It starts with a joke -
MEL BROOKS: You're really writing a book about Paul Mazursky?
SAM WASSON: Yes.
MEL BROOKS: I will do everything in my power to stop you from writing this book.
- and from this "Jewish Foreward" onward, the laughs, along with copious insights on directing, acting, screenwriting and living flow on, virtually non-stop. Paul on Mazursky by Sam Wasson, a "the director speaks" book modeled on the genre classic On Cukor By Gavin Lambert, is both the next best thing to actually sitting down with Mazursky himself (who can often be found shpritzing on "box office, health - generally bad - and pussy" with his legendary table of old friends at the Farmers Market in L.A.), and something more.
Wasson, a prodigious researcher (his book on Breakfast at Tiffany's, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. suggests not so much a fly-on-the-wall POV, but that of a winged Wikipediac) didn't merely sit down with the estimable writer-director and let his digital recorder roll. His own knowledge and appreciation of all things Mazursky occasionally raises his subject's eyebrows ("Wow, you know your shit," Mazursky comments, early on) and adds an unusual level of keen comprehension to Mazursky's own admirably self-aware reminiscences and appraisals. Here's an exchange between the two men on the director's breakthrough debut film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice:
SW: One of the things that distinguishes Bob & Carol from the comedies of today is that it's not cynical. These people are never criticized or humiliated for the sake of a laugh.
PM: No, no! I love them! I love these people! But I hate to use the word love in a trite way... I guess what I mean is, I can understand them, and I take them seriously... I try to be compassionate. I try to laugh with compassion.
It goes on. And it's telling how hard I found it just to pull a few lines from this conversation, since everything they get into from here - the story of how Mazursky coaxed an apprehensive Natalie Wood into shooting the film's infamous "orgy" scene, the intimate discussion of Mazurksy's use of uninterrupted master shots, key to his entire aesthetic - is fascinating. An observation of Wasson's leads to the core of what Mazursky is about, as he notes that the director has just repeated a line from the opening of Bob & Carol, "There are no rules."
SW: To a certain extent, that's also at the heart of most of your movies. They are about freedom, the fear of it, the love of it.
PM: You start out thinking there are rules, but as life goes on you find out it doesn't work that way.
SW: That's frightening.
PM: And funny. [Beat] But I do love long scenes because long scenes allow you to see behavior, the strangeness of it, the wonderfulness of it.
And we're only on page 45, which is a mere page away from Mazursky's tale of how he saved director John Ford's life at a George Cukor dinner party. The true cinefile (c'est moi) doesn't know how to stop reading, and eventually gives in, putting everything else aside for some forty-plus years of raconteur-age. Which is a considerable accomplishment, given that I've only been a sometimes fan of Mazursky's work.
I've responded, of course, to his best-known pictures (a handful of really good movies, An Unmarried Woman among them, and one arguable masterpiece, Enemies: A Love Story), but it took reading Paul on Mazursky to send me back to the rest of Mazursky's oeuvre for a deeper look. I'll be curious to see if the films are actually as great as this book makes them sound, but meanwhile, what's undeniable is the breadth of great performances Mazurksy has gotten out of his casts, on-screen, and on these pages - Lord, what a storyteller the man can be.
Wasson makes his job seem easy, while he cannily shapes this portrait of an aging artist who somehow managed to always do things his way into a narrative that's as unsentimental as it is ultimately moving. A line from Wasson's critique of Unmarried could serve to sum up the book's approach: "...an anthem to resilience played at the low volume of everydayness."
This year Mazursky, now 81, was honored by the L.A. Film Critics Association with their Lifetime Achievement Award. That's only right. I'm a big fan of giving the greats their due while they're still among us, and Paul on Mazursky does this exceedingly well.