Examining the Relationships in
The King of Marvin Gardens
Along the Way We Find an Unexpected Link to Kubrick's Lolita
The King of Marvin Gardens opens with David (Jack Nicholson) relating a story about how his grandfather enjoyed fish but would choke on its bones, so it was young David's task to run to the kitchen, every Fish Friday, and get him a heel of bread that would help the bones go down when death came stalking. David has an elder brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), and one day when the ritual of the grandfather choking on the fish begins and the parents aren't home, David delays in running to get the bread. We can infer by a lead-in story of how the grandfather was a practical joker who accidentally broke David's tooth with a toy hidden in his food, that the grandfather has been perhaps abusive enough that the boys have no positive emotional relationship with him, and now they've been handed this rare power where they are in control. They sit and stare at the old man as he chokes until, motivated by approaching too near the point of no return, David runs to fetch the bread. However, when he returns, rather than giving it to his grandfather, David hands it to his brother, as if he should decide the outcome. Jason hands the bread back to the younger child, placing the responsibility on him. By the time David offers the bread to the grandfather, it is too late. The grandfather pitches forward then back in his chair, landing on the floor with all the contents of the dinner table following on the tablecloth, and dies.
As we listen to the affecting story, we may wonder at its wealth of detail, as it is too much--the description of the entire meal that falls to the floor with the grandfather, the mashed potatoes, the stewed tomatoes with onions and peppers. One might wonder as well why the bread--always the heel, this time specifically pumpernickel--must be fetched from the kitchen rather than rationally having a place at the table if it is such a critical part of every fish dinner. As it turns out, the story is indeed a fiction presented as truth. We will learn this when David returns home in the evening to his grandfather, the grandfather mocks the story, and David tells him to just not listen if he doesn't like the stories he tells. David's motivation is especially puzzling for as he finishes telling his story, distracted and interrupted by a call for him coming in (his assistant doesn't know who it was but they said they'd call back), we realize David has his own radio show and that this is being broadcast. Who knows how many people are hearing this out in Philadelphia and accepting it as truth. Why would David confess to he and his brother, for all intents and purposes, murdering their grandfather, and David promising his brother to never tell anyone about it? Why would he confess to a murder, which doesn't take place, that he says made he and his brother accomplices for life?
Jason was the person trying to reach David at the station, and the following morning, David receives a call from his brother excitedly informing him their kingdom has come. The two, as boys, apparently used to dream of having an island paradise together, and Jason claims to be close to closing a deal for opening a hotel on an island off Hawaii, but when David arrives in Atlantic City he finds he must first get his brother out of jail for auto theft. Jason is a con man, a hustler who talks big, about major accomplishments, but he may have never been much more than an errand boy for others. We never learn, throughout the film, what is the truth of anything he says, nor does David, but Jason wants his brother to believe in him, it's important that David believe in him, and he wants David to work with him somehow to make this dream come true. Ostensibly, the focal point of the film is these two brothers, David and Jason, and thus the attention of the audience is focused on these two men as the leads. They are hard to pin down. Their backgrounds are never much explored except that we learn Jason was once in jail for 60 days, while David insists his brother is wrong to say he was ever in a mental hospital, he was instead in something like a rest home. The frame for the movie is our following them about Atlantic City while Jason tries to sell David on the dream, that they are in this together, and that he's not going to end up in jail again, his friend Lewis is going to fix it so he doesn't even have to go to court. Lewis, David will find, is not a friend so much as a mobster for whom Jason has worked and is fed up with Jason as he's out of control. He's become a problem and needs reining in.
I say "ostensibly" that's the primary story, as viewers are going to focus on the prospective paradise island casino hotel and expect to learn about all about it in the film, and if it's hard to pin down, if we get almost no information concerning it, the reason is because of that "ostensibly", the true story of the film unfolding on the side lines where its female characters are, where many wouldn't think to look back in the 70s when a focus on women in a film meant it was likely going to fall under the genre of a "woman's" film, one not interesting to anyone but women, a bias that is still too prevalent.
Jason has two companions, an older and a younger woman, Sally and Jessica, who are not only his lovers, we are given the impression he also uses them as bait in his dealings, to supply sexual favors. Indeed, if we are first introduced to David in the film, the second of the lead characters we physically meet, ahead of Jason, is Sally (Ellen Burstyn), sent to pick up David at the train as Jason is in jail. The threesome is bizarre in its profoundly familial nature, the elder woman caretaking the younger one (Julie Ann Robinson), primping her, praising her for her being on par with a Miss America beauty, maternally intimate yet also sisterly. The audience may have initially imagined that Sally, the dominant woman, is paired with Jason, and that Jessica is less an intimate who is destined to end up with David, perhaps even it's planned by Jason that Jessica end up with David, but as the film continues we realize there's nothing so simple about the bonds that connect these three. The familial nature is even more confused when Jason promises David that one day "the girls will be yours as much as mine" but that love takes time. The complexity of the dynamic between the three is such that by the time Jason makes this promise to David, it is uncomfortable. We've also the feeling that the promise to David will never materialize as he is external to what makes these three tick.
Toward the film's end will be disclosed what is already emotionally apparent. Jessica is Sally's step-daughter. When Jessica's father had abandoned them, Sally had taken her in. Jessica had tagged along as her step-mother prostituted herself, then as she grew older she became involved as a package deal. The script originally had it that Sally and Jessica were mother and daughter but this was deemed too transgressive. Ellen Burstyn, however, communicates the intention of the original script for better effect in amplifying the truly devastating nature of these relationships in their catastrophic rupture of boundaries, so that her tragedy is not just that of a woman becoming older, losing sexual appeal, her position usurped by a younger one. Jessica, too, would be a somewhat less tragic figure if Sally were not her mother. Though such a betrayal by a step-mother would be shattering, the audience could still read Jessica as simply being the younger woman who supplants the older one. This would be wrong. Even if Sally were only a guardian she is a parental figure and so Jessica has been terribly abused since she was a child, but the blood factor magnifies the abuse so that audience feels the jeopardy done Sally's psyche.
Undoubtedly, these are people that if we saw their mug shots in the news, and read their story, little sympathy would be afforded Sally and Jason. Burstyn's portrayal would have us consider more deeply Sally's circumstance, how she found no alternatives, and communicates her own trauma onto Jessica.
The film does emphasize how the older woman becomes irrelevant when age is considered as having depleted her sex appeal, even inserting a surreal scene in which Jessica tap-dances on a grand stage for an imaginary Miss America contest, and takes the crown from the former beauty, Sally. But Sally hovers, preparing and boosting and grooming Jessica for her new role with the pride of the mother who has ensured her progeny has commercial value and will be able to take care of themselves. It's when Jason and Jessica interact as a pair apart from the threesome that Sally crumbles and blows a meeting with potential Japanese investors in the hotel scheme. Back at the hotel, the real reason for her upsetting the meeting by abruptly and dramatically fleeing it isn't addressed, instead she blames David for not believing in Jason. The next day finds Jason out on the beach, tending a bonfire in which Sally throws all the finery that has played up and glorified her sexual allure. She will now face the world as herself, with a naked face. We are never told who has suggested the ritual, the second act of a play in which the first was the imaginary Miss America beauty pageant, but Jason's demeanor suggests it may have been him, just as he oversaw the beauty pageant, Sally, entirely unmoored in her taking up this new role, gives herself over to it with what becomes a near frenetic conviction. She attempts to imagine this burning of her belongings as a new start that will put her back in touch with herself and the world in touch with her as a person rather than a sex object, but there is no self there for this new role if her value has been sexual. She is obviously deeply troubled, ultimately self-harming, warning Jessica that this day will come for her as well eventually, pitying them both for being women whose only power is in their appearance and sex appeal.
Absurdly, Sally may be around forty, but she is a beautiful woman, both with and without her finery, and the film doesn't disguise this. Reviews, however, miss this point, and characterize her as over-the-hill.
Jason is played by Dern with a fair amount of charm, which he must possess as a hustler. Sally has placed all her hopes in him, and still believes. As they pack to go to Hawaii, Sally several times remarks on how she has nothing left, seeming undecided as to whether or not this is a good thing, Jason ignoring. She's unprepared when Jason suggests that she be left behind, and though he says they would send for her, he is obviously preparing to abandon her. An earlier scene had Sally showing up at a nicer hotel and taking over a room in order to bathe there, Jason having told her he now owned the hotel, and she tired of the rusty water in the hotel where they're staying, which makes her feel unclean, filthier when she gets out than when she got in the tub. It makes no sense that they would be not staying in the hotel he "owns" in the first place, but Sally is sold on Jason and all that he tells her, committed to him. She has been conned and now recognizes this. She asserts Jason's attraction had always been for Jessica, and that he has planned from the beginning to run off with her. She threatens first to shoot herself, then David (Jason would then have Jessica only to himself with David dead and her in prison), then Jason. Jason takes the gun from her and hands it to David, reminding us of the opening fictional fish story in which the brothers pass from one to the other the heel of bread that would save the grandfather, his death making them accomplices forever. Jessica, who has been taking a shower, emerges to find out what is going on. The absence of David and Jason's parents in their story, the grandfather still alive, hasn't gone unnoticed, and it hangs over this scene in which Jason and Sally become as arguing parents, David trying to break away and establish his own defiant identity. Desperate, but not insensible, Sally grabs the gun from David's pocket, shoots Jason, then goes in to cut off the shower Jessica had left running. The symbolism shouldn't be lost on us, that the water represents both the filth of their lives and Jason's blood, which she is helpless to stop.
After this, Jessica and Sally vanish from the film, it ending with David returning to his life, his home. The final scene has his grandfather watching an old home movie of Jason and David, as children, playing on the beach together. But Sally and Jessica are a powerful presence in their absence, and we wonder how their relationship contextualizes the relationship of the brothers playing on the beach.
Before this, though, we've a brief scene of David relating, for his radio show, a little of what has happened, ending his story with how the gun had always been kept with the water pistols. What the radio audience may not know--we don't hear the whole story he's told--but the film audience does, is that David had one night witnessed, the bedroom door cracked, water pistols used in sexual games wherein Sally and Jessica begin to have a High Noon duel with them, but at the last moment, playfully, turn on Jason and shoot him rather than one another, he collapsing against the bedroom door and slamming it shut in David's face. As we know the fish story was a fiction, if we'd not observed the film's action occurring in real time, if it had instead been a flashback narrated by David, we'd have to consider the reliability of the narrator and might asume this too is a fiction. So, we need to go back and examine again what may be the emotional truth in the fish story, that the two boys had such a dire responsibility in saving their grandfather's life at each meal--even if we consider that the grandfather, presented as a practical jokester, may have only been playacting. For when we are first shown the grandfather and realize he's alive, he doesn't deny the fish story, he only corrects David in his slight misremembering of the details of one of the practical jokes he related. After David has told his story about the water pistols is when we follow him home again to where the grandfather is watching the home movie in the living room. When David leaves the living room to go upstairs, he doesn't fully close the door which serves as a screen for the movie, and it swings back open. David calls out, as he ascends the steps to his bedroom, he didn't mean for that to happen, and his grandfather responds, closing the door, that he knows he didn't. Once more, we are returned to the scene of the water pistols, David peeking in through the crack of the door, and it being slammed in his face as Jason falls against it, which seems important as David had just told the story of the water pistols in his radio broadcast.
I don't think we can hazard that Jason is so sold on his own con that he believes it himself, though when Lewis faults Jason for refusing to listen to him he describes Jason as an artist. Earlier, Jessica accidentally intruding on David in the bathroom when he was recording a story for his radio show, had called him an artist. Through a crack in the door, she had told him to take all the time he needed in the bathroom, because he was an artist. Elevated. Respected. Apart from the rest of society. Both David and Jason make their living selling stories and perhaps David's fictions, packaged as truth, begin the film in order that we see how the brothers are similar. What Sally had finally realized, however, is that Jason's con has far less to do with the imaginary island paradise than with Jessica. Love taking its time, he has been grooming the girl to take her from her step-mother, to have her for himself in Hawaii. She may have proposed shooting David, but she'd no reason to do so, David had not harmed her, the only reason she'd raised that possibility was to make clear her knowledge that with both she and David out of the way Jason would have been free to take Jessica to Hawaii by himself. Though Jason says that David is number one in his life and Sally and Jessica can stay behind if they want (amending this with that Jessica would, however, be an added attraction in sealing the hotel deal), as David relates Sally's role over the radio broadcast, he takes the hotel deal not very seriously, referring to it as a game, what the trip they were on only "seemed to be about", which means it wasn't about the island paradise at all. What was more important, as he then intimates, was what was going on behind closed doors.
We need to return to David's radio broadcast that opened the film, and Jason having called him while he was broadcasting. Jason had likely been listening, and had heard something in the fish story, their fictional murder of their grandfather, that gave him the idea to get in touch and send for David.
The film, I think, reveals the original intent of Sally being Jessica's mother, and their story being the critical one, through the inclusion of a portrait we see of a preteen girl in the bedroom that Jason, Sally and Jessica share. The painting is only glimpsed a couple of times before the climactic scene in which it becomes as a principle character. The canvas does not hang on the wall, it's instead on a tripod near the bed, which makes it stand out as more than just decorative. We finally get a good view of it when, scorning Sally, Jason turns to enter the bedroom. The portrait of the girl stands out as a curiosity beyond him. Sally grabs the gun, shoots him, and the portrait becomes the true Chekov's gun of the movie, it shot as well, flying off its tripod. This portrait has significant meaning.
My first time watching this film was many years ago. When I recently watched the film again, it was with no expectation of seeing a nod to Kubrick in it--and it surprised me to find one there. The portrait of the girl. My belief is the shooting of the girl's portrait, at the same time Jason is shot, may be a reference to Kubrick's Lolita. In that film, Humbert Humbert, Lolita's abuser, pursues another abuser of Lolita, who had taken her away from him. That abuser is a man named Quilty, and when Humbert finds him at his mansion, he shoots him to death through the portrait of a young woman that Quilty shelters behind. Though in Lolita the meaning of the portrait is multi-layered, it is certainly supposed to represent Lolita. The gun was Humbert's, and while Charlotte was alive, when she had told Humbert she was sending Lolita away, as Humbert sat on the side of the bed, a photographic portrait of Lolita beside it, he had considered shooting Charlotte in her bath and claiming it a playful accident, that he had believed it wasn't loaded. He had decided otherwise, Charlotte had died anyway, and as the gun had to be used it was eventually deployed against Quilty. The situation is different for Jason, Sally and Jessica, Sally shooting Jason. Lolita's mother, Charlotte, was long dead and while alive had little to no use for her daughter, seeing her only as a pest. However horrified Charlotte was when she did finally discover that Humbert had only married her for eventual access to her daughter, we are given the feeling that Charlotte was a little aware that Lolita had been an attraction, and that, Humbert or no Humbert, she would have eventually viewed Lolita as only a rival. In The King of Marvin's Garden, if we understand that the portrait in the bedroom is intended to represent Jessica, and that Sally is haunted by filthy waters that are a metaphor for their lives, when she guns down Jason it isn't only and perhaps not even foremost because he has chosen Jessica over her, instead it is to finally save her daughter. She has seen through the con, and her action has less to do with revenge than comprehending the trauma of their lives and rescuing her daughter from this con man who has assisted in destroying them and is taking Jessica away.
I don't think the nod went unnoticed by Kubrick. When Lewis, played by Scatman Crothers, eventually has a meeting with David, it is in territory Lewis marks off as "my kitchen", and David learns that the suite they're living in belongs to Lewis. When Kubrick reunites Nicholson and Crothers in The Shining, Crothers is a cook whose territory is the kitchen of The Overlook. The radio show that David kept trying to record in Atlantic City eventually became one about isolation via a blizzard, and Kubrick may have considered this as well, hiring Nicholson to play the man who disappears at the snowbound Overlook. The story for his broadcast, that David had been struggling to put together was as follows, with which he'd had trouble and gave frequent instructions for editing:
As illusions begin to drift and fade like white snow, once, while pretending to be living alone in a cabin in the woods, it began to snow for days and nights. The end of the sixth day, I began to feel that I was disappearing. Shit! Edit that out, Frank. Edit that out, too. Bitch. Have you...ever had the feeling that you were uncertain? That you were where you sensed yourself to be? That you were in a set? That all of the things were props put there to stimulate you? And that you were, in fact under observation in some white hospital? God. Vomit. Edit all that out, Frank. The roads were impassable. The blizzard had been falling for eight days. The snow had built over the windowsill, enclosing the windows, cutting off all the white light. Excuse me. Start again.
It's an interesting bit of reciprocity, The King of Marvin Gardens referencing Lolita, and that and certain other aspects of the film perhaps influencing who would fill the roles of Jack Torrance and Hallorann in The Shining.
January 2020. Approx 3890 words or 8 pages single-spaced. 30 minute read at 130 wpm.