**/**** Image B+ Sound B Commentary B+
starring Art Carney, Ellen Burstyn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Larry Hagman
screenplay by Paul Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld
directed by Paul Mazursky
by Alex Jackson I complain a lot about film criticism being reduced to archaeology, but I don't think I've ever seen anything quite as impenetrable along these lines as Paul Mazursky's 1974 sleeper Harry and Tonto. It never coheres, it never makes its point, and it never justifies its existence. You know Mr. Bernstein's anecdote about the girl in the white dress in Citizen Kane, or Marge Gunderson's drink with her old high school chum in Fargo--those nice little throwaway moments that haven't much to do with the actual movie? In Harry and Tonto, Mazursky gets rid of the "actual movie" and gives us nothing but throwaway moments. Yeah, it's that kind of film.
Stylistically, it almost goes without saying that Mazursky is not a filmmaker in love with his medium. But it's not merely that he doesn't obsess over camera movement, camera placement, mise-en-scène, editing, or any other aspect of the artform: he doesn't out and out reject an obsession with them in favour of an aesthetic of asceticism, either. It's the same thing as prudes using their prudishness to obsess over sex. You know, if you make a film with no cuts in it, you're still using editing as a way to allocate your perspective towards the material. The thoroughly mediocre Mazursky slyly sidesteps these considerations, employing the resources of film just enough to avoid developing a perspective towards his material. If Mazursky had shot Harry and Tonto in a very stark, documentary-like manner, then perhaps the dated content could groove with a naturally temporal style and the film would still work. And, of course, if the film were flashy in a way specific to its era, then it may have been able to obtain an abstract quality that could've potentially preserved it. But no, Mazursky doesn't want to distract from the content, and so we have nothing to latch onto but the content. Harry and Tonto lives and dies on whether or not we empathize with the characters...and, well, we don't. In order to appreciate this film to any extent you have to have seen it in 1974, and 1974 was a long time ago.
Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher who resides more or less happily in New York City with his cat Tonto. His building is being torn down by the state and he's reluctantly forced to live with his son Burt (Philip Bruns) in the suburbs. He feels like he's imposing, unsuccessfully tries to get another apartment in New York that accepts cats, and decides to move in with his daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn) in Chicago. He senses that this is also not going to work out and takes off for California to visit his other son, Eddie (Larry Hagman), who is hanging on by a thread and looking to mooch off the old man. Eventually, Harry takes to living on the beach and gets a part-time job tutoring at a high school for pocket money. He appears to have finally found a place he can call home.
Harry and Tonto is a variation on the "generation gap" myth. All of Harry's children are sad, angry, and frustrated. The daily grind has apparently sucked the life out of them. (The film was released within days of Richard Nixon resigning from office. Talk about having your finger on the pulse of America.) Harry feels a lot closer to the younger generation (represented by his grandson Norman (Josh Mostel) and a teenage runaway (Melanie Mayron) he picks up while driving to Chicago) than these people and, as it would follow, they feel a lot closer to him than they do to their parents. Although Norman has taken a vow of silence, Harry raps with him a bit about Zen meditation and drugs, and when Norman comes down to Chicago to talk Harry into coming back to New York, he's started speaking again.
As told through Harry's perspective, the film doesn't exactly idealize teenagers. They're stupid--sort of refreshingly stupid, in fact, in this age of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Veronica Mars", where you know everything you're ever going to know by age 16. The whole "vow of silence" thing is silly in a way that only teenagers can be silly; and during a montage where Harry, Norman, and the hitchhiker are traveling cross-country, Norman, out of nowhere, moons the camera. Harry would seem to believe that using drugs and running away from home have more potential for disaster than for success (these are things that only stupid teenagers would do), yet he understands their motivation and stops himself from lecturing them. Though Harry isn't one of them, he sympathizes with their need to break away from their dreary parents.
If Harry is 72 in 1974, that means he was born around 1902. That would make him a teenager during World War I, a bloody war borne at least partly of American interventionism that Harry was a shade too young to be drafted into--and it would mean that he was of college age during the Roaring Twenties, a period ripe with a heightened sense of sexual liberation and social consciousness. There are clear parallels between Harry's generation and that of the '60s. Harry is rueful about sex: he's not a prude by any means, he's simply too old to partake in it anymore and he misses it. And he has a healthy curiosity about the world around him. He's not being polite as he presses Norman for details about Zen Buddhism, he's genuinely interested. His best friend in New York is a Polish communist, and when his friend dies, Harry is the only one who can identify the body. He's not a communist, however, he just likes to pal around with communists; he enjoys the company of people with something to say. Near the end of the film, Harry finds himself in a jail cell with a Native American healer (the early-Seventies' racially-identified hippie of choice) imprisoned by cops of the "Nixon generation" for, we assume, practising medicine without a license. Harry has bursitis on his shoulder and gives the healer some of his shirts as payment to heal him. And what do you know, his bursitis just melts away.
Harry's generation is ultimately the one that's lionized in Harry and Tonto. The hardships of the Great Depression and the banal patriotism of the World War II era have created an environment in which intellectual curiosity and a humanistic embracement of multiculturalism and sexuality have been stifled in favour of a cautious conservatism. The film is nostalgic for what we have lost and begrudgingly anticipates the kids rebelling against their spiritually dead parents to find it again. There are lots of problems with this, chief among them the fact that while all this cross-generational stuff is fun to read about in TIME and NEWSWEEK, generally speaking it doesn't bear much resemblance to reality. Familial influences tend to have a greater influence on personality and behaviour than cultural ones do. It's difficult to make these broad generalizations about a group of people simply because they were born during the same window of time. I wondered how Harry could've raised these losers he calls his children. They don't seem to carry any of him with them and the film doesn't indict Harry for their turning out this way. Harry doesn't exhibit any sense of regret for their circumstances--it's as though we're to believe that he had no influence on what they became.
Even if we do buy into this generation-gap business, as a modern audience we have to constantly remind ourselves that Harry is not of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" but of the generation previous. We're accustomed to seeing the elderly as having sacrificed during the Great Depression and World War II; films like The Straight Story and Saving Private Ryan have drilled that perception deep into our heads. But Harry wasn't a part of that: he was 39 once the United States entered the war--young enough to serve but too old for it to be a formative experience. We don't see a lot of movies dealing with his generation, and if we are to understand where he's coming from we have to do our homework. And homework, as you can probably surmise, is an integral factor in transforming cinema into an archaeological excavation.
We're pretty used to anti-establishment hippie movies, though--they never really go out of style, do they? There are times where Harry and Tonto, with its hipster geezer, reminds unfavourably of Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, released a good two years earlier. It's tempting to say that Art Carney is excellent in this film (he won an Oscar for it, beating out no less than Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Albert Finney, and Dustin Hoffman), bringing an effortlessly gruff quality to Harry that keeps the character from becoming cutesy and overly sentimental like Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude; but maybe sentimentality isn't such a bad thing. There is nothing in Harry and Tonto that has the power of Harold's announcement of marriage to Maude to his mother, his post-coital bubble blowing scene, his description of the first time he faked suicide, et cetera et cetera et cetera. Harold and Maude is gooey, no doubt, and at times more than a little embarrassing and simple-minded. Yet it's sincere and honest and its effects aren't particularly artificial.
Among other things, Harry and Tonto might've worked better had it jettisoned the generational considerations and embraced the inherent cutesiness of the material. There's a kind of pretentiousness to the film's attempts at subtlety and restraint. It crudely works us over by transforming this old man into an avatar for freedom and Sixties ideals, having him befriend teenagers and Native Americans and refuse to go on an airplane because security tries to check his cat's carrier case and his cat's well-being is more important than following "the Rules." But it doesn't have the courage to cop to this. Manipulative devices only function to manipulate--they can't work unless you endue them with a sense of conviction.
Fox brings Harry and Tonto to DVD in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that's slightly dim but suggests film and exhibits no significant print degradation or digital defect. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio manages to be perfectly clear and potent without ever sounding especially fresh. Mazursky records a full-length commentary that's a sufficiently hearty blend of personal insight, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, shout-outs to cast and crew, and plain old unbridled enjoyment over his own work. The director hadn't seen the film in several years and, now in his mid-Seventies and with several of those involved in Harry and Tonto's making dead and buried, he feels it has accrued a certain pathos.
The track doesn't last long enough for Mazursky's constant self-congratulation to begin to grate, though I was bothered by his definitive deconstruction of the film: there is a certain sense of ambiguity of meaning and purpose that is part of Harry and Tonto's meagre charm. (At one point while writing this review I was prepared to call the film unreviewable). Hearing him describe the meaning of the ending and his reasons for taking on this material is a little like hearing David Lynch reveal the thinking behind Mulholland Drive. A little, I stress. A theatrical teaser, theatrical trailer, and three TV spots round out the platter. Note that the menu cursor is a cat's paw, mirroring Paramount's use of a whale fin on their release of Orca. Originally published: August 15, 2006.