Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle

(Alan Rudolph, USA, 1994)


How many people today know, really know, the lives and careers and works of those who were a part of Dorothy Parker's set at the Algonquin hotel? Parker herself may ring a few bells. But who knows which old Hollywood scripts were tinkered on by wits such as Robert Benchley? Who's seen any recent productions of the plays of George S. Kaufman? It's another world, a lost world, because a lot of the writing done by these people was ephemeral stuff – magazine articles, humorous pieces, pithy poems, and the like.

Director Alan Rudolph returns to this world with obvious fondness in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. He tries to give this milieu the same kind of gravity, the same nostalgic glow, which Philip Kaufman gave to his recreation of bohemian artists in Paris during the '30s in Henry and June (1990). Both films, however, bog down in a bunch of problems.

Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle is a puzzling, somewhat uninviting film. Unquestionably its key problem is its attempt to show these famous characters – Parker, Benchley, Kaufman and the rest – in the act of spontaneously spouting all the quips and bon mots for which they are best known. The dialogue of this movie is, from start to end, a torrent of such lines. There are so many of them – mumbled, whispered, overlapped, gabbled and garbled – that I found myself remembering not a blessed one of them when the lights came up at the end.

Rudolph's way with dialogue here reminds you of the great rapid-fire Hollywood comedies, like Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940). But in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, we get screwball comedy dialogue without the screwiness, without the comedy, and above all without the zing. From this angle, the film is a dysfunctional, cracked screwball comedy. Rudolph and his co-writer Randy Sue Coburn try to render all these quips and witticisms in as a flow of conversation – one divine, sotto voce pun is always answered by another, until you want to scream. But the effect is totally weird, and cancels itself out immediately. This happens mainly because no one ever actually seems to hear anyone else, and certainly no one never reacts to or laughs at anybody else's line.

Maybe this is what Rudolph really wanted: to portray a bunch of narcissistic monologists with no sensitivity, no empathy for each other. This is certainly suggested by a crazy central shot of the film where Rudolph's camera does a spin right around the Algonquin table, taking in every one yabbering at once. They just reflect each other emptily, infinitely, like in some ghastly carnival hall of mirrors. Indeed, watching these characters jibe away at each other, hitting their downhill spirals of bitterness, cynicism and despair, I kept remembering a line from a Howard Devoto song of the '80s: "You're like a mirror I could learn to hate".

Rudolph has gotten into some bizarre forms of stylisation in his time. His previous effort Equinox (1992) joined a long line of wacky postmodern numbers in his filmography – films such as Love at Large (1990) and Trouble in Mind (1985). I call them postmodern in the simplest, most immediate sense because they are films in love with quotation and pastiche: actors in Bogey trenchcoats and hats standing in mock-Hollywood sets delivering fruity lines that vaguely sound like they could have come from some old gangster film or melodrama.

But in such po-mo movies Rudolph isn't just doing a shambling, jokey nostalgia trip down memory lane, like you get in the Steve Martin movie Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982), for instance. Rudolph usually likes to butt such brittle satire and pastiche up against some horrid present-day reality – serial murders or urban development crises or the prevalent lovelessness of the modern world. At their strangest, his movies just tend to float between these options – empty pop punning on the one hand and pseudo-angst on the other – and it's their unreal, dissociated air that marks them as postmodern on a more profoundly symptomatic level. Rudolph is one of those directors who likes to lament about a lot of things in this world, but he's completely vague about what alternative there is for him or for us to believe in.

Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle doesn't really belong with these completely way-out films of Rudolph's. It has its bizarre, floating, schizophrenic air alright, but its closer to his better, more serious, more grounded films such as Remember My Name (1978), Choose Me (1984), or Mortal Thoughts (1991). Mrs Parker isn't, finally, trying to be a screwball comedy of any sort. It improves once it hits a morose, manic-depressive groove.

The dramatic subject of the film is essentially the failure of Parker's love life. First we see her in a bad relationship with her drug addicted, violent, shambling husband, played very poorly by Andrew McCarthy. As the years wear on there is a series of equally unhappy affairs, most notably with Charlie McArthur – he was co-writer with Ben Hecht of The Front Page (Lewis Milestone, 1931), which later became His Girl Friday. Matthew Broderick is marvellous in this part – dark, seductive, hungry, steely, sexy as all hell, like we haven't seen him on screen to date. Parker experiences a brief rapture with McArthur – lolling naked in bed with him, she says one of the best lines of the film (and about the only epiphany I can remember): "I will wear my heart on my sleeve like a wet, red stain". But Charlie's married and evasive, and Dorothy finds him in bed with some floozy from the stage, so it's a disaster as usual.

In every key respect the main man in Parker's life, over the long haul, is Robert Benchley. Campbell Scott, who was in Longtime Companion (Norman Rene, 1990), is terrific as Benchley. He's like the film's centre of gravity, particularly beside Jennifer Jason Leigh who gets extremely mannered and affected in her vocal and gestural mimicry. There are moments when she seems to be simply continuing the composite Katharine Hepburn-Rosalind Russell schtick she worked up for the Coen brothers' underrated comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – a schtick that would fit in well in some of those more loony films of Rudolph's that I mentioned. However, there's some real feeling in the film's depiction of the relationship between Parker and Benchley.

Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) revived the classic narrative device of sexual tension, or more exactly sexual deferment. The platonic union of Parker and Benchley is a masterpiece of sexual deferment. In this merry circle of brittle, promiscuous couplings, it's hard to believe the truth, that they sustained a platonic relationship all the years that they knew each other. She keeps trying to circle in on what they never talk about, what they never do, but he can't be drawn on the subject, even in jest. Campbell Scott suggests the complex depths hidden in his evasion: a strange mixture of sublime respect for Parker and a general, subterranean misogyny.

Every failure, every rejection, every curtailment of deep, fulfilling intimacy sends Dorothy downwards – towards booze, cynicism, suicide attempts, loneliness. Rudolph makes a poetic motif out of Parker's attachment to the sadness of the rain. And he gives us slightly surreal scenes, outside of strict dramatic space and time, where Parker looks at us and recites her darkest, most corrosive rhymes. These scenes border on complete overstatement and affectation, but they actually worked for me, and drew me into Parker's life in a way much of the film did not – particularly when everybody's yabbering at each other.

Generally, taking in the whole film, I sensed strongly that Rudolph was fighting with himself all along, trying not to pump the pathos peddle too strongly, but finally unable to resist a bit of teary manipulation. This question of pathos – how far you go with it, whether it should be there at all – comes up immediately in any attempt to tell the life of Dorothy Parker. For she herself, with her barbed humour, her elaborate emotional defences, her wall of insularity later in life, was not a person given to pathos. It would be the same problem if someone were to do a biopic about Andy Warhol – a project which is periodically announced – or Oscar Wilde.

People who in their lives and their art cultivate a certain poise, a certain aloofness and coldness, deserve to be rendered in a similar manner. That, I believe, would be only a fitting mark of respect for their lifestyle, and the style of their art. If pathos there must be – pathos about these individuals who never truly loved, who died alone without friends, who never expressed what was really in their hearts, and so on – then this pathos should only be allowed to creep out, in an extremely understated way. In fact, I'd like to see a biopic of this type absolutely without pathos. I suspect, from my own viewing, that there's only a few filmmakers – Gus Van Sant or Paul Morrissey, gay artists as it happens – who can get entirely by without maudlin pathos. You see that hard, mucky, unflinching quality in Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Morrissey's Mixed Blood (1985) – and it's their resolve in this area that finally makes these films, paradoxically, such moving experiences. Interestingly, Van Sant has at various times been mooted as a candidate to direct a proposed Andy Warhol biopic.

But, no matter who directs, there tends to be a few problems inherent in the very form of the biopic. There seems to be an absolute qualitative difference between biopics and invented fictional stories – even when these fictions are great sprawling sagas covering a character's life from birth to death. Filmmakers are always constrained by the basic, random, wayward facts of a real life – and they always end up contorting themselves in order to draw some clean slice of narrative and dramatic coherence from that life. In fact, most biopics are just too damn neat – going from childhood dreams to adult fame and disillusionment and back again, or some such tabloid cliché, like Richard Attenborough's atrocious Chaplin (1992).

These filmed lives are nearly always too full of rhymes and symmetries and returns and crushing ironies. Too often, everything gets tied up with some corny childhood flashback or vision of a primal scene – as if every real life was basically modelled after Citizen Kane's. Only Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), out of recent biopics, even attempted to track a person's ever changing personality, situation and ideology without taking recourse to such hackneyed devices. Other, less fussy biopics, like Tina: What's Love Got to Do With It? (Brian Gibson, 1993), are simply content to race through a heavily edited and rearranged life story like it's a rip-roaring pop song or a decent piece of soap opera.

Rudolph has obviously considered this problem very carefully in relation to the life of Parker. We hear about certain exploits of hers – such as her proud involvement in the Spanish civil war – that are never seen dramatised. In fact, this is not the 'life of Dorothy Parker' at all. Rudolph approaches this task obliquely, first by concentrating on the period of Parker's life that intersects with the creation of the Algonquin round table. Then, once we are deep into the compulsive, hopeless patterns of Parker's love life, he abandons conventional narrative progression for a breathless, lyrical dance though the drizzly, melancholy moments of her decline and fall.

It's an impressionistic structure for a biopic, yet Rudolph doesn't push it as far as some other filmmakers have done, Peter Watkins in his film about Edvard Munch, for instance, or the very different versions of Van Gogh presented by Robert Altman and Maurice Pialat. Rudolph, for instance, obviously suffers from that great biopic anxiety: if a famous film star or President or artist walks into the middle of a scene, how will the audience know for sure who they are, without everybody else in the scene going, "Hi, JFK" or "liked your last exhibition, Pablo" or "surely you've met my good friend, the redoubtable rogue James Joyce?".

For instance, there's a scene in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle which shows a large garden party. There's one jolly chap who runs around in a funny way, leering at women and chasing them through the bushes. I thought to myself as I watched this: what fun, the irascible wits of the Algonquin round table are taking turns impersonating Harpo Marx. But the final credits set me straight: that guy was meant to be Harpo Marx.

© Adrian Martin June 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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