Something Wild (1961)
Directed by Jack Garfein
January 19 at Film Forum, part of its New Yawk New Wave series
A lyrically disorienting love letter to New York City—but of the sort that often gets reprinted in the tabloids—this movie was, in spite of its soon-to-be de rigueur brazenness, neither a commercial success nor recognized as a milestone of independent cinema (as John Cassavetes's Shadows was only months earlier). The reasons aren't difficult to fathom: though famously frank (Carroll Baker's naively middleclass, undergrad-protagonist is sexually violated within both the first 15 minutes and the audience's plain view), the film's explicitness fails to congeal into anything resembling social realism—or even the issue-conscious theatricality practiced by, say, Elia Kazan or Shirley Clarke. Instead, the movie more daringly treats the blistering shamefulness of its first-act rape as an opportunity to dislodge itself from dramatic convention almost entirely; afterward, all bets are off, and director Garfein nosedives into the long, angular shadows of his main character's traumatized headspace.
Mary Anne, the victim, hides the experience she's had from her uptight, casually bigoted mother (Mildred Dunnock) and eventually quits home and school altogether to wander somnolently through a broiling downtown inferno of cheap, giddy prostitutes and scornful salesgirls (Jean Stapleton and Doris Roberts play one of each, respectively). What Mary Anne hopes to achieve by forsaking her comfort-bubble once it's been rudely popped is unclear. Love? Independence? She arguably finds the former at the expense of the latter after she's rescued from the brink of suicide by a lunkheaded mechanic, Mike (Ralph Meeker), who then barricades her in a basement studio apartment where he can pitch Cro-Magnon woo without fear of rejection.
This swerve into nervously fortified interiority—doubly confirmed by depictions of Mary Anne's schoolgirl outcast nightmares, the sudden presence of which suggests that we're finally and completely fused to her perspective—abruptly distorts both the narrative rhythm and the film's formal palette. We almost forget, swaddled in the dimness of Mike's abode, that the first two acts featured so many sunburned skylines. But the ugliness exhibited by those cityscapes' inhabitants is what validates the plot's deterioration into chamber drama. Only the intensely intimate yet possibly toxic attention that Mike pays Mary Anne (and her violent self-defense against his patient advances) could possibly hope to balance the rancid disregard every other character has shown toward her personal needs. Their eventual relationship splays the meaning of the movie's masterful open-ending, wherein Mary Anne either has chosen wearily between the lesser of various aggressors, or has found another variant of urban loneliness that matches with and thus can eradicate her own. But whatever your interpretation of these final moments, their uneasiness is undeniable: in Mike and Mary Anne's case, togetherness is only slightly less demeaning than estrangement.
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