital fidelity he established in previous works, even if Scenes from a Mall is an inappropriate vessel for the exercise. Staging one extensive, uncomfortable argument between a long-married couple in a Californian shopping mall is, at least in the abstract, a very promising conceit. Plenty of couples have marriage-ending meltdowns in parking lots, Wal-Marts, Bourbon St. dive bars, and other mundane public spaces that would make for similarly ironic backdrops. Midler’s initial reaction to hearing of Allen’s affair with a younger woman is also disarmingly believable. She starts in a place of quiet acceptance, then erupts into a seething, vengeful anger in a well-written, well-performed estimation of genuine heartbreak. As grotesque as watching Woody Allen go down on her in public feels, the overall back & forth between burning bridges to the past & sexually reconciling in wild passion does feel true to life & the messiness of the human heart. It also says a lot that the frank discussion of sexual infidelity that pushed buttons in Mazursky’s 1960s work was still taboo in the 1990s (not to mention the 2010s), at least enough to justify his continued needling at the topic. It’s just a shame all that honesty couldn’t have been funnelled into more appealing performers & a better considered tone.

It is unclear whether the broadening of the comedy or the compromising of the honesty were a choice of Mazursky’s or a sign of the changing times. It’s entirely possible that it was simply much easier to successfully pitch a broad comedy where mimes get punched & scrotes get kicked by the time that Scenes for a Mall arrived than it was to properly fund the serious, adult dramas of Mazursky’s distant New Hollywood past. Either way, Mazursky has much more rewarding divorce & fidelity dramas in earlier works like An Unmarried Woman, which sustain Scenes from a Mall‘s brief flashes of disarming honesty with confidence & bravery the latter work never fully musters. The only saving graces for Scenes from a Mall, then, are in its value as a novelty: documenting early-90s shopping mall excess; casting Woody Allen as a New Age Los Angeles twerp in tracksuits instead of a nebbish New York twerp in tweed; the aforementioned horrors of public cunnilingus; etc. Of course, those minor pleasures only fade the more unpleasant (if not outright traumatic) it’s becoming to watch Woody Allen onscreen, and Paul Mazursky’s marital fidelity oeuvre would ultimately be much better off if it could somehow divorce itself from Scenes from a Mall entirely.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our profile of its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff, and last week’s look at the director’s most iconic work, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

-Brandon Ledet

Paul & Jill & Therapy & Divorce

One of the most immediately apparent virtues of our current Movie of the Month, Paul Mazursky’s late-70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, is its verisimilitude. The movie follows Jill Clayburgh as a well-to-do Manhattanite divorcee as she struggles to establish a new identity as an independent woman. Despite the scope of that lens, Mazursky continuously seeks for moments of small, intimate honesty rather than making grand, sweeping statements about Clayburgh’s gender or era. We watch with tender voyeurism as she dances to Swan Lake alone in her underwear, sings “Baby I’m Amazed” off-key with her daughter at the piano, and becomes dizzy to the point of puking when first hearing of her husband’s affair. It’s in this intimate naturalism where the movie finds its strongest voice, a virtue that comes through most clearly in the protagonist’s private therapy sessions with the real-life feminist psychotherapist Dr. Penelope Russianoff. There’s such a dedication to verisimilitude in those therapy sessions that they’re staged in Dr. Russianoff’s own Manhattan apartment where she actually practiced. This tactic of using therapy to tear down the comforting veil of cinematic artificiality to achieve something intimate & true to life was not new to Mazursky in An Unmarried Woman. In fact, it was also an integral part of his most iconic, breakthrough work.

Paul Mazursky first made a name for himself as one of the New Hollywood brats with his Free Love marital drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon as a pair of married couples struggling with monogamy in the swinging ’60s, all of the film’s promotional materials & cultural context promise a steamy, risqué drama about wife-swapping & group sex. I imagine it was something of a shock, then, when Mazurky instead delivered a drama mostly about intensive group therapy. The opening sequence of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is set at a group therapy retreat held at an isolated facility known simply as The Institute. A documentarian filmmaker and his free-spirit wife arrive at The Institute as smirking skeptics, only scoping out the place as a potential film subject. The intensive, performance art-reminiscent therapy session (recalling similarly discomforting methodology in Josephine Decker‘s work) breaks down the couple’s defensive barriers and leaves them dazed, vulnerably open-minded, and radically honest for the remainder of the picture. Dr. Russianoff’s therapy sessions in An Unmarried Woman are much more traditional & subdued, but they similarly challenge the societally-reinforced assumptions & barriers Jill Clayburgh is burdened with when she arrives. Although the style of therapy is wildly different in both films, their common goal is apparent: to challenge the shortcomings of traditional marital structure with a newfound, unflinching emotional honesty.

If there’s any major difference between these two films’ relationship with therapy & New Age Californian self-care, it’s in Mazursky’s deployment of humor & irony. An Unmarried Woman is far from humorless (it does open with a top-volume joke about dogshit, after all), but its therapy sessions with Dr. Russianoff are handled with a quiet, direct intimacy and are characterized as an unquestined good for Jill Clayburgh’s lost-soul divorcee. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is much cheekier in its own approach. The challenges to monogamy & traditional marriage’s pressures for partners to be all things to their husband or wife are treated with appropriate emotional heft. However, this earlier work finds Mazursky more willing to poke fun at his characters for their New Age navel-gazing. Middle age “free souls” dress up like Peter Fonda, smoke ditch weed, and grow their hair long as if they were young radicals. They shamelessly blurt inane dialogue like “That’s gorgeous, man; the truth is always beautiful,” and “The gaspacho was astonishing,” entirely unaware of how silly they sound to eavesdroppers. Yet, Mazursky takes their exploration of the difference between physical & emotional fidelity and the marital benefits of casual sex just as seriously as he takes Jill Clayburgh’s devastating unpreparedness for a husbandless life in An Unmarried Woman. The only difference is that Mazursky was initially more willing to poke fun at his characters for that self-exploration, whether that’s a sign of immaturity on his part or on the part of the more therapy-adverse audiences of the 1960s who would have appreciated the jabs.

In a way, it’s entirely appropriate that An Unmarried Woman is more sober in tone & sentiment than Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, given the varying severity of their subjects. Both films sincerely advocate for the emotional & romantic benefits of therapy, but their respective eras call for drastically different tones. The Free Love 60s vibes of Mazursky’s earlier work invites a more fun, freewheeling tone as the promise of wife-swapping & group therapy loosens up the traditional boundaries of marriage to something more honest & playful. An Unmarried Woman arrives in the grim fallout of Free Love nearly a decade later, even set in the grimy streets of NYC instead of the cheery LA sunshine. Once traditional marriage began to break down and divorce became less taboo, women were much worse off in their newfound freedom than men, as they were socially conditioned to define their personal worth as wives, not individuals. The intimate, naturalistic therapy sessions of An Unmarried Woman can only lead to the subtle, quiet payoff of self-realization, then, while Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice benefits from barreling towards the promise of an orgy. With both films, Mazursky appeared to be making a statement on the nature of romance & autonomy in their respective times. His frank, direct honesty in both films guides their opposing tones, but his seriousness about the benefits of therapy remains constant between them. It says a lot about both films that their respective topics are still relevant to modern marital romance and that (extreme outliers like Josephine Decker aside) the standard approach is still closer to the winking humor of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (which was practically remade recently in The Overnight) than the emotional vulnerability of An Unmarried Woman.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch An Unmarried Woman (1978).

Boomer: Back in August I surrendered to the heat and, instead of walking down to Guadalupe Street to catch the Number 3 Cap Metro bus to the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, I took an Uber. My driver was an older man named Buzz, who asked what I was going to see, and I told him that they were doing a special showcase called “Women Under the Influence,” and that I was going to see An Unmarried Woman. “AH!” he said. “Jill Clayburgh. I remember going to see that one back in ’78 or ’79. What a performance.”

Buzz had a bunch of other stories, too, which he shared while we took a circuitous route to the theatre (he overshot by a mile or so and we had to turn back around): he had spent lots of time growing up in New Orleans and known the family that oversaw Galatoires; he had served overseas and seen a lot of native tattoo art, and regaled me with the way that American cultural attitudes about tattoos had grown and changed; when he lived in Hawaii, he used to play tennis Lolo Soetoro (aka former President Obama’s stepfather). With a life so full, one wouldn’t think that he would have space to remember going to see a movie forty years ago, but not only did he remember the movie, he remembered Clayburgh’s performance, which was my first clue that I was in for something really special.

Inspired by one of his wife’s recently divorced friends’ identification on a mortgage application as “an unmarried woman,” Paul Mazursky penned and directed a film with that appellation as the title. Erica Benton (Clayburgh) is a modern woman who seems to have it all: a loving husband with whom she’s casual but not caustic, intimate but independent; a smart, capable, socially aware teenage daughter; a great group of friends; a huge apartment with a lovely view of New York. This all comes crashing down around her when her husband admits that he’s fallen for a younger woman that he met while running a routine errand, and he intends to leave Erica for her. Suddenly single after seventeen years, Erica emerges into the newly sexually free world of the late seventies, only to find it as confusing as it is liberating, populated by gatekeepers and horndogs, friends and lovers, creeps and honest men alike, and none of them any less complex than she is.

This is a beautiful movie, from the sweeping shots of Erica dancing around her apartment, to her poignantly singing “Baby I’m Amazed” at the piano with her daughter, to the understated elegance of a dialogue-free skate around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. I would almost call it a perfect movie, save for one thing: I’m still a little disappointed that the film ends with Erica deciding to pursue a relationship with a man, albeit a decent and mostly likable one. In my vision of this as a perfect movie, the ending is more ambiguous about whether or not Erica will commit to a new partnership or continue to live as a single, not just unmarried, woman for a time before giving it another go, long term. Brandon, what do you think? Was this ending satisfactory for you, or would you have preferred a slightly tweaked one? How much, if any, do you think the era of this film’s production affected that ending?

Brandon: I would be in total agreement if the film ended with Erica following her new painter boyfriend to his yearly retreat into Nature with his family. She’s tempted by his offer to spend her days lounging around reading books, watching him paint, and forming a new idyllic family in the woods, but she ultimately rejects it in favor of staying behind in New York City to continue her personal work at the art gallery. That decision is a major personal crossroads for Erica, because the painter is essentially asking her to become a married woman again, to define her life by the needs & accomplishments of a husband, and she refuses. Even if she does remain romantically attached to the painter for the rest of their lives, she appears to be much more independently minded than she was when we first meet her as the dutiful wife of a business prick.

Instead of Erica caving to the painter’s relentless, childish insistence that she tag along, the ending we do get is something a little more lyrical. The boyfriend unloads a massive painting of his onto her as “a gift” and leaves her to carry it across the city to her new apartment all by herself. It starts out as a childish prank on the painter’s part, as he’s frustrated that he can’t control Erica’s behavior and finds a cheeky way to punish her for it. As the image of Erica dragging the painting through crowds & against gusts of winds develops, though, it stops being about the painter at all and starts reflecting more on Erica’s determination & resilience. Life is just as absurd & unmanageable of an obstacle as that painting, yet she carries on anyway.

That ending plays ambiguously enough for me as is. I’m not sure whether Erica’s new relationship with the painter will work out long-term, but I also don’t think it matters. Although the men in her life are certainly significant as a source of conflict, this is ostensibly a film about women. My frustration with watching Erica’s romance develop with the artist wasn’t in where they settle by the end credits, but rather in how much screen time the new boyfriend was siphoning away from the women in Erica’s life. I was fascinated by Erica’s headstrong daughter, her proto-Sex and the City gal pals, and her spellbinding therapist (played by Dr. Penelope Russianoff, a real-life NYC psychotherapist who specialized in helping women feel independent & self-sufficient outside male companionship). Any minute spent away from them in favor of profiling Erica’s relationship with a man felt a little like time wasted.

Paul Mazursky’s signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was iconic for capturing the American sexual zeitgeist at the height of Free Love politics in the late 1960s. Nearly a decade later, An Unmarried Woman finds him attempting to do the same for the psychology of women’s liberation and its social fallout as traditional marital norms faded away. A major difference in his approaches to these works seems to be a choice of POV. While Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice spreads its POV across two couples, An Unmarried Woman is largely about Erica’s inner psyche, to the point where we’re invited to sit in on her most intimate therapy sessions & look in on her dancing alone in her underwear to Swan Lake as if no one is watching.

Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman benefited from focusing on Erica as our centering protagonist? Do you think Mazurksy could have said more about the state of The Woman in the late 1970s by spreading its POV around to include her daughter, her therapist, and her proto-Sex and the City crew, or were we better off anchored to a fixed, deeply personal portrait of one woman in crisis?

Britnee: Erica is such a likeable character, so I think the heavy focus on her experience as a single woman was what made this film so wonderful. However, my favorite parts of the film involved Erica’s interactions with her amazing group of friends and her fabulous therapist, Tanya. Experiencing the POV of all the wonderful women in this film sounds great, but there’s no way it would’ve turned out as cohesive as it did if the screen time was shared. I would have loved to see more focus on Erica’s relationships with the women in her life from her own POV. There was a little too much time spent focusing on her budding relationship with her boring artist lover. I wanted more fun nights out on the town with the girls and more sessions with Tanya. Having an such a prominent real-life therapist playing the role of Tanya is such a treat, and it’s a shame that we only got a few minutes worth of her advice and guidance.

I truly loved how An Unmarried Woman didn’t follow the same route as most other films that focus on women dealing with a cheating husband and failed marriage. Erica didn’t give her husband a pass on his mid-life crisis and fall into his arms when he came crawling back to her, and she didn’t seek revenge on her husband or his mistress. Erica had such an admirable attitude through it all. She invested her time and energy in herself and created a new chapter in her life.

As much as I like Erica’s character, she is a privileged white woman living in a high-end apartment in New York City, which means she has access to more resources to help her through her divorce (therapy, income, housing, etc.). In reality, most women going through a divorce don’t have it so easy, and this is especially true for the time period of this film. I think An Unmarried Woman could have benefited from incorporating some real-life struggles that newly divorced single mothers had to deal with in the late 1970s.

CC, do you think Erica’s character could have been more relatable?

CC: I thought this film was . . . fine. I loved the scene where Erica & her daughter belted “Baby I’m Amazed” together at their piano and I thought the scenes with her girlfriends and therapist were generally amusing, but overall I was just kinda . . . eh on the film as a whole. I do think that’s largely because I don’t relate to Erica or her struggles. The idea that she could go to a therapist and fully expect her ex-husband to fund her appointments is mind boggling. I’m sure we could all take the time to become happier, more independent people if we had the means, but many of us are too dependent on constant, never ceasing employment to ever take a moment just to figure out who we are and who we’d like to become.

As unrealistic as her financial situation may be, there were still several naturalistic scenes that resonated with me. The reason I loved the “Baby, I’m Amazed” scene in particular is because it felt like a genuine moment shared between real people. I found it both comical and fascinating that the two actors can’t sing especially well, but belt the entire song out with all their heart anyway. This sweet, joyous scene is as understandable as Erica’s wealth and privilege are incomprehensible.

Boomer, you also pointed out the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene as a highlight. Were there any other moments that stuck out to you as humorously or peculiarly naturalistic in the same way? Also, I assume Erica’s wealthy New Yorker life is no more relatable to yours than it is to mine, yet you seem to appreciate the film way more than I do. Was it the naturalism that stuck out to you as well or something else entirely?

Boomer: While I certainly find that Erica lived a more privilege life than most (I already mentioned the spectacular cityscape that can be seen from her apartment), I suppose that I was also primed to accept that Erica’s husband was indebted to her via their matrimonial arrangements even after their split by several seasons of Mad Men which showed Don Draper’s ex-wives receiving pretty hefty alimony payments while not working: Betty got to keep their house following their divorce and received consistent money from Don, and Megan got enough money to buy her own place in the LA hills despite not being able to make it financially as an actress. Those divorces (and the resultant alimony settlements) came in the sixties, but the seventies setting of An Unmarried Woman is closer in time to that period, when divorced women largely found themselves without any means of support post-separation due to the way society frowned on women having occupations outside of the home, and thus having huge gaps in their resumes if they were suddenly in need of employment. It’s a reflection on a particular time in American society from which we are removed by forty years of social and economic change, various movements for (and unfortunately against) wider roles for women in the workplace and in the upper echelons of management, and wider employment for women, despite continued income inequality for women and other sex- and gender-based biases that create unjust stratification in the workplace.

This was something that I found annoying when watching Mad Men as well–that Don, as much as I detested him, was so financially responsible for his former spouses despite no longer being legally joined to them–but like many things in that program, it exists as a reminder of that show’s thesis, that no matter how much we may feel the need to romanticize the past, the rampant injustices and social evils of that era (homophobia, sexism, systemic and individual racism, sexual abuse of spousal privilege, disrespect for natural resources, child abuse) must always be remembered and used to temper any nostalgic reminisces as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. That we are so far removed from the expectation that ex-husbands should prop up their ex-wives’ finances can lend itself to us being more unkind to women like Erica (and Betty, although not really Megan) than is strictly fair. The difference is that Mad Men was an intentional demonstration of this, while An Unmarried Woman is more of an unintentional period piece in this way, capturing a snapshot of American society at the time and the expectations that would have been normal when looking at Erica’s role (or lack thereof) in society, the economy, and her own family.

That’s not to say that Erica’s privilege isn’t something that can make the audience feel removed from (and thus somewhat unsympathetic toward) her trials and tribulations, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking that this New Hollywood/New Wave film chose to put the focus of this narrative solely on Erica and her friends. Compared to other female-led films that came out that same year, it’s not surprising that the film was so different from the status quo that it stood out enough to garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress: we have two “women in peril” horror/thriller films in the form of the original Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars; the abysmal sports/romance flick Ice Castles; the extremely controversial Louis Malle film Pretty Baby; and two disco queen vehicles, Diana Ross’s The Wiz and Donna Summer’s Thank God It’s Friday. An Unmarried Woman was genuinely something unseen before as it focused so completely on Erica’s journey, even if the changes in her life are made more manageable and navigable by her relative financial freedom, opening doors for other films to explore more down-to-earth scenarios about women who are not positioned as well as Erica was to explore her post-marriage life and psyche. That having been said, you’re not alone in your dismissal of the film’s messages on the basis of Erica’s privilege: Todd Gitlin and Carol S. Wolman wrote in the Autumn 1978 publication of Film Quarterly (unfortunately, only the first few paragraphs can be read without going over to JSTOR, which I can no longer access) that An Unmarried Woman “wants to capitalize on feminism” but “is more a cartoon about the condition of life among the Manhattan chic,” and that Mazursky’s films are “something of a melange of New Yorker stories and New Yorker ads” with this one in particular having “the familiarity of a string of cliches” (ouch). And this is coming from a contemporary criticism, not one that looks back at the film after decades. I certainly can’t dismiss your criticism (and I agree with you about much of it), but that didn’t stymie my appreciation.

As far as the scenes that struck me as particularly naturalistic, we’ve already noted the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene and the final scene in which Erica is forced to carry the large painting across New York, but the one that was most noted by the friend who saw the film with me last summer was the skating scene at Rockefeller center, a lovely bit of dialogue-free exploration of Erica’s newfound freedom. On a darker note, the scene in which Erica’s (much older) physician immediately attempts to flirt with her so soon after her divorce reflects an ugly truth about men in general and especially about men in a position of authority and who approach women at their most vulnerable (in this case, as both a recent divorcee and as his patient), and the scene in which Erica fends off the advances of one of her first dates in the back of a cab. There’s a naturalness to both these scenes that reveal something ugly about human nature, in contrast to the veritable incandescence of Erica in the scenes in which she is flying free, as when she dances or skates. The best, however, is in the moment she gathers up the reminders of her ex-husband and piles it all in one place, seeing for the first time how little he has truly left behind while also observing how dense his presence is: there’s not much there, but it weighs a lot.

Brandon, even in a film with such an intense focus on a singular character, it’s unusual for a movie to have its protagonist present in every single scene, as is the case here with Clayburgh. Can you think of any other films that are so tightly focused on a single character? Do they work as well as this one does, or not? Would this film have been any stronger if, for instance, there were scenes in which she was absent, or would that have weakened the overall movie?

Brandon: Because I very recently watched all of her feature films, Josephine Decker’s work is what most immediately comes to mind. In Madeline’s Madeline, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and Butter on the Latch, Decker also sinks her audience into the life & psyche of a single protagonist (typically a young woman on the verge of mental collapse), and wastes very little energy on the concerns of the world at large. The difference there is that Decker’s aggressively immersive filmmaking style is an overwhelming sensory experience where we filter the world outside the protagonist’s head through their own warped, disjointed interpretation of reality. Mazurksy’s approach here is more detached & academic. We exclusively follow Erica around New York City as she navigates her new post-divorce reality, but when her own inner thoughts & emotions are reluctantly dragged out of her by her therapist they’re less distinctively warped or personal. They’re more indicative of societal pressures on women in general than they are specific to one woman’s mind. I don’t think that difference in approaches indicates that either Decker or Mazursky are superior or inferior to each other as filmmakers. I think they’re just working at different goals (and in different eras). Decker’s arthouse sensory immersion style allows the audience to peer in on the very peculiar, singular POV of a character on the fringe, while Mazursky uses Erica as an indicative archetype of where The Modern Woman at large was in the late 1970s.

To that end, if Mazursky were to open this movie up to include other characters’ inner lives, the choice of where to expand is obvious. The other women in Erica’s life are all rich, nuanced characters despite their presence depending on her own narrative. Her daughter’s declaration that she will never marry because it’s a bum deal; her therapist’s quietly perceptive challenges to her self-policed desires; her friends’ own struggles with mental health, alcoholism, and casual sex (especially in the arc involving Gilmore Girls‘s Kelly Bishop): all the women in Erica’s life have scene-stealing moments that suggest the film could’ve been more of an ensemble-cast narrative while having just as much to say about the state of The Woman in late-70s NYC. That’s a massive topic to cover in under two hours, though, so the film was probably better off as a concise, cohesive product by sticking to just one character’s POV and allowing the other women to develop sharply in the periphery. Expanding on their personae without losing sight of Erica’s journey would require seasons-long efforts of TV-style writing, as in the aforementioned Manhattanite programs Mad Men & Sex in the City that this movie occasionally recalls.

Part of the reason it’s so frustrating that An Unmarried Woman wastes time detailing Erica’s relationships with the men in her life is because they aren’t nearly as richly fleshed out as the women around her, who all could have used more screentime. From her skirt-chasing husband to the taxi cab groper to the numskull artists who hit on her at the gallery, the men in Erica’s life are cartoonishly simple buffoons. The most buffoonish of them all, a knuckle-dragging sculptor named Charlie, even boils down his life philosophy to the simple explanation, “There’s work, there’s food, and there’s sex. Nothing more.” Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman was purposefully trying to say something about the animalistic simplicity of men versus the emotional nuance of women in these characterizations or was that an accidental result of this being a film primarily about women? Were the men in Erica’s life ever as interesting to you as the women or were they just wasting valuable space?

Britnee: The women in Erica’s life were much more interesting than the men, but I think the men in the film were purposefully meant to be terrible. Mazursky was trying to show that it’s not so easy for newly single, straight women to jump into a new relationship with a decent man. Even in this day and age, I all too often hear people give the same advice to female divorcees: “You’ll find someone before you know it!” The truth is that not every man is a gem, and women have to deal with sleazy douchebags far too often. I can’t help but think of Charlie when I say “sleazy douchebag.” At the beginning, he seems to be a harmless pain in the ass that likes to eat sandwiches in art galleries. After Erica has a one night stand with him, he insults her in front of a huge group of people at a party because he’s jealous of her more serious relationship with Saul. Charlie obviously sucked, but his character was necessary to show the ugly side of being “single and ready to mingle.”

Speaking of men in Erica’s life, I didn’t really like Saul. He wasn’t a monster or anything like that, but he was so dull (and his paintings were terrible). I wish Erica’s first boyfriend post-divorce would have had more personality. CC, how did you feel about Saul? Would this movie have been better if his character was a little more interesting?

CC: Ugh, better not call Saul, am I right? But no, seriously, Saul was terrible. The bar of human decently was set so low for the men of this film and he barely squeaked by. All he had to do was not dump her for a younger woman & immediately crawl back (check), not call her a whore in a room full of people including her new boyfriend (check), and not attempt to assault her in a cab (check). He still manages to throw a temper tantrum, smashes a mug on purpose, and passive aggressively gifts Erica an unwieldy painting he assumes she will not be able to transport on her own as punishment. His art was as mediocre as his personality. I hope Erica dumps him the following winter, outside in front of her brownstone, and after she’s left to go back into the cozy refuge she’s created for herself a cab drives by and splashes frigid, NY garbage water on Saul.

Do I want Saul to be better? Do I wish Erica had met someone else that was more charming, kind, interesting, and talented? Honestly, not really. This film is about Erica’s transformation into an independent being and putting her back into a “perfect” relationship at the end would have shifted the message of the film: from, “Women should be happy, self-sufficient people who don’t need another person to give them meaning” to “If you work hard and become a better version of yourself, you’ll find your Mr. Right in no time.” A film that’s attempting to portray the realities faced by divorcees of a specific demographic in a specific time period should not try to shift style and end as a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies aren’t realistic, and by the end of this film Erica no longer needed that type of happy ending.


Boomer: I’ll also chime in here to note that my dissatisfaction with Erica ending up in a relationship may have more to do with my dislike for Saul than my disinterest in her having a relationship at all.

Brandon: I absolutely love the opening scene to this movie. We enter Manhattan through a sweeping, saxophone-heavy 70s schmaltz style that promises a very calm, adult picture about serious, mature topics. Then, on a couple’s morning jog, Erica’s husband steps in a pile of dogshit and starts raving like a lunatic, recalling Mink Stole’s hateful rants at the top of Desperate Living. He exclaims, “This city’s turning into one big pile of dogshit!,” a hilarious opening note of seething anger that completely (and intentionally) undercuts the measured, mature credits sequence that precedes it. It’s a choice that smartly assures the audience the following film will not be humorless, despite the seriousness of its subject.

Britnee: I cannot shake the scene of Erica throwing up after finding out her husband is having an affair. I didn’t expect her to spew out vomit on screen. It was just so brutal.

CC: I really liked the metallic silver wallpaper in the bathroom of Erica’s home with her husband and I accidentally stumbled across a really similar print the other day:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: CC presents Love Me If You Dare (2003)
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2012)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Women (1939)

The tagline for the 1939 comedy The Women is “It’s all about men!” This is a blatant lie. The Women was initially written as a stage play based on gossip overheard in a nightclub powder room. Including the playwright and the film’s two credited screenwriters (Clare Boothe Luce, Anita Loos, and Jane Murfin), that makes three women behind its script, which is a remarkable feat for a Studio Era feature. What makes The Women even more remarkable is its enormous all-female cast. Men are never seen nor heard in the picture, a casting choice that even applies to the women’s yipping lapdogs. The joke in that “It’s all about men!” tagline, then, is that when these (uniformly white, wealthy) women are alone together, all they discuss is the men in their lives. I suppose that’s technically true in a broad sense. It is odd that it could be questioned if this all woman-starring feature would pass the Bechdel Test. That doesn’t meant the film is about men at all, though. The off-screen men referenced constantly in The Women‘s dialogue as husbands, ex-husbands, and secret lovers aren’t functioning in their corresponding women’s lives as conquests of romance, but rather as bargaining chips. They’re pawns, foot soldiers, personality-free tokens that represent wealth & power, but not much more. The Women is better understood not as a romantic comedy, but as a social circle war film where its female cast of characters gun each other down with rapid-fire barbs & insults. Divorces & marriages are like battles temporarily won; the men are territories claimed. Nothing matters as much as the women calling the shots in the war room, though, which in this case happens to be an upscale health salon.

Norma Shearer stars as a wealthy mother whose husband is becoming increasingly absent as he spirals further into an extramarital affair. She had previously held illusions that their marriage was a modernist arrangement of equal partnership. Her mother suggests, coldly, that she remain married and keep her feelings about the affair to herself, suggesting an age old tradition in their social sect. It turns out many wives treat their husbands this way, allowing for secretive betrayal as long as they can publicly keep the wealth & social status. Others march through a long line of divorces & affairs to match their needs as they shift through time. Our protagonist has two enemies in her fight to retain her dignity in her decision to remain in a loveless, compromised marriage. The obvious enemy is the husband’s mistress, played by a devilishly callous Joan Crawford, who is nakedly exploiting the man’s lust to improve her drab life as a futureless counter girl at the social circle’s central meeting place: the salon. The less obvious enemy is one of her closest friends, played by the deliciously wicked Rosalind Russel, who deliberately stirs shit among her peers out of pure, idle boredom. She specifically sends Shearer’s character to the salon to hear the gossip of the affair from a chatty manicurist instead of telling her directly or letting her be. She herself also gossips behind her friend’s back for sport and, worse yet, joins forces with the mistress against her as soon as it’s personally beneficial. This picture is soaked to the bone in gossip, so it likely won’t win over anyone disinterested in overtly catty power plays, but watching Shearer’s dignified defiance openly clash with Crawford & Russell’s gleeful cruelty is intoxicating fun for those onboard. The film is frank & darkly humorous in its discussions of adultery & marriage, an impressive honesty for its 1930s cultural climate.

The pacing & dialogue saturation in this film is immediately overwhelming, opening with some of the most rapid-fire wordplay this side of a cattle auction. What’s truly impressive amidst that dialogue, though, is how much Rosalind Russel is able to outshine Joan Crawford as the film’s central heel, despite not playing the romantic rival. Drag queens looking for tips on how to construct #iconiclooks & #classicreads are advised to bring a notebook and keep their eyes locked on Russell, who eats up the screen no matter how many hundreds of women she’s asked to share it with. Crawford’s part is relatively small by comparison, especially given its impact on the plot. You could easily cut yourself on her eyebrows or put out an eye on her shoulder pads, but most of the damage laid in her warpath is dwarfed by Russell’s larger than life Gossip Queen persona. I will say, however, that Crawford is afforded the single best line in the film, when she complains to her coworkers at the salon, “Can you believe him? He almost stood me up for his wife!” Her coldly calculating efforts to gain power as a rich man’s mistress is an early sign of the shockingly modern-feeling territory the film eventually explores for laughs. There’s a 1950s musical remake of The Women titled The Opposite Sex that I gather isn’t nearly as daring or as subversive as the version that came before it. in the remake, men share the screen and generate in-the-moment romantic conflict with the women at the helm. In The Women, any argument held between a married couple isn’t heard directly by the audience, but rather filtered through gossip in later retellings & traded like currency. There’s a real subversion to that kind of one-sided perspective, especially for its time. As a great as Norma Shearer is as the film’s lead, it’s Russell & Crawford’s gleeful indulgence in that subversion as a deliberate tactic of social war that really makes it feel special. I imagine that’s all lost in the neutered-looking musical.

It’s worth noting that not all of The Women‘s strengths begin & end with its deviously witty dialogue. The film also impresses as a grand visual spectacle, an expensive-looking feat of Studio Era craft. The salon setting that stages most of the film’s social battles is a cavernous compound complete with mud baths, gyms, ballet studios, perfume counters, and a central foyer decked out with massive landscape murals & a modern art fountain in the shape of a woman’s hand. It’s staggering. The camerawork often matches the majesty of the production design. In one pivotal scene, Norma Shearer is confronted with a shocking detail of the gossip surrounding the affair in front of a mirror that reflects three images of Rosalind Russll (a dream, that); stunned, she walks away in a daze directly towards the audience in a momentum-heavy tracking shot while the world around her slips away. I’d also be foolish not to highlight the film’s The Red Shoes style centerpiece that breaks up its black & white cinematography for a single sequence filmed in Technicolor. Described in-film as “an adventurous voyage into Fashionland,” the Technicolor sequence is a narrative-free fashion show that pushes the film just over the edge from sharply-written comedy to aggressively feminine high art. There are plenty of other visual achievements to drool over. I’m especially in love with the set design of a scene where Joan Crawford smokes & chats on the phone in a see-through bathtub, complete with its own set of drapes. There’s just something about the Technicolor fashion show fantasy that elevates every scene around it by proxy. My only complaint about the entire movie, really, is that I had to leave the fantasy of that sequence. My reality felt comparatively drab after that.

The opening credits of The Women pairs each of its main players with their animal kingdom equivalent, suggesting a world of predators & prey: a deer, a lamb, a leopard, a fox, etc. I didn’t see the film’s conflicts as an extension of animalistic nature, however. Rather, the carefully planned, deceptively complex attacks of gossip & romantic maneuvering in The Women feel more like strategic war games & game theory to me. To say this film is “all about men!” was drastic misunderstanding of its basic rhythms by the film’s marketing. I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen many films less about men in my entire life (although Sofia Coppola’s recent The Beguiled remake does come to mind). I’d love to see any other film on that same intensely feminine wavelength, whether from the 1930s or just last month. There’s certainly enough immersive dives into masculinity out there to require a counterbalance.

-Brandon Ledet

Possession (1981)



Let’s just get this out of the way: Possession is a masterpiece. It’s a cold, incomprehensible film that confidently unleashes cinematic techniques like deadly weapons. Filmed in Berlin in 1980, Possession occupies harsh, uncaring architectural spaces, but populates them with passionate characters that remain in constant, violently fluid motion. The camera moves with them, rarely allowing the audience to settle as it chases its tormented subjects down sparse rooms and hallways like a slasher movie serial killer. In one shot the central couple undulates back & forth in front of a blank white wall, constantly swirling around each other during a bitter argument, but seemingly going nowhere as if trapped in a void. The film feels like a visual manifestation of madness, inertia, and heartbreak all rolled into one dizzying package. It captures the cold horror of divorce & separation and transforms it into an unknowable evil. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in quite some time, but finds its horror in ambiguity instead of a tangible, comprehensible threat.

That’s not to say there aren’t the typical on-screen genre-signifiers of horror in the film. There is gore. Characters bleed at the impact of sharp instruments and are confronted by humanoid demons, but these aspects serve more as exclamation points than the main attraction. With a title like Possession and the heavy synths in the opening theme, it’d be reasonable to expect a straight-forward 80s zombie or vampire flick, but the film refuses to be pinned down so easily. If Possession were to be understood as a creature feature, the monster in question would be the coldness of romantic separation. When a character supposes early in the film, “Maybe all couples go through this” it seems like a reasonable claim. The bitterness of divorce, loneliness, and adulterous desire then devolve into a supernatural ugliness. The main couple frantically move about Berlin as if drunk or suffering seizures, downright possessed by their romantic misery. Their own motion & inner turmoil is more of a violent threat than the film’s most menacing blood-soaked monsters or electric carving knives.

For a taste of the film’s fascinatingly bizarre sense of movement, the Crystal Castles music video for “Plague” samples key scenes and repurposes them as demonic, Kate Bush-style interpretive dance. It could possibly spoil some striking images, but the film’s plot is mostly spoiler-proof in its intentional obfuscation. The Berlin setting, the sound design in the final scene and the protagonist’s confession that he’s “at war against women” all allude to the possibility of a war allegory subtext, but it’s not explicit or concrete. If anything, characters are at war with themselves and the uncaring nature of the world they occupy. When Sam Neill’s protagonist confesses “For me, God is a disease” it’s easy to empathize. Whoever created the cruel, heartless world of Possession and brought life into it must have at least been as callous as a disease. With its brutal momentum & inevitable bloodshed it’s a terrifying hellscape, especially if it’s something that “all couples go through.”

-Brandon Ledet