Big Shot: A Thousand Clowns

“In a moment you are going to see a horrible thing. People going to work.” With his hat pushed back optimistically, a low angle closeup captures Jason Robards’ impish face looking just off into the distance; he’s impossibly pleased with himself as he issues this warning to his twelve year old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon). In its first few moments of A Thousand Clowns, it’s clear that though Murray (Robards) is broke, he’s got plenty of conviction. It’s this strong personal code that makes Murray both a perfect and terrible guardian to Nick, precocious beyond his years, and frames this charmingly truthful tale of growing up.

Nick and Murray’s day off unfolds in a romantic montage with a tenderness for New York City that echoes the awe and wonder of The Little Fugitive. The audio track captures their witty banter, it’s clear that these two really like each other. Time stretches on as they take the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and mess around, moving against the commuter rush, and ending up in exhausted fits of laughter, hands stuffed with cracker jacks, back at their apartment where reality and consequence is waiting to burst their bubble.

Two child services agents, Albert and Sandra, are waiting at the door threatening to take Nick away from his irresponsible uncle. These two, played by William Daniels (Mr. Feeny!) and Sandy Dennis, could be easily positioned as the primary villains in this story. Their goals are directly at odds with those of our protagonists. But what we have here is a multidimensional film. Sandra ends up being the flawed love interest (she’s really terribly at decorating), and Albert finds absolution in his monologue to Murray, backing him up into a corner, pleading for him to understand his point of view. Murray may be an expert at being alive, but he isn’t providing much structure for Nick. Like Murray, he just wants the best for the kid. He may be no fun, but someone’s got to be. It seems he could be right. Instead of the anticipated intervention, Murray’s carefree attitude reveals the cracks in Al and Sandy’s solidity. Albert leaves in a huff, promising to return with bad news but Sandy, suffering an existential crisis, stays to finish up her weeping. She’s aroused Murray’s interest and never finds her way back to her old, organized life.

Murray has made a living not making a living. He he’s figured out the best way to spend a day in New York without spending any money. What to yell, which busses to take, the bums who sell the best junk… etc. To impress Sandra, he takes her on a date that is eerily similar to Murray’s perfect day with Nick that opens the film. He sweeps her off her feet. But when someone asks him, “Let’s return to reality for a moment.” He is quick to reply, “I only go as a tourist.” And despite Murray’s ability to make the kid laugh, it’s clear Nick, always the responsible one, is worried about his uncle. At one point he confesses that he’s concerned that Murray is “developing into a bum.” Despite being the most suitable guardian Nick has in this world – a vivacious guy, full of life and life lessons – he’s a talented comedy writer who could still find work if he wanted it, it seems Murray is severely allergic to taking care of business of any kind. It’s Nick who’s the adult, keeping the household together and making sure the Murray doesn’t go completely off the rails. In every person’s life they face a choice: Either avoid those things that are the marks of a responsible adult human, and in doing so, lose the ability to continue to live their life like every day is an adventure, or stay on the spirited path and risk losing everything; become a bum who yells at the windows.

A Thousand Clowns is based on a play of the same name, and its roots are evident from the structure of the film, which takes place over just a few days comprised of a handful of key scenes. But the film does something the stage production never could and provides a truly candid look at New York as a big, over crowded neighborhood, taking full advantage of on-location cinematography, close-ups of commuters’ stoic faces, New York is truly their playground.

The score, a compendium of familiar marches from John Philip Sousa and George Frederick Root, stirs up the motivation to seize the day. As with Murray’s passion for bidding the steam ships farewell, these marches instill a sense of new beginnings. It seems he has a passion for the promising but balks when faced with any real ‘prospects’. The marches, like new beginnings, when all lined up one after another, become gratingly repetitive and never reach any kind of fruition.

All the monologues don’t make for a particularly subtle point of view and Murray’s message comes through loud and clear.  And eventually writer Herb Gardner’s does as well.  What he has to say hits at the core of what is so basically human that all of the grandstanding never impedes the tugging at our heartstrings: How does someone grow up and live in this world as a functional adult without giving up their individualism? They don’t. And when Murray is ultimately forced into this crossroads, he chooses stability and family over convictions, because what good are convictions if you have no one with whom to share them? While this isn’t a film with a clear cut happy ending, just like the impossibly well rounded characterizations that keep every character relatable, the ambivalence of the ending is an optimistic one. Ultimately, Murray’s choice is the right one, and the one most of us make in order to avoid being trampled by blind progress and letting down the ones we love, but in throwing away his stated value system, Murray has managed to achieve real value, despite the terrible tedium it may represent.

A Thousand Clowns: The Nebbishes

A Thousand Clowns was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards in the 1965 season. Martin Balsam won for Best Supporting Actor as Jason Robards’ straight shooter brother Arnold. Well-deserved, great job. We all love Martin Balsam. But Herb Gardner’s screenplay, based on his own play of the same name was truly snubbed (the Academy opted instead for Robert Bolt’s adaptation of Doctor Zhivago…). Witty, sentimental but not too much, clever, funny, charming, etc, etc, Garner’s script steals the show. It’s an opus about one man’s allergy to growing up – something I think we can all relate to, He  wrote the original play in his twenties after developing many of the themes and ideas in blob form. While still a student at Antioch College, Gardner created a cartoon character that would gain popularity first on merchandise, most famously cocktail napkins, and eventually blossom into a full-fledged comic strip that ran weekly in the New York Examiner for several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Nebbishes (in Yiddish, a ‘nebbish’ is a ‘sack sack’) were little blob people with large opinions of themselves and little to back it up. Simultaneously repellant and charming, The Nebbishes featured a little guy who has no problem sweating the small stuff and is quick to dismiss anyone who disagrees with him. Jason Robards’ Murray in A Thousand Clowns is decidedly not a Nebbish (too handsome and spry), his carefree lifestyle and growing disdain for the workforce at large brings him dangerously close to becoming a bum. The following strips (lifted from this enlightening blog post) are of particular interest to us this week:


Big Shot: Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights is an atmospheric wonder. The Explosions in the Sky soundtrack (now a cliché, but it works here) coupled with shots of big sky over big football fields in the dawn sunlight create a vaguely epic and woozy texture. The imagery from cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (who is now using his penchant for the big picture in big pictures like Battleship and Lone Survivor) reminds us that we are in Texas where there is more space that people. Sports radio plays non diegetically as coach and student sit in silence driving down long stretches of highway. The world outside the football field is quiet and calm. And then suddenly, with a closeups on padded bodies colliding and the crunch that come with it, roaring crowds heard off in the distance, we are thrown into the drama of football.

What we have here is the story of a single season of high school football in obsessed Odessa, Texas. There are few, if any characters in the film that don’t care about what happens on that field every Friday night. A girl makes a statue of the quarterback out of rice crispies. A local man and his newborn pose for a photo with the running back. Cheerleaders and random kids at school, the owner of the local diner, the town sheriff, moms, dads, radio hosts, teachers – everyone seems to be putting all their hopes and dreams on the shoulders of a few pimply teenaged boys and the coach of the Permian High School Panthers, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton). And the players know that not only the town, but their futures depend on this. Despite sparse dialogue, it is readily apparent that football is a person’s only ticket out of Odessa. It breeds hometown pride and then helps the boys get as far away from there as possible.

Based on H. G. Bissinger’s accounts of football-crazed Odessa, Texas in 1988 as recorded in the book of the same name, It’s basis in true events is the only thing surprising about the setup; it couldn’t be more Hollywood. The big star injures himself early in the season and must be replaced by a rookie kid who doesn’t even bring his helmet to the first game. Despite the unexpected hiccup, with a lot of sweat and heart, they make it to the championship game. It’s classic Hollywood drama.

What sets Friday Night Lights apart is the film’s desire to resist the drama. Unlike Friday Night Lights the TV show, we learn very little about the players’ home lives (though what we do learn is nothing unexpected: single parent families who push their sons too hard and the resulting tensions that bubble up in different ways), just enough to keep the stakes high. We never meet their girlfriends or see who they hang out with in the off season. There is nothing else for these guys besides football.

Even Thornton, the only truly recognizable ‘star’ in the film, plays Coach Gaines not like the inspirational beacon of citizenship and manhood that one would expect, but like a man who’s not quite sure how he ended up at the center of attention, having to make a speech. His wife and daughter may be the only town residents who are anywhere close to football-apathetic. He cares about these boys, hosts them in him home for dinner, gives them rides after the game, but it’s clear that coaching for him is a job.

Director Peter Berg, who also helms the much soapier TV adaptation, finds his excitement here in football’s natural penchant for high drama, making anything off the field seem boring. Each game is a blur of motor-mouthed announcers, roaring crowds, and the tension right after a particularly rough tackle. So when the Panthers make it to the final game, the pressure is almost unbearable. That shot of a silent field covered in morning dew as Explosions in the Sky sustain a single note for what seems like forever is full of the anticipation of the moments before their lives change. And when the game is finally underway it almost seems impossible that they could be living these moments.

So when in the final moments the boys do the impossible, they lose the game, the camera pans to all their loved ones who were counting on them all this time. Instead of disappointment, the shocking truth is written all over their faces, they love these boys even in defeat. Too bad that can’t earn anyone a college scholarship.