Brainiac On Banjo #046: Prescient Murders

You probably heard about the mass shootings in a El Paso Texas Walmart and in Northeast Ohio this weekend. Maybe not; these two were the third and fourth such slaughter this week, and we’re getting accustomed to it. As of this writing – Sunday evening – 29 bodies have been found and several dozen have been hospitalized. The alleged shooter in Texas is in custody., the alleged shooter in Ohio was killed at the scene.

Right now we have endured 2,191 mass shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders that happened on December 14, 2012. That was less than seven years ago. If that hasn’t provided us with sufficient warning, and even if they have, I would like to direct your attention to an amazingly prescient movie made in 1971, based upon a play that opened on Broadway four years earlier. Both were labelled as “black comedies” but that exposes the downside of prescience: what was black comedy a half-century ago has evolved into a documentary.

In a retrospective piece published in 1987, the New York Times encapsulated the story this way. “Jules Feiffer’s ‘Little Murders’ is the darkest and perhaps the funniest comedy ever written about what it was like to be alive and half-crazed in the urban American jungle of the late 1960’s. The play postulates a New York whose daily plagues range from noise and air pollution, power blackouts and obscene phone calls to violent struggles between random snipers and proto-fascist cops.”

The movie, which is easily available, stars Elliot Gould as a young photographer who falls in love with a New York woman played by Marcia Rodd. Her father, played by Vincent Gardenia, is a typical mid-60s right-wing law-and-order type. The movie also stars John Randolph, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi, and Alan Arkin – who directed the film as well. Donald Sutherland has an extended cameo as the deeply philosophical hippie-preacher who officiates the marriage of Gould and Rodd, and that scene both provides the pivotal point for the story and, while it’s at it, steals the show.

As the story progresses, the pace of random street shootings increases to the point where Manhattan apartments routinely are retrofitted with heavy armor and the “common citizenry” have purchased rifles and automatics. Even the hippie Gould joins his father-in-law in the responsive mayhem.

Both the play and the movie were written by cartoonist/author/playwright/illustrator/dance enthusiast and graphic novelist Jules Feiffer, who has been creating such pointed comment since 1956. He got his start a decade before that as an assistant to Will Eisner on The Spirit, quickly evolving into the writer’s slot. Jules returned the favor in the mid-1960s by bringing Will’s work to the wider range of attention in his seminal work of comics history, The Great Comic Book Heroes. That, in turn, led to Harvey Comics issuing two thick reprint comics which ultimately led to the series’ reprinting by Warren Magazines, Kitchen Sink, DC Comics and others. It also led to Will’s becoming America’s first true graphic novelist.

Feiffer deserves all the honors he has received for his own work – including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and induction into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2004. But, for me, his greatest contribution to my well-being was his bringing Will Eisner to the attention of the large audience who had just missed out on his work. I should point out that, like Will and Joe Kubert before him, Jules has been producing poignant graphic novels for the past several years; he turned 90 last January.

Black comedies in 1971 might start out funny, but many didn’t end that way. But every time I hear about one of these mass shootings – like I said, we had three this past week – I think of Little Murders as the best of the many “early warning” films of the time… and that includes the stellar films Doctor Strangelove, Network and The President’s Analyst. I highly recommend all four, but you might not want to binge-watch them.

Unfortunately, if you want to wait until there’s a pause in our real-world violence, I’m afraid you’re going to have a very, very long wait.