Tonight Anthology Film Archives' "Lost Legends of New York" delivers The Troublemaker, which is triply: a wry, dry, send-up of la vie de Bohème, a subversive slapstick on The Establishment and how this city really works, and a poignant, prescient encapsulation of yet another generation selling out.
The Troublemaker, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying, And Love The System, or, An Unsentimental Education
Despite the headline noting "underground film", which conjures up images of a coolness and style, those attending tonight's screening at Anthology Film Archives with expectations of some Warhol-esque sub-cult artifact are in for an anti-climax, which once gotten past, will give way to something of a very worthwhile time capsule.
Although a mantra of the '60s was "never trust anyone over 30", the cats who made this film are mostly over 30; their heyday was the 50s, when new bohemians were breaking the norms that the 60s would take to another level (and another level of conformity, commodification, co-option).
So you're not gonna get beatniks nor flower children, nor self-invented fabulous types; the makers of this film are likely persons who were born into The Depression, lived through World War Two (per Wikipedia, Henry was born into a comfortable New York existence). Swing was their generation's Rock and Roll, Jazz, Blues and Folk their maturation, Rock and Roll the commodification of the G chord into something for the vapid teenager; they watched newsreels and Chaplin, Keaton, and The Marx Brothers; they were appreciative of Miller's All My Sons, yet largely rooted in a faith in this country that both limited their ability to be outré, sacrilegious, or also, for that matter, self-defeating inchoate anti-establishment reactionaries, yet steadied their bullshit meter for when a system -- or as we see later in the film, a counter-culture -- was contradicting itself.
And so while their aesthetic language -- the physical comedy, the relatively trad camera -- is that of a family TV variety show (Buck Henry did in fact write for several TV shows) the message is purely anti-establishment and perhaps more importantly, generationally self-indicting. Simply put, these cats are no doubt, squarely hip; you can trust these 30-somethings of '64.
Ostensibly, The Troublemaker is the tale of Jack Armstrong (Tom Aldredge) a college kick-out turned chicken-farmer who, after having learned everything there is to know about chickens (a symbolic species for the theme of this film, for our hero has actually much more to learn about non-feathered species, say humans) comes to the city to try a new, braver kind of life.
We learn of the kind of innocent he is when his college buddy T.R. Kingston (played by Buck Henry), now a lawyer who, upon their reunion explains that he abandoned his dreams of becoming a civic leader when he learned that "The real dough is in keeping the politicians out of the slammer", asks Jack why, when they were all caught dumping Jell-O into the swimming pool in college, only Jack actually took the dean seriously, admitted his wrongdoing and left the school, while the others denied their culpability and stayed on -- this is a very telling anecdote, and we like and pity the guy immediately.
No sooner than he sets about his dream of opening a "place where people can come and be free and do the things they like to do", do we see him getting played by a local "businessman" Sal Kelly (James Frawley) who has him sign a hummer of a lease, extracting fee after fee when he sees the wad of dough the bumpkin's brought with him. Thus begins this little, independent, moral-minded man's gullible travails.
In a bit of very smart, credible satire along the lines of The Lego Movie's creation of the dual character Lord Business, AKA President Business (you can read my review of that film HERE), The Troublemaker goes one further and casts the same, very game, Cro-Mag-browed Frawley in the roles of police officer Sol Kelly (brother to Sal), and also Judge Kelly, comprising an unholy trinity serving as pillars of the community board, which is also comprised of a arson-for-hire firefighter (for which an African-American, Godfery Cambridge speaking in a scene-stealing Irish lilt is brilliantly cast) and building, sanitation, electrical inspectors played by Charles White, Bernard Reed, and Michael Currie, respectively.
The Troublemaker might seem like mere cheesy slapstick, yet the image of Officer Kelly wielding a baton in a zombie-like trance, waved off from clobbering someone by the offer of money, is actually terrifying, given the specter of the 50s and 60s which these filmmakers were living through -- or for that matter, the pre-Civil Rights era and yes, our present-day.
Outraged at the countless intimidations he is facing whilst trying to open his cafe, Jack vows to call his congressman, smacking a hammer into his hand, with the hammerhead falling off -- quite symbolically as he says he'll never sell out -- oddly reminding me of the Folk chestnut "If I Had A Hammer". The film then cuts to a shot of another hammer of sorts, a judge's gavel being banged by businessman Sol Kelly, calling to order a meeting of the local community board, all of whom pondering how to deal with this guileless, would-be coffee house proprietor who won't pay graft. The fireman says that he'd try arson, if the entire neighborhood wasn't a fire trap, and this reminds me of the arson-for-hire that blighted much of my Bronx (which is more than just about, as Howard Cossell decried, people burning their own houses down, and it's why Gangs of New York, in its depiction of a crooked history that has shaped this city, is so brilliant. I was also reminded of gentrification-enabling arson in Williamsburg reported by the late, great J.A Lobbia).
And so this film, which at first seems like corny, dated slapstick, is in fact the sign of a establishment-bred generation, now in its thirties in '64, a year after Kennedy was gunned down, looking quite stingingly at a corrupt Establishment.
On the lighter side, there is also a funny send-up of la vie de Bohème in the character of Jack's love interest, Denver James (Joan Darling) a middle-class girl -- and T.R.'s casual lover -- who does sculpture and painting (usually not quite completing them), sleeps with her psychiatrist (Adelaide Klein), and tries to convince officer Kelly that his baton is a symbol and that maybe a little lovemaking might relax him.
Back at the city council meeting, we see the fireman delivering a report on their success with payoffs via a chart showing the corruption hierarchy of the city, tracking the money all the way to "Mr. Big". Our hero and his friends record the entire meeting and go to the crime commissioner...and just when we think they are going to clean up the system, they instead opportunistically become fat cats themselves, the muck they raked serving only as fertilizer for their mushrooming personal wealth and protection; our hero's idealism is no more.
And so, during the final heartbreaking scenes we learn that our idealistic hero, once intent on starting a simple coffee house, a "place where people can come and be free and do the things they like to do", has, through blackmail, climbed to The Top and created a cafe society joint, the patrons of which are the very establishment personnel he vowed to fight against. The camera follows the trio, now bedecked in tuxes, top hats, pearls and furs as they exit, appearing cynical, rich and bored. The front door of their joint is guarded by a medieval-armored security man played by -- you guessed it -- Officer Kelly.
In a poignant long shot, they enter a half-top convertible sedan and drive off, and we hear nostalgic, sentimental lament (played on a kazoo), and we ken that innocence is now lost, in this perfectly prescient harbinger of the yuppie materialism to come.
The Troublemaker, part of Anthology Film Archives' Beyond Cassavettes: Lost Legends of The New York Film World 1945 -- 1970 series, screens today, Sunday April 13th at 7:30 You can find more info HERE