Thursday, April 17, 2014

Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)

          During his heyday, writer-director Paul Mazursky was so good at constructing incisive scenes filled with humor, insight, and pathos that it was frustrating whenever he got mired in self-indulgence. For example, Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village, a fictionalized account of his own transition from the provincial Jewish community in Brooklyn where he grew up to the bohemian wonderland of 1950s Greenwich Village, should be impossibly precious. After all, Mazursky includes characters based on his parents, dramatizes formative sexual experiences, and even re-creates the texture of early acting lessons. Executed without discipline and taste, Next Stop, Greenwich Village could have been nothing but a filmed diary entry. Yet Mazursky (mostly) applies the same rigorous techniques he employed when telling the stories of wholly fictional characters, so the movie is brisk, funny, lively, and surprising—except when it isn’t. And that’s where the issue of self-indulgence becomes relevant.
          After starting very strong, Next Stop, Greenwich Village gets stuck in a groove about halfway through its running time, because Mazursky includes such needless scenes as the lead character’s dream/nightmare of what it would be like to have his overbearing mother invade one of his acting classes. Furthermore, the exploration of crises that are experienced by the lead character’s downtown friends feels a bit forced. Were this the work of a lesser filmmaker, these problems would have been catastrophic. Yet since Next Stop, Greenwich Village represents Mazursky at his prime, they’re only minor flaws. The movie is so good, in the mean, that even sizable detours can’t subtract from the value of the journey.
          In terms of texture, Mazursky strikes a terrific balance between deglamorizing and romanticizing the New York City of his younger days. Scenes of cavorting through the streets with like-minded friends and of sharing a bed with a beautiful young girlfriend make the best moments of protagonist Larry Lipinksy’s life seem like pure postadolescent bliss, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, grim encounters with disappointment and heartbreak, to say nothing of incessant clashes with the aforementioned smothering mom, play out as epic suffering—which is often how young people perceive their own travails. In sum, Mazursky seems to get things exactly right whenever the movie clicks. He also, as always, benefits from extraordinary performances. An actor himself, Mazursky regularly drew the best possible work from his casts, creating a loose performance space in which players can easily blend their idiosyncracises with the rhythms of the text.
          Playing the Mazursky surrogate, leading man Lenny Baker is terrific, all gangly awekwardness mixed with youthful arrogance. Ellen Greene is sly and sexy as his quick-witted girlfriend, and Shelley Winters finds a perfect vessel for her uniquely voracious screen persona. Durable supporting players including Lou Jacobi, Mike Kellin, and Joe Spinell lend ample Noo Yawk flavor, while future stars Antonio Fargas, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Vincent Schiavelli, and Christopher Walken appear in secondary roles of various sizes. And if the movie ultimately lacks a satisfying resolution—since it’s really just a snapshot of a transitional moment—that’s inconsequential given how much sensitive entertainment the experience of watching the movie provides.

Next Stop, Greenwich Village: GROOVY


Xteve said...

Love the Milton Glaser poster!

Unknown said...

For a few years after seeing this film twice on its release, I considered it one of the best movies I had ever seen. The glow has dimmed now, all except for one superb performance, that of Lois Smith as the doomed, suicidal Anita. Miss Smith should have won a supporting Oscar, and if I ever decide someday to add this film to my collection, it will be because of Lois Smith

Barry Miller said...

One of the greatest unsung masterpieces of the 1970's "New Hollywood" era, it briefly and deservedly put Mazursky in the august company of such superstar directors as Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin, Bogdanovich, and Allen, all of whom suffered gravely at the hands of the early 1980's transitional corporatization of Hollywood in their later years.

Of special note is the presence in the cast of Lois Smith, who gives a memorable and affecting performance as a troubled and suicidal young artist.
She appeared as a barmaid alongside James Dean in Elia Kazan's "East Of Eden" from 1955, which makes the character extraordinarily resonant, and is part and parcel of the film's deeply personal and exquisitely rendered detail.

Barry Miller said...

And some more exquisite details of it's recreated Greenwich Village world of 1953: The De Kooning-like abstract expressionist painting hanging on the wall of the illegal abortion clinic waiting room, the copy of John-Paul Sartre's
"Being And Nothingness" on an apartment shelf, the argument over The Rosenberg's execution in a coffeehouse, the all-too-real and stunningly accurate acting class scene, showing the new and influential impact of Stanislavsky and The Method on any truly serious and aspiring thespian of the time, Ellen Greene's brassiere and lipstick, the Dylan Thomas reference (he died in The Village at The White Horse Tavern in the same year as the film is set, and the single best line of dialogue in the entire movie: "underneath that pose, there's just more pose")