The Sterile Cuckoo

(Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1969)


I must have first seen The Sterile Cuckoo when I was 10 or 11 years old – probably on television, where I caught its re-runs obsessively over a period of several years. In my pre-pubescent and early adolescent phases, it was the perfect mirror of my crippling shyness and loneliness: I equally identified with/projected into both the boy (Wendell Burton – who later became an evangelical Christian! – as the ‘too normal’, conservative Jerry) and the girl (Liza Minnelli as a pre-Manic Pixie named Pookie), and certain images and scenes (such as the couple’s agonising phone call, focused solely on Pookie’s end of it) burned into my brain forever more.


In my head, The Sterile Cuckoo joined a special group of melancholic movies, most of them also seen on TV: The Member of the Wedding (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955), A Walk with Love and Death (John Huston, 1969), Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969), even (believe it or not) Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), are in that altogether personal genre. And if I had caught it at the time, Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) would doubtless have gained access to this cadre of films.


More particularly, it was among the works – another grouping which includes Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961) and (believe it or not) Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) – that filled me with a sad intimation of ‘how things will turn out’ in life and (especially) love: something in the way these movies leapt, at the end, to an ashen epilogue, long into the narrative future, sealed that deal. And The Sterile Cuckoo starts right in that wintry mood, before its fumbling young lovers even meet, with a song that tells us that the Great Day of life (which is, apparently, Saturday) will be anticipated, lived, but then vanish too soon … “and we will remember, long after Saturday’s gone” (more on this song – also burned into my brain – below).


But I haven’t seen The Sterile Cuckoo (or heard that song) ever since, for 50 years! And it is, for sure, a striking film to revisit today. Pakula, making his directorial debut (he had already had served more than a decade as Robert Mulligan’s producer, and been a part of the movie industry another decade before that), appears to have chosen a ‘small’ subject that he could completely control. The co-ordinates or parameters of this adaptation of John Nichols’ 1965 novel are literally reduced: much of the film involves only the two main actors in otherwise completely depopulated natural locations (green fields, empty roads, a cemetery … ).


The découpage is, at all points, extremely precise, economical: every shot (by veteran cinematographer Milton R. Krasner, just shy of his career’s end) was clearly planned, and no shot is merely redundant. The first time Pakula uses a closer-in shot/counter shot volley, for example, it carries a palpable sense of virgin discovery (the sort of discovery that Bertolucci once ascribed to Pier Paolo Pasolini during the filming of his debut, Accattone [1961]) – or rather, of personally mastering a given technique for the first time.


This overall reduction tends to give The Sterile Cuckoo, at many moments, the air of a genuinely minimalist film (like – in a completely different dramatic register – Mike Nichols’ stunning and today underrated Carnal Knowledge [1971]). The impression of minimalism arises, in part, from the soundtrack: every single music cue in Fred Karlin’s score is a variation on some segment or other of his composed song “Come Saturday Morning”, with lyrics by Dory Previn and vocal performance by The Sandpipers. How market-driven this decision was in relation to hoped-for (and duly achieved) success on the pop charts, I do not know – but it definitely becomes an integral part of the film’s style and effect. And it marks a difference from the more typical, dominant scoring practice (then as now) of a tune for each mood, a melody for each main character (a mode which belongs as much to Ennio Morricone as to, say, John Williams) …


Although I am certain it is a coincidence, there are uncanny echoes (to my eyes, at least) of an avant-garde feature made the previous year, Philippe Garrel’s Le révélateur: in the specific, highly wrought composition of two ‘decapitated’ heads (in both films belonging to the central man-woman couple) swimming in a flattened scenographic space (an echo of Samuel Beckett?); and in the more general detail of scenes composed on the inside/outside poignancy of somebody driving or walking away, or being taken away on a train, from someone else, with the camera taking the place of the departing one. Plus: Pakula and Garrel alike are fond of ‘couples walking’ scenes, and both of them signal estrangement through the subtle action of one partner being literally ‘out of step’ with the other.





And wasn’t it around that time that Garrel said of his cinema: “Let madness come …”? But I’m getting ahead of myself on that point.


One may well surmise that Pakula was not aiming for anything especially experimental in his debut (or at any other point of his almost three-decade directorial career). Stylish, arresting, different – yes. Pakula decisively broke away from the more naturalistic (but still very ‘worked’ and exact) manner of Mulligan. Pakula made bolder, more modern decisions of stylisation, as many toiling around him were doing: in his use of the telephoto lens, for example, or his propensity for delivering a virtuosic long-take soliloquy. In a TV interview, Jane Fonda once engagingly evoked the ‘macho’ approach of certain directors who would set up – at the most challenging moment of the shoot – a long take sequence to not only prove and demonstrate their own mastery, but also test the skills of cast and crew. The specific example was her soliloquy scene in Pakula’s second film, Klute (1971).


Pakula, however, is not an especially exhibitionistic, show-off director. His most modernistic film, the startling The Parallax View (1974), is so fractured and angular because the paranoiac subject-matter strictly demands it. He declared in 1976: “I hate camerawork for its own sake”. What he aims for, above all, is an integrated, logical and expressive patterning of events, places, and the characters’ behaviour within framed space. Already, in a special Pakula section of the September-October 1976 Film Comment, Richard T. Jameson insisted on what he called this “patternisation”.


Let’s consider the category of screen events. Here we must credit the talent of writer Alvin Sargent (he basically created almost every detail in the script, retaining very little of the novel), who has often helped provide the quasi-minimalist, elliptical intensity of a certain type of ‘chamber drama’ for works including Paul Newman’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972) and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). The Sterile Cuckoo is structured as a succession of buses arriving (and depositing a character, like in several Otto Preminger movies), cars or trains leaving, rendezvous in deserted spots … Pakula is fond of pointedly reprising the use of a place: a cavernous sports stadium, for instance, or a deserted chapel.


The Sterile Cuckoo is a very physical film (an aspect of Pakula’s art I was first cued to by Daniela de Felicibus’ smart piece in the December ’73 issue of Australia’s Lumiere magazine): every psychological and emotional interaction is given its correlative in the embodied concreteness of the mise en scène – differences in people’s placement within the frame, their ways of carrying out actions, their deliberate, carefully choreographed, evenly-spaced-out movements. Even the usual frolic-montage trap of the couple running and laughing (which Roger Ebert, at the time, dubbed the Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude) gets a few inventive gestural tweaks worthy of Malick or Takeshi Kitano.




But we are not dealing here with a film of mere expressive touches: Pakula’s stylisation of The Sterile Cuckoo is remarkably consistent and systematic – but with a naturalism of characterisation and performance that saves it from Bressonian schematism. Take particular note, for example, of the way he exploits just-off-screen space, what suddenly enters a frame or just as suddenly departs from our field of vision for some moments – a technique that Pakula exploited often, especially (I would venture) when getting into comedy (Starting Over [1979], another underrated gem, offers a rich case study). In the crucial, agonisingly prolonged bedroom scene of The Sterile Cuckoo (as the couple is about to have sex for the first time), Jerry’s nervous delay-tactics are pictured in a flurry of noisy actions below and to the left or right of the subtly mobile frame (which keeps returning to the initial, cramped angle). This had nothing to do with constrictions imposed a location, since I am sure it’s a perfectly controllable, designed and built set; rather, Pakula contrived the device of a constricted space for expressive purposes. The architectural ideas become showier and more ostentatious, but no less subject to the rule of pattern, in Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men (1976).




Above all – and once again in the realm of uncanny resonances across film history! – The Sterile Cuckoo could be well used as a textbook illustration of Alain Bergala’s long-developed ideas about the creative use (and dynamic system) of intervals in cinema: i.e., the choreographed distances between characters (which can be pictorially stretched or closed, minimised or exaggerated); and, at the very same time, the distance which the camera takes from the action it frames (which is also a matter of how different views are edited in relation to each another). Just look at how Pakula enlivens what was already, in 1969, a hoary visual cliché: the camera tracking inexorably away (as if mounted on the fictive train or car) from a lonely figure left behind (see first cluster of screenshots above). Among Bergala’s favourite exemplars of the interval process are Ingmar Bergman, Abbas Kiarostami, Jean Vigo and Kenji Mizoguchi but, as far as I’m aware, he’s never noticed Pakula’s dexterity in this area (I’d personally also add John Cassavetes and Wes Anderson to the list.)


Pakula displays an extraordinarily integrated grasp of this intricately cinematic logic in his first feature; he spelt it out in the Film Comment interview with Rick Thompson.


Part of the tension is the constant change in spatial relationships, which I love to do: the spatial relationships between the characters and their world changing during a scene, as well as the spatial relationship between characters changing during the scene.


First, let’s note how literally far out this film regularly gets: the vistas (often shot telephoto) are vast, and the characters are often far, far away – remarkably so for a film of this type (the type being, loosely, romantic comedy – a genre with which Pakula had a unique relation, as also in Starting Over and Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing [1973], although the majority of critics were far happier to see him work over the mystery-noir-thriller template, and caricatured his career curve accordingly – even Pakula himself, in his ’76 Film Comment feature interview, obligingly mentions only his ‘thrillers’).



Next: the wide open spaces often occupied by Pookie and Jerry when they are alone, versus the exaggeratedly agglomerated, packed-in, truly claustrophobic frames of social activity (almost as messy and monstrous as the decadent party in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds [1966]) that have recently become the trademark of the Zürcher brothers – a dialectic that Bergala mentions as regularly operative, if on a gentler pendulum, in Garrel.




Look at this: a one-shot vignette, which begins with Pookie and Jerry embracing. Then, troubled by their own urges (this is before the consummation scene), they quickly separate. At this point, the camera zooms out – way out – to reframe their emotional freeze in the vastness of the green landscape.




More generally – in fact, I would estimate that it informs and structures every scene of the film – there is the careful work on the ever-changing distance between Pookie’s and Jerry’s bodies in the scene, and in each frame where they are both present.




In several scenes, Pakula makes use of a distance-marking (and intensifying) device that Bergala noted in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963): the vertical objects that, for several beats, seem to magnetically keep the characters apart – tall trees in one instance, gravestones (a brilliant variation) in another.



I’ve concentrated here on stylistics, but there’s plenty left to discuss in The Sterile Cuckoo. Two notable things for me today: the curious way (characteristic of many movies of the time) that the film dances around the topics of pregnancy, and mental illness. Neither, tellingly, is mentioned or named as such. Pookie – without ever seeing a doctor for any diagnosis (a detail that infuriates Jerry, repeatedly) – experiences both the onset and the termination (within her body) of pregnancy; it’s curious that, in 1969, this still seems such a taboo area of representation. The ambiguity of what happens in this plot thread – with nobody around to corroborate, did she only imagine she was pregnant, how did she know she lost it? – anticipates the premise of the Dardennes’ Lorna’s Silence (2008), where a woman’s belief or conviction that she is pregnant matters just as much as its ambiguous physical reality/unreality.


This ambiguity takes us to the mysterious matter of Pookie’s psyche. Is she cracked from the word go, does she get cracked by the failure of the relationship (and/or the loss of a child)? There’s a deliberate obscurity surrounding many of her large-scale off-screen actions and behaviours, doubtless a residue of the fact that Nichols’ novel is narrated from Jerry’s perspective: the relationship with her father (he is glimpsed, closed-mouthed, in the opening shots); and her seemingly total non-relation to scholastic study (a shock moment comes when Jerry discovers that she has quit her education). All her manic jokiness – not to mention her desperate dependence on Jerry – seems to be in compensation for something in her past that is never fully articulated, only suggested. And what grim destiny is Jerry waving her off to at the end (the waiting on a bus bench precisely echoing the opening scene), after what seems (especially in the penultimate hotel room scene) like a total mental and emotional breakdown on her part: back to home and Dad, really? The extremely downbeat, long-held final frame of a decentred Jerry hints at his vague awareness of this abyss.




It is a characteristic of several Alvin Sargent scripts – not to mention Western culture in general between the 1950s and the ‘70s – that mental illness (of various kinds or, in the all-purpose lingo of the time, “madness”) tends to be confused with many other things … if, indeed, it is really mental illness at all (remember that the ‘70s is also the era of R.D. Laing, Fernand Deligny, and A Woman Under the Influence, among other works and practices that bravely contested the very notion of mental illness and its medical ‘classification’). The Effect of Gamma Rays …, adapted from Paul Zindel’s 1971 autobiographical play, is (as I argue at length in my 2018 audio commentary on the Indicator DVD) a prime example of the categorical confusion that arises from a volatile, almost hysterical mix of memory, resentment, blame, projection, revenge motive, preconceptions of gender (women are flighty and so emotional!), empathy, and unresolved “unfinished business”: the behaviour of the mother (Joanne Woodward as Beatrice) can be ascribed, alternately or all at once, to drink, mental illness, “bad mothering skills”, financial desperation (she’s a single, working class Mum with two teenage daughters, after all), emotional imbalance, past trauma, or just a plain, nasty temperament (“unable to love”).


In the case of The Sterile Cuckoo, this entire complex is dialled down – somewhat – to the kooky Pookie type, closely keyed to Liza Minnelli’s then-burgeoning persona: a youthful, high-spirited, funny-zany, “scatterbrained” girl who’s just “longing for love” and lovably, eccentrically nuts, cuckoo! (The very words that come to me suggest that a comparative study of Barbra Streisand’s screen roles is in order here.) Until, that is, she clearly exhibits a “problem” (of functionality and adaptation to anything resembling ‘normal’ life – the very thing she has railed against all along as the drab, conformist regime of “weirdos”), and has to be carted off somewhere or other.


It would be interesting to study the symptomatic terms in which reviewers of the time – as well as Pakula (who, we are told by Film Comment, “once considered a career in psychoanalysis”), Sargent and Minnelli herself – described this character and her trajectory. But the pictures may speak louder (and truer) than the words …




MORE Pakula: Consenting Adults, The Pelican Brief, Rollover

© Adrian Martin 5 & 6 April 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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