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.

Big Shot: Of Time and the City

“If Liverpool didn’t exist it would have to be invented.” – Myrbach

In Of Time and the City, director Terence Davies sets out to invent his birthplace through the lens of his autobiography. Davies is better known for his fictional representations of his hometown as it was for working-class Catholic youth in the 1940s and 50s, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. Both films document a family that resembles Davies’ own, particularly adolescents who find refuge in popular culture and the cinema in particular. Of Time and the City is the director’s only foray into documentary, using stock, historical, and contemporary footage of Liverpool to tell the story of his youth. Quotations like the one above are interspersed throughout in Davies’ own solemn drawl, his personal reference points guiding the monologue. Add Myrbach to the long list of obscure allusions I have to run and look up post-viewing.

Davies is well-read with high cultural tastes. Images of Liverpool steam past to strains from deliberately chosen religious hymn, folk songs, popular music, and select classical pieces (Shostakovich, Bruckner, and Mahler were much more suited to the teenaged Davies who is nostalgic for a time “when pop music was still demure, before Presley, before The Beatles”). With such particular preferences, this film comes from a very specific point of view. Unlike so many other ‘autobiographical’ films (see Tree of Life), this is not a universal experience posing as an individual experience. Every scene, each location, the songs, the churches, the architecture – it all evokes very specific and visceral memories for the filmmaker.

To watch this vaguely chronological game of free association without sharing any tenderness for Mahler, without my own experience of Catholic guilt, is a surprisingly detached endeavor. Without anything to lure me in, the film is a series of unrelated scenes documenting unknown locales and strange children singing unfamiliar songs, complemented by a soundtrack of pretension and nostalgia. I have no idea what it feels like to grow up a gay, Catholic schoolboy in Liverpool in the 1940s. Davies provides almost no guidance as he delves into his own psyche, and as a result I am left with no entry point.

Davies is a skilled director. From the opening shot – interior cinema, the curtain rising on a big screen – through to the final moments – Davies murmurs “Good night ladies. Good night sweet ladies. Good night, good night, good night” – he maintains a certain lyrical rhythm that sets just the right tone of soothing, bittersweet, and unapologetic nostalgia. Through his voiceover he is able to develop a certain curmudgeonly persona. He is likable and, even when I didn’t get the jokes, his tone implies a sense of humor (“I was now a very happy, very contented, born-again atheist… thank god”). Still, Of Time In The City is probably better discussed with Davies than viewed. Without the luxury of a traditional narrative to guide his story or offer an emotionally universal hinge, the logic behind Davies’ collage of memories and stock footage is hard to follow. An essay film through and through, the ideas he develops are not fully realized without the accompanying footnotes.