The Myth of Macho: Alan Arkin
Wacky. Zany. Kooky. Wild. These are all words used to describe some of my least favorite modern comedies. It’s unfortunate, really, as I don’t think they are useless terms, only that the definition of what is “crazy” and “off-the-wall” in the cinema has changed quite drastically through the years, as can (and perhaps should) be expected. However, when I think of these terms with fondness, I think of one man in particular: Alan Arkin. While he has done some truly outstanding dramatic work in films like Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992) and this year’s Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012), for which he has been nominated for an Academy Award, the world in which he has really made an impact is the world of comedy.
The Arkin “flavor” is original, unique and memorable. In fact, the experience of Alan Arkin’s comedy could be compared to the viewing of surrealist art: a Salvador Dalí or a René Magritte painting is wholly unlike anyone else’s work, visually intense and, for most, quite beautiful or at least not unpleasant to look at. Most find surrealist art to be at least somewhat engaging. However, surrealism can also lead to confusion, frustration and even, in a good number of cases, discomfort in the viewer. I would argue that Alan Arkin is a surrealist of the comedic genre. His work hits both the pleasure and pain centers in our viewing experience. To watch Alan Arkin’s great “funny men” performances is to see men who are trapped in a state of limbo. While his characters experience this awkwardness, we, the audience, go through it too. It is interactive. While perhaps not for everyone, Arkin’s ability to make this journey palatable is a gift.
For this week’s Myth of Macho, I would like to mention two of his comedies that rarely get discussed but are really worthwhile pictures. The first film, Freebie and the Bean (Richard Rush, 1974), is one of my top comedies of all-time. I’ve been lucky enough to see it projected in a movie theater on 35mm twice and I feel spoiled silly just because of that. Now, I simply watch my DVD (way too much for my own good, some might say) thanks to the fantastic folks at Warner Archives Collection. I highly recommend that you add this to your home. You will not regret it. The second film came a few years after Freebie and is directed by Arkin himself, entitled Fire Sale (1977). The cast of this film alone is staggering: Vincent Gardenia, Rob Reiner, Sid Caesar, Alex Rocco… this film is jammed with talent. Each of these films is quite different from the other but both are exceptionally funny and wonderful examples of how Alan Arkin carved out his distinctive comedic style.
One of the taglines for Freebie and the Bean is, “Above all… It’s a love story.” While modern analyses of buddy-cop films have certainly read the male professional relationship in more intimate tones, it’s highly irregular for a film to advertise its underlying theme in such a straightforward fashion. Then again, Freebie is a highly irregular film. The buddy-cop narrative presents and re-presents itself time and time again in films like Lethal Weapon and Tango and Cash, bringing with it certain issues having to do with masculinity and power, as these films present men in positions of authority. However, what these films also develop is the crucial notion that men struggle with ideas of rules, regulations and authoritative bodies. What these films also bring out by presenting the one “rebel cop” paired with the law-abiding officer or the “loose cannon” with the straight-shooter is that part of the development of masculinity is finding your way to that middle ground in between. Freebie plays it a little differently. In Freebie, there is no straight shooter between the two men and the idea of doing anything by the book? Yeah. Not their style. Both rebels and loose cannons in their own ways, their partnership is solid. In short, these two are a match made in heaven: it is a love story.
Freebie Waters (James Caan) and Benito “the Bean” Vasquez (Alan Arkin) are San Francisco detectives who have been working on a case involving Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen), a local racketeer. One thing leads to another, and before they are able to take Meyers down for the full extent of his crimes, Freebie and Bean uncover a plot to assassinate him. As it turns out, the men are ordered to protect the man they want to put in jail so that he can go to jail. And, as they say in the movies, hilarity ensues. And oh boy does it ensue!
Freebie drives like a maniac, so much so that Bean wears a helmet… inside the car. During one of the chase scenes Bean says to Freebie, “This is helmet time. Want your helmet?” Freebie retorts, grumpily, “No, leave me alone.” The chase becomes more intense and Bean shouts to Freebie to let him out of the car. Freebie says, “Jesus, I thought I left the Old Lady at home!” Coming at the opening of the film, this lays out the relationship between the two men and the kind of annoyed intimacy that they possess. While other buddy-cop movies may portray a male romance closer to “love in its prime” or just beginning to flower, what Freebie and Bean have resembles that of an old married couple that has been together for 50 years. They argue regularly, they grumble to each other about things; it’s part of their routine. Yet… they know each other implicitly.
Freebie and Bean’s disputes resemble the back and forth verbal-flirting of screwball-comedies, the primary difference being that these arguments always center on the most highly masculine issues, i.e. Freebie won’t wear a helmet because he’s too “manly” to do that, he would never crash the car… or so he thinks. As far as this film is concerned, I can’t be sure, but the amount of car crashes has to be somewhat close to that of The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). It’s astronomical. On the other hand, these masculine issues are always deeply woven into the fabric of their relationship with a sense of concern about the other’s well being.
In what may be one of the most genuinely sweet scenes in the film (as sweet as a scene with that much swearing can be), Freebie and Bean are in the car outside Red Meyers’ house keeping watch and Bean has drifted off to sleep. Freebie removes Bean’s gun, gets out of the car, and yells, “They’re storming the house!” Bean awakens, startled, and dashes towards the house. Not finding his gun in its holster or in the car, he looks up to see Freebie laughing hysterically and knows that he’s been played. The two men chase each other around a children’s playground, until Bean eventually tackles Freebie to the ground, injuring his lip in the process and catalyzing another epic shouting match. Bean screams in Freebie’s face, “You coulda f**king died! I was right! You hear that? I was right. What if there had been a guy with a gun behind you? Never touch my guns, never look at them.” Freebie yells back about his injured lip. It finally boils down to Freebie wanting Bean to “Apologize to my lip!” while Bean wants Freebie to “Apologize to my gun!” And apologies are exchanged.
Whether it’s guns, driving skill, or other matters contained in the film, one central theme remains: these men care about each other and what happens to one another, even if it is expressed in the most outrageous manner. Bean got angry at Freebie for taking his gun because he would not be able to protect him. Later on in the film, when Bean gets injured, Freebie plays a similar role trying to make sure his partner is “avenged.” It is an unconventional way that the two men express their affection for one another, but it is still one of the more omnipresent aspects of the film. Hidden amongst the various ethnic slurs and rants of the two men, their friendship and professional bond has the kind of love that usually only exists in a traditional love story.
Alan Arkin’s character, Bean, is the more protective of the two and is also the family man, with a wife and children. But he is no more traditional than Freebie in many ways. He thinks his wife, Consuela (Valerie Harper), is cheating on him, so he lists his suspicions as though she were a suspect in a case, investigates her, and questions her mercilessly. It seems that the lack of trust he has in Consuela is the amount of trust he puts in Freebie. He may love Consuela, she may be his wife, but the kind of ease and intimacy he shares with his non-conjugal partner still seems slightly higher up on his scale.
Freebie’s goes great lengths to show male relationships and bonding. What the two men share and develop is bizarrely abusive in some sections but returns to eternal shared affection and trust. While the two men hurl insults at each other like baseballs, they also protect one another from harm, emotionally or physically. The comedic aspect comes from the sweet meeting the sour in this process.
Alan Arkin’s Fire Sale is a film that looks at issues of high-school basketball talent, so in that regard it bears a slight resemblance to He Got Game (Spike Lee, 1998), a film we discussed when we highlighted Denzel Washington’s work. But the main story centers on Ezra Ficus (Alan Arkin), son of Benny (Vincent Gardenia) and Ruth Ficus (Kay Medford), and brother of Russel Ficus (Rob Reiner). Ezra is the basketball coach at the local high school and none too successful at the job. His wife, Marion (Anjanette Comer), is begging him to have a baby, while his parents have gone off on vacation to Florida, leaving the family department store to be run by Russel. But, like any good comedy, it doesn’t stay that “simple.”
See, Benny Ficus is actually going broke and arranges to have the department store burned down for the insurance money by his brother Sherman (Sid Caesar) while they are away. The interesting part? Sherman still thinks that it’s WWII. In order to do the job, he has to escape from the mental ward he’s in. Benny, on the other hand, has a heart attack, ending up nearly comatose in the hospital, while Ezra finds a wildly talented local basketball player named Booker T who serves a dual purpose: adopted child for Marion (the teen is an orphan), and winning athlete for the school. The hook on that? He’s African American, almost 7 feet tall, and wants a fancy car in exchange for being adopted. It only gets crazier from there.
Fire Sale is “not right” much in the same way that Freebie is “not right.” Being politically correct was not only the furthest thing from the minds of the filmmakers, but the term hadn’t even been invented yet.There are some things in Fire Sale that may even make you wince. The kicker? You’ll laugh at the same time. What should be noted about this is that the most “offensive” bits are also the most self-reflexive and self-aware. This makes the film a great deal smarter and much funnier. The issues of race raised due to middle/upper class Jewish Ezra’s adoption of orphaned Booker T (Byron Stewart) are matched only by the fact that the young man is almost legal age and cannot be Marion’s “baby.” In addition, the amount of time that Booker T spends sitting on Marion’s lap reaches levels of sheer insanity. Fire Sale takes the term “appropriate” and throws it out the window. It may strike someone as strange that a film that is this bizarrely uncomfortable is this bizarrely enjoyable. But… it really is, mostly due to the surreal nature of the story and the winning cast.
Earlier I had mentioned that one of the characteristics of Alan Arkin that makes him so universally recognizable as well as enjoyable is that his comedic performances tend to run towards the theater of the absurd. Fire Sale is a perfect example of this. Especially since this is one of the films that he, himself, directed. Arkin’s role in Fire Sale is complex. His presence and influence is strong within both the anarchic plotline and character chaos. This is strengthened by the fact that he orchestrates it internally, as an actor/character and externally as the director of the film. By using that kind of artistic control, Arkin is able to display a piece that contains a whirlwind of crazy ideas, hilariously neurotic individuals and off-the-wall events without it going off the rails. Surreal and absurd, perhaps. But it is a controlled crazy. The film and its characters seem bonkers but they also seem to be very secure and know exactly what they’re doing and what they are about. It all makes sense… in Bizarro-Arkin-world.
Okay. So, if Ezra’s adoption of the teenage Booker T in order to both appease the wife and save his job at the high school didn’t make you think twice, there are several other storylines that will. Ezra’s uncle Sherman’s certainty of the fact that it is still World War II is beyond entertaining. Sid Caesar has always been great but… this is a doozy. His mental condition makes his escape from the Asylum to burn down the department store make sense: he is just following Benny’s orders. A soldier does as he is told, right? Much like other characters in the film, his manhood is firmly set in a reality that is no longer relevant. But the idea of Fire Sale is to make that humorous.
Meanwhile, Benny’s failing health condition has kicked Ruth’s denial into full gear and she believes that the hospital that they have checked him into is actually their vacation cabana in Florida. She begins to seek out other couples to play bridge with. According to her, Benny’s “just sleeping. He always does this on vacation.” Not long after this, they are allowed to return to their home so Benny can convalesce. Ruth, however, becomes convinced that Benny is actually dead, and begins to plan the funeral. This man who has been the Man of the House all his life is getting ignored and eased out due to his wife’s alternate reality.
Ezra himself is forced to recover his masculinity in a variety of ways. The beginning of the film shows exactly what dire straights he is in as far as feeling like a “real man.” Ezra is constantly berated by his wife Marion; emasculated and bullied. During their discussions about having a child, he tells her that they may not be able to afford one. His track record is bad enough at the high school that he may be getting fired if his team doesn’t win soon. Marion ignores his stress and simply suggests he go back to work for his father. Ezra explodes. “No way! Not as long as my old man is still there. I’d never hear the end of it. He’s just waiting for me to crawl back on my hands and knees. You know what he’d say? ‘Schmuck, I knew you couldn’t make it without me.’…that’s what you want me to crawl back to?” Marion says, “No, I don’t want you to crawl back Ezra, I’ll drive you.”
While this is meant to be funny, it is clearly a snub. Marion doesn’t care that Ezra wants to be able to make it on his own. All she sees is a guy who hasn’t been able to meet her needs and isn’t, in her eyes, a real man. She figures that perhaps if she can at least get her needs met by getting a child, things will be better. She doesn’t see that for Ezra, going back to work for his father isn’t simply admitting that he failed as a basketball coach, it’s that he failed as a man.
Ezra and Russel’s plan to revive the store and the hijinks that ensue are more than simply plot point garnish adding to Benny’s illness, Ruth’s dementia and the rest of the gang’s wacky and wild adventures: it is the way that they redeem their own masculinity. Russel’s own manhood is in negative numbers due to Benny’s paternal mistakes and between his constant asthma attacks and Ezra’s anger management issues…it’s anyone’s game. Somehow, they are able to regain their ability to work together as brothers and in doing so, regain their sense of masculine identity as well, neurotic as it may be.
Fire Sale is a comedy that reflects upon its own condition while making fun of itself. Father-son relations, brother-to-brother issues and marital/dating relationships are all covered in this story about honesty, manhood and swindles. While the film may seem like a pinball game, all the bells and whistles going at once, the finale creates the space for the wackiness to make sense: sometimes it is only in the surreal nature of the familial that we can find real family and what it all means.
Alan Arkin’s work is wonderful. I can’t say that I have loved all of it, but I have loved most. The work I have loved the best is when he reaches the furthest, which would be in pieces such as the comedic ones mentioned here or in his very dramatic pieces. In that is where we can discover true Arkin “-ness.”
The Myth of Macho will be back for the last of the Academy Awards series next week. Hope to see you then. And, as always, remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!
Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.