August 18, 2011


Paul on Mazursky. By Sam Wasson. Wesleyan University Press. $35.

     What an opportunity for an auteur: a book-length chance to discuss himself, his work, his views of life, and himself. This is what Sam Wasson, frequent chronicler of filmdom (with previous books focusing on Audrey Hepburn and Blake Edwards), offers director Paul Mazursky, and Mazursky takes up the non-challenge with relish. No book in this format – essentially a very long interview with its subject – is going to muckrake, and hagiography hovers above it from the start. But Wasson actually does a pretty good job of getting behind Mazursky’s self-image and into his importance as a director, thanks partly to the fact that the book is not all Mazursky-on-Mazursky: there are also bits in it from Mel Brooks, Meg Mazursky (Paul’s daughter), scriptwriter Josh Greenfeld, casting director Juliet Taylor, actress Jill Clayburgh, film editor Donn Cambern and several others. Given the fact that all these contributors work or worked with Mazursky and would scarcely want to offend him (well, Brooks probably wouldn’t care, but he doesn’t say anything nasty anyway), these additional perspectives are guaranteed to be complimentary, but at least they turn a one-sided book into something with a few more sides. Even if the sides are similar.

     What Wasson offers here is a behind-the-scenes (or inside-the-head) discussion for readers who think highly not only of An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but also of Willie & Phil, Moon Over Parador and The Pickle. Mazursky gets Wasson involved in his methods of eliciting genuine reactions from actors (“Paul throws his eyeglass case at me”), and offers such non-profound observations as this about Greenwich Village in New York City: “The Village was a village then. It was safe.” He talks about meeting Fellini and getting the great director to appear in Alex in Wonderland, and the most interesting thing is Mazursky’s memory of what Fellini initially said: “‘You don’t want me. Use a puppet. Use a giant. Get a dwarf. You don’t need the real Fellini. It’s in your imagination. It will spoil your movie.’” That particular movie was spoiled anyway – even Wasson notes at the end of this chapter that it was not very good: “The naturalistic scenes…make the fantasy sequences look labored and do little to illuminate Alex’s predicament. …[But] the film’s flagrant disavowal of Hollywood norms makes it a noble miss.” That is about as negative as Wasson ever gets.

     The most enjoyable parts of Paul on Mazursky are not the ones in which the director discusses his films – although they are the meat of the book – but the ones in which he comes up with offhanded thoughts and ideas. For example, in the midst of discussing An Unmarried Woman, Mazursky suddenly comes out with a bizarre concept, Hannibal Lecter Gets Married, that he humorously suggests he could pitch to producer Dino de Laurentiis: “I’m guaranteeing you right now this movie will get made. Hannibal Lecter is now sixty-five, meets a woman and goes crazy for her. She’s lovely and understanding and knows about his past. She’s very smart – a gestalt therapist. Hannibal’s totally reformed now; he doesn’t even eat meat. They have their honeymoon in Venice and while they’re there he has a slight relapse and eats a gondolier.”

     Wasson clearly admires Mazursky and is not afraid to show it in his questions to the director and others. That is all to the good: if there is bias here, it is up front and readily visible. And by letting Mazursky talk on and on, Wasson elicits some remarkable information – not so much about the director and his films (although there is plenty of Hollywood-insider material for those interested in it) as about the locations where Mazursky worked. There is, for example, this comment in the chapter on Moscow on the Hudson: “[T]his guy took us to the zoo. We’re watching as the attendant puts meat into the tiger cage, and when he walks out, a well-dressed gentleman with a fur-collar and a cane and a briefcase approaches the cage, looks around, and quickly slips his cane between the bars and pulls out the piece of meat and puts it into his briefcase. Then I knew I was in the right place. That’s how bad things were.” Mazursky is a shrewd observer who often incorporates telling details into his films, and he is certainly highly familiar with others’ movies – several of his are based on or contain elements of earlier films. Wasson has a tendency to overstate the importance of the Mazursky oeuvre: “The idea of nirvana is very important in your work. People are always going to new places in search of happiness.” Mazursky himself tends to downplay grandiose statements – after that one, he says to Wasson, “Ask me a question.” But the director does have a vision, or several visions, and Wasson certainly gives him plenty of time and space to explain his viewpoint and how he tries to communicate it. Paul on Mazursky gives a great deal of attention to its subject – more than will be of interest to most moviegoers. But Mazursky fans will greatly enjoy the chance to hear the director’s voice at length, and will surely appreciate some of his straightforward comments about his films, such as, about Harry and Tonto, “I wanted to give you adventures. Ordinary things, but ones that don’t ordinarily happen to old people.”

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