I saw a film!
I’ve sort of been meaning to get around to it for a while. It’ll still cost you on Prime (USA) a few bones to watch what was probably considered an outrage at the time and today something even more terrifying. It’s a comedy, of course, but one of such invasive singular and familial filthiness it’s difficult to not squirm.
We all know that Portnoy’s Complaint, the famous novel by Roth, spring-boarded a sexual revolution (possibly “the” sexual revolution), but it was also a book like no other, clear masturbatory fantasy, clear discussion of nothing less than fucking. Lots of it, lucky Portnoy gets to engage in. But, the story doesn’t let us enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. It’s also not a film that punishes people for their natural sexual inclinations (like many films full of moral outrage) this thing went well beyond that. It took for granted that we’re all gooey, needy beasts doing our best to satisfy our cravings, we do this through an especially aggressive gooey beast, Alex Portnoy here played by Richard Benjamin in two parts, kooky and suave. He meets his match soon enough in a woman who calls herself The Monkey, played by Karen Black. I thought Black a terrible choice for the role. She’s much too big and flashy, an American Bridgette Bardot, who not only looks every bit the fashion model she suggests she is, she also easily satisfies all conditions for such. I wanted someone a bit more petite, more feral, possibly even a little dirty, more of a hippy than a movie star, someone with her hair in her eyes a bit more, and a little mud on her sandals. But that’s me, that’s how I pictured her when I read the novel probably twenty years ago. Black plays the role of insecure fashionista well, and it seems like it’s exactly the same role she did in Five Easy Pieces.
Basically the story is nothing really happens. Portnoy and The Monkey go on a whirlwind romance that gets slowly more difficult as Portnoy loses his steam for salving The Monkey’s insecurity. It’s a very well done tale, and one many of us can imagine being part of. The human condition is insecurity, and no one lasts forever satisfying the needs of that bit of despair, especially when the evidence mounts that your lover has some very deep holes that need fixing.
The shocker, the center of the book, and fairly well played out in the film is when Portnoy happens across a back-of-an-envelope note written by The Monkey, it becomes instantly clear that she’s barely literate. And the impact her horrible grammar and childish misspellings have on Portnoy is more terrible than any affair or fight could be. He can’t bring himself to respect her further. Though the film undermines this problem somewhat by having The Monkey suddenly speaking Italian to prostitutes in Italy! If I’d seen that I’d forgive some literacy problems, I’m not speaking Italian to anyone despite my school teacher abilities to write.
The film has some clumsy aspects, but all in all, no one is making a film like this today. Films rarely concentrate on human foibles anymore. Mistakes we make, and indulgences we allow ourselves are seldom the topics of our entertainment. We live in an age where no one wants to admit their faults. We’re too busy imagining ourselves super heroes.
Some of the best sequences, and the hardest ones to sit through, are of Portnoy’s overbearing mother, the endless scatological obsession of her parenting merged with her distrust of the non-Jewish word. These are funny, but also upsetting on a visceral level. The kind of abuse that comes from too much “benevolent” attention is also a rare topic.
All in all, the film version of the book isn’t bad. It’s enough of a surprise tale that any attempt to put it to film would have been enough of a challenge to entertain any viewer. Though being honest with ourselves is required!
This is running 3.99 on Prime (USA) and there is nothing else quite like it. There are sexier movies, but there aren’t any that deal so directly with the relational dissolution and paradox of love and respect. Still, we’re given them, at then, bound to meet up. Perhaps they can work something pleasant out after all!