Sunday, December 12, 2010
Blume In Love
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2008)
Paul Mazursky’s Blume In Love, made in 1973, is one of the films that jolted me from teenage to mature filmgoing. I saw it on British late night TV, some time in the early 80’s when I was maybe 16 or 17, and I was completely astonished. I remember being blown away by how adult it all was, by the very notion that affluent Americans would be so afflicted by neediness and rough edges, and by the frank awareness of sexuality. And yet the film was unquestionably warm and sentimental and idealistic. It was rooted in 60’s attitudes, but clear about the need to evolve and reinvent oneself. It was plainly a comedy, with something stylized about the writing, and it was even funny at times, but what comedy ever encompassed such pain?
Have To Get Her Back
I’m sure that at that formative time, far lesser films could (and, to some extent, did) have a comparable impact on me, but I’ve forgotten those by now, whereas Blume In Love has stayed with me. It’s on DVD now, and viewing it again recently, I found it as beguiling and thrilling as ever. George Segal plays Stephen Blume, a Los Angeles divorce lawyer, happily married to Nina (Susan Anspach), until he blows it by impulsively sleeping with his secretary. They get divorced; Nina takes up with Elmo, a laidback singer (Kris Kristofferson in what might be his emblematic role); Blume enters a relationship of convenience with an old friend (Marsha Mason). But he gradually realizes he still loves Nina. “I will die if I don’t get her back,” he tells us in voice over. “I do not want to die. Therefore I will have to get her back.”
The film starts and ends in Venice, where Blume wanders and drinks espresso in quasi-exile, telling us his tale in flashback. The opening lines are an inherently optimistic paean to love in all its guises; the ending will confirm the validity of this worldview, but with a few strands of compromise. In between, the characters enact the pursuit of happiness, a project made bumpy by moods, personal limitations, the pressures of modern life, and the difficulty of knowing what happiness could even be. The film is exceptionally good on sexual matters, and the nerdy psychiatrist’s sudden use of a way-out-there expression (along with Blume’s reaction to it) is one of my all-time movie moments (even though I’m not 17 any more).
Mazursky seems to know the milieu like he knows his Rolex, and is in complete control of his film’s tone. Sometimes he indulges himself big-time, such as in the weird cameo given to a waiter in a vegetarian restaurant (we hear him recite just about everything on the menu) or a lengthy (but wonderful) improvised group singing session between Blume, Nina and Elmo (who, just to complicate things, Blume grows to like). Sometimes the convivial veneer gets snatched away and the underlying rawness comes to the surface. And sometimes Mazursky pumps it out like an old-time Hollywood maestro.
He’s a much-underappreciated director I think. He started out big with the swinging couples comedy Bob & Carol &Ted & Alice, a film whose Blume-like virtues may have been obscured by the indelible four-in-a-bed imagery. His best known films are probably An Unmarried Woman, in which the portrayal of a middle-aged divorcee likely influenced many people even more keenly than Blume did me, and Down and Out In Beverly Hills, his biggest commercial hit, but for me a rather coarse affair which marked the start of his decline. I greatly cherish his modern-day updating of Tempest though for the rather weirdly wonderful fusion of his own sensibility with that of John Cassavetes, playing the Prospero character.
Enemies: A Love Story was his last generally admired film, followed by the highly minor The Pickle and Faithful, and then by a couple of TV movies (although he just made a documentary about a pilgrimage to his Jewish roots in Ukraine; he also has a long list of acting credits in recent years, including a recurring role on Curb Your Enthusiasm). There’s no question that it’s an “inside Hollywood” career – Mazursky is not a great innovator nor philosopher, and most of his films take place at the upper end of the income bracket. But for fifteen years or so his privileged access and vantage point seemed to align with genuine wisdom, patience and intuition.
James Monaco, in one of the few essays on Mazursky that I know of (written in 1979!) says that Blume “is perhaps Mazursky’s most admirable character because he combines elements of total, open vulnerability…with a sublimely obsessive regard for his own power to control his destiny.” He’s perfectly embodied by George Segal, who is one of my favourite actors. He’s resolutely ordinary looking, congenitally rather bemused, but very facile, and capable of bringing on the darkness. He was in some great films in the early 70’s - Loving, California Split, A Touch Of Class – but too many lame comedies eventually killed that momentum (the best known trivia about Segal is that he dropped out of the main role in “10,” perhaps denying himself the career boost that went to Dudley Moore instead, although I think the film really needed Moore’s odder presence to catch the wave that it did).
His best-known gig in recent years, among tons of low-grade movies, was the recurring role in the TV sitcom Just Shoot Me. He was great in it, but I don’t think anyone really cared. I like to think he can make a big comeback, but it’s not likely to come from (I’m not making this up) Chutzpah, This Is? or My Wife Is Retarded. He’s completely convincing in Blume, conveying all the character’s raw neediness, but as Monaco implies, you also feel that in a way he enjoys this deprivation, the opportunity to enact a tragedy worthy of his beloved Venice.
A strange footnote: Blume In Love is seen in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, on the TV in Nicole Kidman’s kitchen. For the famously meticulous Kubrick, such a thing would never be mere chance. The young Mazursky did act in one of Kubrick’s earliest films, but that’s hardly an explanation for such a reference. Either way, it seems like one hell of a tribute. Kubrick’s films hardly foreground human emotion, but apparently he was a warm individual in person, and for all its surreal and dreamlike qualities Eyes Wide Shut is rooted in human loneliness and longing. I like to think he recognized the more unsung Mazursky’s mastery of this territory, and wanted – however slightly – to acknowledge that if his own very precisely sculptured characters could just reorient themselves a little bit, then their lives could be so much richer, even through the suffering.