Monday, April 18, 2016

Natural Enemies (1979)



          Natural Enemies is a character study of a man contemplating the annihilation of his own family, and writer-director Jeff Kanew never allows the tiniest sliver of hope to brighten the screen. Working from a novel by Julius Horwitz, Kanew takes viewers deep into the turbulent mind of magazine editor Paul Steward (Hal Holbrook), a man so bludgeoned by the disappointments of everyday life that he views oblivion as the only gift he can bestow upon his loved ones. Had Kanew surmounted this material’s inherent narrative problems, and had he adopted a more kinetic storytelling style, Natural Enemies could have become one of the great cinematic provocations of its day, especially because leading man Holbrook commits so fully to his nihilistic characterization. Alas, those narrative problems create speed bumps at regular intervals, and Kanew’s style is far too minimalistic and static. Some scenes are so flat as to narcotize the viewer. That said, Natural Enemies is a fascinating misfire.
          The picture begins on a fateful morning in suburban Connecticut, where Paul lives with his wife, Miriam (Louise Fletcher), and their three children. Thanks to several minutes of wall-to-wall voiceover, we learn that Paul is contemplating using a gun to kill his family and them himself upon returning home from work that evening. Traveling into New York, where he runs a small magazine catering to intellectuals, Paul speaks with two cerebral friends—a diplomat (José Ferrer) and a therapist (Viveca Lindfors)—and he tells both of them what he’s planning. Each expresses concern, but neither contacts authorities. Additionally, Paul realizes his final sexual fantasy by hiring five prostitutes for group sex, which leads to perhaps the strangest scene in the movie. As the prostitutes recline nude, Paul gives a monologue about the history of his marriage, up to and including descriptions of Miriam’s hospitalization for mental illness, before again revealing—this time, to five strangers—that the death of his family is imminent. The prostitutes engage in talking-and-listening therapy, offering Paul marital and sexual advice, but they, too, avoid notifying authorities. And then, once Paul gets home, Miriam says she knows what he’s going to do, which occasions a numbingly long dialogue scene that Kanew films in the least dynamic fashion possible.
          By the end of Natural Enemies, some viewers might share Paul’s homicidal impulses simply because Kanew has made Paul’s life seem so dreary that escape sounds appealing. Cheap digs about Kanew’s directorial limitations aside, Natural Enemies represents a sincere attempt at digging beneath the surface of an existential malaise that afflicted millions of people during the ’70s. Furthermore, the picture makes the troubling—if not altogether persuasive—argument that a killer lurks inside each of us. Yet dismissing Natural Enemies because Kanew didn’t argue his case well is too easy. Somewhat like Peter Bogdonavich’s Targets (1968), Natural Enemies asks why America is such fertile ground for growing monsters. Incidentally, Kanew’s career took some peculiar turns after this picture. His next project was helming the low-rent actioner Eddie Macon’s Run (1983), and then he scored big with Revenge of the Nerds (1984).

Natural Enemies: FUNKY

8 comments:

Peter L. Winkler said...

I thought it was terrible. Holbrook's problem, and his nihilism seems to stem primarily from his sexual frustration. There's a brothel with attractive women within walking distance from hs office. Problem solved! Or, he could have an affair. Again, problem solved.

By Peter Hanson said...

To that point, the lip service given in the film to why he never divorced the Fletcher character is weak. The film completely fails to understand that creating sympathy for a character who feels trapped requires the systematic elimination of possible escape routes, thereby generating the illusion of inevitability. Oddly enough, a Hopper film comes to mind, since I just watched "Out of the Blue," a grim movie that supports its nihilism organically. From top to bottom, Kanew's execution dissipates the potential of the subject matter in "Natural Enemies." Would have been interesting to see a filmmaker of more skill try to thread this particular needle.

Anonymous said...

I liked this film simply because it delves into a turgid, depressing subject matter that so many other films wish to avoid, but you're right a more cinematic approach was needed. Still even with a more competent director it would've been tough to make this premise and character agreeable to the mainstream film goer.

Lj letizia said...

Lasted only one week at a prestiguous NYC arthouse. Opened same week as BOARDWALK

Lj letizia said...

In November 1979

Barry Miller said...

But it is Holbrook's inchoate intellectual awareness with society's escape routes as conditional ones, specifically with what a society determines as carefully orchestrated and purposefully limited commerce-based "escapes", (i.e. prostitution) that is at the heart of movie's main thesis. The fact that no one "does anything" goes to the point of the apathy of a society he's all too familiar with. The most revealing thematic scene in the film takes place on the routine suburban commuter train home, a trip he takes with numbing regularity to a miserable sham of a home life, when the train symbolically breaks down under a hellish red emergency light, and he has a shocking and unforeseen sexually passionate experience, free of monetary exchange, with a lonely female stranger sitting next to him who is equally trapped in a meaningless existence. The fact that Jeff Kanew became nothing more than a purveyor of insipid comedies after this speaks volumes.

I think this film is one of the greatest lost films of the 70's,
and that goes for Holbrook's performance as well. It's perfect as it is, with an airless and realistic claustrophobia unique to itself. I see it as the tragedy of an educated man who bought the sham of the American Dream hook, line, and sinker, and who never allowed himself the honesty of a non-religious existentialist peace-of-mind, a spiritual evolution he willingly and knowingly denied for the sake of a complete lifetime of what Sartre and Camus called "the inauthentic self", exemplified by his outward appearances of bourgeois success and "happiness". In that regard, it's firmly in the tradition of the great classics of specifically 70's Hollywood's daring sociopolitical critiques, it's just that by the time of it's release date of November 1979, the nation was pining for it's new fake Reaganite "Morning in America", the very thing the film was portraying as the darkest night of the soul, with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Barry Miller said...

Mr. Hanson, if you'll forgive me I'd like to elaborate on this film, since it's a personal favorite, and would like to defend it just a little bit against your criticism. You see it as knee-jerk nihilism without a silver of hope; I see it as an accurate portrait of how crimes such as this transpire in the psyches of profoundly tortured individuals who have fed themselves nothing but the singular lie of institutionalized hopes they know within themselves are quite false, without any commensurate and compassionate human connection of admittance to that falsity, which might allow for a live-saving redemption. All of the individuals in the film, save for a fleeting stranger on his train with whom he has a passionate and stunning erotic interlude, sooner or later pay homage to some form of false hope, and never directly confront it, in order to transcend it in any redemptive manner. The barely read "intellectual" literary magazine he runs is the toy of a mediocre and profitable upper-class status quo, rather than any true agent of fiery social observation he pretends it to be, and that he expresses out loud to an aspirant.The family is an illusionary prop of nurture and shelter, filled with unloving and unloved children, his therapist performs paid acts of like-minded sympathy without any actual healing insights, the wife has no real grasp of her own complicity in the illusions of a marriage of appearances and maintaining empty codes of monogamy as "devotion", the prostitutes offer only the temporary fantasy and relief of a pagan pre-Christian sexual utopia, but a freedom that neither they nor the client can actualize in reality without the oppressive systems of capital, and even the diplomat Holocaust survivor, who at least engages Holbrook in a sincere and compassionate attempt of intellectual understanding, cannot abide his own survival in the camps without the notion of a loving God, and therefore cannot acknowledge or accept Holbrook's bitter equation of American modern life as just the invisible and sugar-coated version of a Nazi concentration camp, equally as murderous but without the actual honest machinery of barbed wire and ovens. In this regard, what you perceive as the film's failed static qualities, it's flatness, it's colorlessness and it's ennui, it's lack of kinetics is in actuality the stylistic directorial equivalent of it's philosophical themes, and therefore at the very core of it's power...the power that audiences themselves either understand as it's searing sociopolitical indictment, or are threatened by it enough (and need to see it as a flawed or "failed" film) in order to keep identification with it's main character at arm's length.

Barry Miller said...

Well, I just can't help myself. Lets take this damning criticism: the film is"a total failure, despite great performances and direction, since the Holbrook character fails to make any moral decision; rather than confronting and resolving the issues behind his discontent, he evades them." But that EVASION is the whole point! An evasion he has come to realize is not only his whole life's own, but the whole world's evasion as well, and it is in that sense I consider it one of the most moral, if not even hopeful pleas for clarity (in the sense that the film exposes the entire disease of modern 20th century life as nothing but evasion) and therefore, confrontation with it's perpetual sickness.Amusing that we can watch a "horror" film, but never confront the horror of the everyday, which is the very wellspring of our main character's internal psychic struggle, and the very bottom of his divided self, someone who has sat for a lifetime quietly watching and pretending to enjoy the entertainment.The scene with the astronaut is telling. In the speech about walking on the moon as a profoundly lonely experience, devoid of all the "discos and tennis", is it not an ironic metaphor that he is describing an exalted or even religious or spiritual state of consciousness, an "outer world" beyond the confines of mankind's limited "scientific" understanding (his magazine is described as a "scientific publication") and an unconscious search for meaning, if not the divine? And please make note of the very special physical small details of the film in terms of this terrestrial world that surrounds him: the drab New England suburbs and the dark, suffocating, tacky colonial-style house, evoking strange shadows of the puritanical and blood-stained ancestry of witch-hunts, the conversation about the "fading memories" of The Holocaust, his city office with it's sterile modern art on the wall, the bland furnishings and clocks, the omnipresent beige of it all, save for that singular red "breakdown" light, cutting against the entire movie's almost nauseous monochromatic palette, that floods the stalled commuter train during a moment of two strangers desperately grasping for real life in an act of spontaneous sexual combustion, only to be returned to "normal operations" and for the light to disappear, their terror palpable at their unforeseen act but finally comfortable once again in their usual routine destinations, with one of them relievedly heading towards home and to death and to the death of uncomprehending innocents, one more of the many forgotten little everyday bloodbaths that we already know will take place. I've changed my mind. I think that it's not one of the greatest lost films of the 1970's...it's THE one.