Wednesday, December 2, 2009


A New Leaf(1971)
Directed By Elaine May
Henry Graham: Excuse me, you're not by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?

A New Leaf begins with a life support machine beeping it's final call as Walter Mathau is told he can wait outside, but insists to stay in the room. The camera zooms out and we realize Mathua is at a mechanics having a car serviced, which he claims he has to take in for repairs every time he drives it, and he drives it several days a week.Mathau is a trust fund rich snob and gentlemen of leisure who has never aspired to be anything but wealthy much the way Max of "Rushmore" never aspires to be anything but a Rushmore student. Many have compared Elaine May's film with Anderson's later works, as both have a similar style of desert dry wit, soft color pallets, and darkly comic situations with a tinge or naivete or melancholy where suitable, and I would agree that the similarities are startling, though May has less finesse with music and mes-an-scene. Mathau learns his trust fund has been exhausted and if he cannot come up with a few thousand dollars by the end of the week he will be worse than dead, worse than raped, worse than tortured...he will be poor. Certainly not poor by average accounts, he will still have money, but no country club, no servants, no tailored suits, and no gourmet sort of living at all really. With the advice of his Butler he decides to find a wealthy women and marry her straight away, which is harder than it looks for someone as easily contemptible as Mathua. Though only tip-toed around I got the feeling his character is supposed to be gay, "Never thought of you as the sort interested in ladies?" says one associate, and Mathua's horror as a possible bride tries to show him her breasts seems in line with this.
Henry Graham: "The only difference between us is I am a man and you are a woman and we don't have to let that interfere if we are reasonably careful."
He strikes out over and over until he meets Elaine May (also writer and director) a bookish botanist whose father died leaving her a vast fortune she has absolutely no interest in. She is the type of women who would pass out if a strong breeze hit her. One who finishes most sentences with the exclamation, "Heavens!" She has no friends, no family, and no resistance to Mathau's stuffy charms. After a few devious obstacles the two marry, and Mathau decides it's time to get rid of her permanently, but then there is a house full of servants paid at salaries they set themselves to do virtually nothing whove been exploiting poor May for years before Mathua showed up, and its up to him to clean house so to speak. What makes A New Leaf so radiant, clever, honest, and emotionally poignant is how it plays freely between near slapstick, dry subtlety, macabre musings, and sincere awkward romance. Walter Mathau is perfect in this role as a money hungry sourpuss desperately trying to look uninterested whilst plotting the murder of his wife, but this would become tedious as it almost threatens to do without the comic timing of Elaine May backing him up later in the film. Both characters are utterly helpless, he lacking any skills, training, or abilities aside disdain and she an absent minded, easily manipulated waif who only has eyes for plants and for him. He is repulsed by her of course, but in setting out to marry, murder, and take the money and run, he has for the first time in his life shown initiative and even talent. This makes for great amount of suspense and tension in the final scenes when at any moment he might poison her or wipe the crumbs of her shirt, which she is perpetually covered in.
Henry Graham: "Oh, no. I forgot to check her before she went to school this morning. She'll be walking around all day with price tags dangling from her sleeves."

Harold: "I took the liberty, sir."

Henry Graham: "Thank you, Harold. Was she free of crumbs?

Harold: Only a slight sprinkling, sir."Odd moments of tenderness creep up between gags like weeds in May's garden. While ay other times when she would easy to kill, he's too distracted or disinterested to notice, in one scene he's reading a book about house hold poisons with his back turned to her, while she dangles over the edge of a cliff trying to reach a rare plant. I have delayed mentioning til now the characters names are Henry and Henrietta, because it makes very obvious the characters are two halves of the same whole, something not clear until the films approaches it's inevitable end.
Henry is selfish, boorish, self-centered and manipulative, while Henrietta's simple minded academia and good heartedly oblivious. Henrietta's greatest dream is to find a plant no one has discovered; "a new leaf" that would make her in some minor way immortal. Henry wants more stuff, because stuff is all he knows.

Henry Graham: "If you can't be immortal, why bother?"
Every romance is a struggle between domination, naivete, selfishness, and ignorance. To love someone, to even like someone sincerely, you have to learn to delicately resist the temptations of petty vanities, prejudices, and pretensions of preference you might have about the other, with open eyes and without rose colored glasses. You have to wipe off your loved ones crumbs, even as it occurs to you it would be just as easy to leave the gas on as they take a nap. "Sometimes what annoys us most about others is actually what we dislike most in our selves" says the sagely butler. Sometimes desire springs from what we detest the most; the all too human similarities we all share. Once flaws become endearing you are struck by Cupid, unmoored from sense, and hopefully fucked by the forces of love. Henry and Henrietta's story is an odd couple tale, likely to appeal to fans of "Harold And Maude", "The Apartment", and well..."The Odd Couple"(another Mathau classic).Henrietta Lowell: "They say if you don't scratch, it itches less."

Henry Graham: "Well, they're wrong. It only looks like it itches less because you're not scratching."
As much as I love the ending, there was a version of the film that was much longer that May originally turned in that she was told was too dark for audiences of the time, so it's just as possible the end was a studio mandated cop-out. I like to think, May was clever enough to imagine the scenario which ended up in the final product as a kind of middle ground, without betraying her original intent (but who knows what that was?). I can only speak for the film I saw, and not the one which has never been released. The only thing about this film which feels dated is the music, which is rarely used, but not distracting enough to lower my rating any; a jazzy milieu of sounds common to films of the era. Henry Graham: "...Never have I seen one woman in whom every social grace was so lacking. Did I say she was primitive? I retract that. She's feral. I've never spent a more physically destructive evening in my life. I am nauseated. I limp. And I can feel my teeth rotting away from an excess of sugar that no amount of toothpaste can dislodge. I will taste those damn Milago coolers forever. That woman is a menace not only to health, but to western civilization as we know it."Elaine May has crafted one of the most insightful and amusing comedies I've ever seen, one that goes straight into my top ten. Isn't it always great to find top 10 material, after long periods of "major movie" let downs? Do yourself a favor and track this one done. I couldn't recommend it enough if I had a bullhorn. "A New Leaf" is a well photographed (the beautiful almost non-sequiter shots of sunsets and landscapes), superbly acted very droll dark comedy about two overgrown children finding companionship, loyalty, and a reasonable measure of happiness in the most unlikely places possible. "Heavens!"
Uncle Harry: You are an aging youth!


Jeffrey Meyer said...

AMAZING film, soooooooo funny and smart. I love it. I'd give my left nut to see a restored cut.

Joe Sylvers said...