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Alone in the Dark: Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens

By Peter Tonguette on September 28, 2012

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At the start of Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, monologist David Staebler sits quietly in the blackness of a radio broadcast booth, seducing his listeners with his silence. After a moment, he begins: “I promised that I would tell you why I never eat fish.” But does anybody care? Is anybody even listening at 3 a.m. in Philadelphia? It would be nice to think so, as David (played by Jack Nicholson in the second of five on-screen collaborations with Rafelson) has a genuinely macabre tale to tell. His grandfather, he says, choked to death on a fish bone when he and his brother mischievously declined to provide the old man with the life-saving elixir: a heel of pumpernickel bread.

King of Marvin Gardens

David speaks in the slow, soft tones of someone very important, but Rafelson soon shows us that he is a legend only in his own mind. The first clue is the red flashing of the telephone that illuminates half of David’s face while he is still on the air; his monologue is not so important that the engineer in the adjacent room won’t interrupt it when an urgent call is coming in. Few directors are as willing to cut the intelligentsia down to size as Rafelson. Recall the great scene in Five Easy Pieces, in which Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea chews out the “pompous celibate” who cruelly makes a highfalutin point by using Nicholson’s unpolished, uneducated girlfriend as an example. “You’re totally full of shit,” he says in a tone of indignation we share. “You’re all full of shit.”

So is David, and Rafelson and co-writer Jacob Brackman make quick work of bursting his bubble. When David arrives home at dawn, we are surprised to find that he lives with the grandfather mentioned in his story. Not only is the older man among the living, but he good-naturedly disputes most of what he has just heard on the radio. (He is played with rascally aplomb by Charles LaVine.) “If you don’t like my stories, you don’t have to listen to my program,” David replies, in one line confirming both his carelessness with the truth and his indifference to his nonexistent audience. But for all of David’s self-seriousness, Rafelson shows him to be essentially an arrested adolescent. After the confrontation with his grandfather, he marches upstairs to his bedroom, cluttered with the toys of a bright boy: reel-to-reel tape recorders and stacks of paperbacks. He can go on the radio and play at being a voice of experience and wisdom, but we imagine that he is not many years removed from having his mother drive him to the station. Later, when someone innocently calls him “Davey,” he gives the game away when he testily replies, “No one’s called me ‘Davey’ in 10 years.” Only 10?

King of Marvin Gardens Jack Nicholson Bruce Dern

The King of Marvin Gardens was not well-reviewed when it premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1972, even though it shared the same director-star team as Five Easy Pieces, as well as the same cinematographer (Laszlo Kovacs, contributing sketches of urban isolation to rival Edward Hopper), designer (Toby Carr Rafelson), and production apparatus (BBS). But perhaps David Staebler was a type whose day had not yet come. He has all the makings of a 21st-century hipster—the smugness, the insularity—but there were no Ira Glasses advertising themselves on the airwaves in the early Seventies. Back then, David probably seemed just unlikeable, but careful viewers would have found that Rafelson agreed with one character’s frank (if ungrammatical) analysis of David: “He’s got only one thing: depression, suspicion, and mistrust.”

David is particularly vulnerable to such charges when compared to older brother Jason (Bruce Dern), a quixotic dreamer who believes that his work for a small-time Atlantic City mobster will serve as a springboard to his becoming the Conrad Hilton of Tiki, the Hawaiian island where he hopes to run a resort. His plans seem all the more far-fetched when we find that he is in jail as the movie begins. Yet Jason speaks for us when he spots the fussy, sullen David walk in to try to bail him out and says, “You look like a priest in that getup.” For all his flaws, Jason’s appeal is not far from Bill Clinton’s, as it was once characterized by Norman Mailer: “‘I’m no good and I can prove it,’ people think. And then they say, ‘Look at the president. He’s just like me. He’s no good and he can prove it.’”

King of Marvin Gardens

What really wins us over, however, is Jason’s indefatigable spirit. The grotesque quality of his surroundings—the unused amusement rides, the musty hotel rooms, the old men with walkers floating by—makes his optimism seem touchingly valiant. Leave it to him to survey a sorry hotel façade and note proudly that Woodrow Wilson once stayed there. When the brothers (along with Jason’s two inamoratas) put on an ersatz Miss America pageant, David bristles with sarcasm as he sings the song while Jason plays the master of ceremonies with sincere gusto.

The film’s melodramatic ending, combined with a lot of skulking around by unnamed hoods, anticipate Rafelson’s later crime films (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Blood and Wine). In the end, though, The King of Marvin Gardens is as much of a character study as Five Easy Pieces, and its power rests in its performances, including Ellen Burstyn as a sagging beauty and Julia Anne Robinson as her fresh-faced stepdaughter (who cries when her stepmother throws away all of her age-defying makeup, like Daisy Buchanan does over Jay Gatsby’s shirts). In a suit and sneakers, with a lower lip that hangs moodily on his face, Nicholson looks like a sick fish, and Dern looks at him like he is nuts. What can Jason say when, after recounting the truly “grim” experience of being imprisoned in Cincinnati for 60 days, David dumbly retorts, “We’ve all done our time, Jason”? Call him the King of Marvin Gardens or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but even as he takes you to nowhere worth going, Jason Staebler exemplifies the theme of Rafelson’s early triumph: the naiveté of the rogue is nothing next to that of the bookworm.

The King of Marvin Gardens screens Sunday, Sept. 30, at the New York Film Festival.

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