Thursday, September 25, 2008

Gilroy’s Characters

Desperate Characters
Directed by Frank D. Gilroy
Legend Films DVD

Writer-director Frank D. Gilroy’s was a onetime amateur jazz musician with notions of turning pro. His later film The Gig, is a loving valentine to the music, so it is not surprising he looked to jazz greats Ron Carter, Lee Konitz, and Jim Hall to supply the original music for his 1971 film Desperate Characters. However, there is little joyful noise to be heard in Gilroy’s quiet and sober drama, recently reissued on DVD.

The Bentwood’s Brooklyn neighborhood is changing, reflecting demographic changes and the unchecked social pathologies of the early 1970’s. Their stylish home no longer feels so secure and their personal relationships offer no solace. For Sophie Bentwood, those anxieties result in feelings of dread and isolation. For her husband Otto, frustration and disappointment increasingly manifest themselves in rage and contempt for the world around him. It makes for a tense Friday night dinner for the couple. Against Otto’s warnings, Sophie feeds a stray cat on the fire escape, only to be bitten by the ungrateful beast, adding a potential case of rabies to her worries for the weekend.

Everyone in Characters is scared and miserable, but they employ vastly different methods to cope. One of Sophie’s friends clings to her ex-husband, a literature professor afraid of being drugged by his counter-culture students. Another friend has adopted the empty philosophy and jargon of the time, sounding like a borderline self-help-cultist from a Tom Wolfe book.

The precipitating crisis of the film is the dissolution of Otto’s law partnership with his lifelong friend Charlie (Gerald S. O’Loughlin making the most of a small, but important part). Yet over a late-night coffee with Sophie, it does not sound like Charlie’s worries are so different from Otto’s, he simply tries to ingratiate himself with those Otto is loathe to suffer. In a telling exchange, he decries to Sophie: “the having children business, the radical business, the culture business, the decline of old values business, the militant business, the failure business.”

As Sophie and Otto, Shirley MacLaine and Kenneth Mars are uncomfortably convincing as the troubled married couple. They were helped by Gilroy’s screenplay, featuring banter that would probably be funny in a lesser film, but is only too serious in the context of Characters. MacLaine’s Sophie is a portrait of quiet desperation, while Mars is able to find nuance in a difficult role. Though thoroughly unsympathetic, Otto has the virtue of at least saying out loud everything their liberal friends are thinking but are afraid to verbalize. Insensitive and ultimately brutish, he is also the only character attempting to reassert control over his life.

The music of Carter, Konitz, and Hall is only heard during party scenes. For the rest of the film, only disconcerting silence accompanies Gilroy’s sharply pointed words. Truly, Gilroy’s dialogue cuts like a knife, holding its power more than thirty years later. Rich but unremitting in its gloom, Characters is an extremely well written film, that captures the fear and pessimism of pre-Giuliani, pre-Koch New York, when the City seemed to have only darker days ahead.