Sunday, March 14, 2010

97) A Thousand Clowns (1965)

97) A Thousand Clowns (1965) Dir: Fred Coe Date Released: December 1965 Date Seen: March 13, 2010 Rating: 4.25/5

While the ending of A Thousand Clowns is technically a happy one--idealistic malcontent Murray Burns (Jason Robards) is now able to provide for his son Arnold (Martin Balsam)--it left me feeling utterly distraught and with good reason. It is, as my friend Tom Russell said to me after I saw the film, a heart-breaking tragicomedy about how we can't reconcile the real world with the one we know we deserve. That's not strictly an egotistical line: it's the truth, or at least the truth according to Murray Burns, comedian and salesman par excellence, though maybe there's no difference between the two things. Robards' Burns is so vital because his endless cache of puns are unto themselves the punchline for his idiosyncratic philosophy. Life should be free, savored, monumental, infinite in its possibilities and without a set trajectory. A steady job, a better education: these things don't matter when compared to the ability to be, to see, to do whatever you may want when you want to do them. It's an utterly un-pragmatic ideology that Murray knows in his heart he can't live by anymore, making the duration of his narrative arc the time he needs to realize just how doomed his life as a truly free man is. Because being free ultimately means being irresponsible in some form or another.

I saw A Thousand Clowns shortly before I had to resume my job search (I currently have a part-time job that I'm satisfied with, knock wood). The frustration and the fears of sacrificing my more fanciful, creative impulses was not the first thing on my mind while I was looking for a job but Murray Burns's fears were all too familiar to me. And watching him regress to the point where it seemed like he couldn't snap out of his nonsensical but all too relatable impulsive impetuousness was painful (At one point, I was sure he would eventually let Arnold be taken away). And funny. And sad. And pretty hard to forget.


  1. If there's an anti-A THOUSAND CLOWNS movie out there, it's Woody Allen's WHATEVER WORKS. Boris Yelnikoff's brand of stubborn derision is miles apart from Murray's true love of uncommitted life. While Allen smoothes out any bumps that might have hit too hard, Coe leaves them untouched (just as he leaves untouched his characters' dignity, btw).

  2. Dude,

    Have you abandoned this unit? I hope not.

    Anyway, hope the job search is proving fruitful.

    Didn't want to pollute the comments, but I didn't see an email address.


  3. Jon: No, I haven't. I was planning on doing some major updates last weekend and two weekends before that but haven't had the time. I have kept a track of everything and when I watched it so don't worry, when I get some free time (been writing a lot for NY Press's blog and Slant), this blog'll have a flurry of activity.