Thursday, March 10, 2011

"A Sentimental Man"

To begin, I thought I would naturally start with one of my favorite films that, for whatever reason, failed to catch audience favor:

A Sentimental Man (1967)
Directed by Arthur Moreland
Written by Arthur Moreland and Terry Helms
Starring Vance Davis, Amy Poppins, Reed Wells, and Marion Van Zans

Theatrical poster for "A Sentimental Man."

Upon its initial release in 1967, A Sentimental Man was considered by the critical community as a major sophomore slump for director Arthur Moreland. His auspicious debut was 1965's The Annotated Streets of Omaha, a solid film in its own right that depicts the pitfalls (or, more accurately, pratfalls given the film's jaunty, off-kilter tone) of the lifestyle in Nebraska's then-burgeoning cocaine scene. While The Annotated Streets... is a bit dated today with its incessant usage of early seventies slang (I, for one, had never heard white people referred to as "chickpeas" before, but apparently the term was thrown around with wild abandon in the Midwest), at the time it marked Moreland as an auteur on the rise. Critics and cinemagoers alike were chomping at the bit for Moreland to craft another giddy, fever-pitched circus nightmare along the lines of The Annotated Streets..., and when he announced in 1966 that production had begun on A Sentimental Man people were already declaring it a masterpiece-in-the-making. 

Then, of course, the movie came out a year later and everyone was ready to burn Moreland at the stake. From the way the press spewed vitriol at A Sentimental Man you would have assumed that Moreland had personally peed in every critic's bowl of soup. "Arthur Moreland has just molested my brain's ability to ingest images and I'm thinking of pressing charges," shrieked Harland Coppey's review in L.A. Quarterly. James L. Putt of The Austin Gazelle snidely awarded the film "four anti-stars" and proclaimed it to be "a waste of time so monumental as to create a rift in the space-time continuum." Sheila Braum summed up the audience reaction in her review for The Ithaca Institutional by stating that "half the crowd was up in arms, yelling at the screen, while the other half was bored to tears, dozing off in their seats. The yellers woke the sleepers, which caused the sleepers to become yellers themselves and ensured that no one walked out of that screening in a pleasant mood."

With the consensus deadly, A Sentimental Man vanished from theaters a mere week-and-a-half after release. You'd think a film so notorious would remain in the public conscience, if only as the punchline to a joke, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Every time I bring up the film in conversation, I'm met with blank stares. I've never seen it brought up in the cavalcade of best-of or (more likely) worst-of lists that blanket the Internet. Even Arthur Moreland himself denied the film existed in an interview with Film Flunky Magazine that was conducted four months before his aneurysm-induced death in 1994. 

And that's truly a shame because, despite the rage on display in any number of reviews, A Sentimental Man is actually an endearing and poignant story. Is it Arthur Moreland's best? Of course not. That honor goes to the movie that finally won back the world's favor, the 1978 erotic thriller Blank Stare. Still, A Sentimental Man is a sweet and soft little film, akin to ingesting a cup of orange sherbet on a muggy day. The film stars a young Vance Davis, a Moreland regular who is probably most known for playing Principal Grumpley on the brainless, high school sitcom Skippin' which aired on ABC throughout the late-eighties and early-nineties. Here, Davis plays a lifelong invalid nicknamed Crutch despite the fact that he seems to walk and move just fine. We're told by his put-upon nurse Mae (Amy Poppins, of The Ghosting fame) that Crutch's ailments are psychosomatic; namely, Crutch is allergic to emotions. In a lengthy sequence set to Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, a laundry list of emotions is checked off along with Crutch's corresponding allergic reactions: Joy causes headaches, affection causes hives, fear causes blistering, sadness causes sneezing, and anger causes redness. Lust, sadly, spurs on a tempestuous diarrhetic episode and love brings on intense nausea and vomiting. Most importantly, empathy, should Crutch ever feel it, could result in a serious cardiac arrest.

Because anger seems to produce the least severe reaction, it is the emotion that Crutch desperately clings to most. He stalks about his sagging, trash-filled apartment in Brooklyn, New York, raging against anyone or anything that comes into contact with him. As the story begins, the only two people who have managed not to flee in frustration are the duty-bound Mae and Brent (Reed Wells), Crutch's older brother. The two of them form a bond with one another, a defense mechanism that protects them against Crutch's constant verbal assaults. As they do, it's clear that a romance may be blossoming. This is unfortunate for Crutch, whose condition has kept him far away from intimacy his entire life. He secretly longs for Mae and may even love her (as critics pointed out, the unpleasant dry-heaving noises that are intercut with Crutch's revelation of this are, admittedly, a bit much). Of course, Crutch knows that he can never have Mae; even if she wanted him, his body wouldn't allow it. So, rather than deal with the (in Crutch's case, very real) pain that comes with unrequited love, he decides instead to... (POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT) ...commit suicide. His chosen method to carry this out is unique: In one week's time, Crutch will sneak out from under the watch of his nurse and brother to a nearby movie theater that is showing Michael Cortiz's Casablanca (1942), and the emotional ringer it will put him through just might result in death. The rest of the film suddenly becomes an urgent ticking clock, chronicling  the time leading up to that fateful viewing.

At first glance, the premise of A Sentimental Man seems silly and far-fetched. But is it really? How many times have you ever cried so hard as to give yourself a headache? And why does laughter always seem to dull the pain? If you think about it, the film is really just an aggrandized examination of how peculiar it is that thoughts and feelings, pure ideas that take no shape and hold no weight, can cause a physical response within us. As the critics suggested, Moreland's A Sentimental Man may be overlong, may be too on-the-nose, may have sloppy editing and baffling music cues. But you know what? It feels true. And really, that's the noblest thing a film can aspire to be. 

In the next installment... I will discuss Stephanie Pilenti's 1993 documentary Marvin's Movie, which focuses on the peculiar life of infamous cinephile Marvin Atumi. Stay Tuned!


  1. I have to say that I'm pretty excited for your blog. I'm also very thankful that fb put you in my newsfeed this morning. I think I have a couple Moreland films to add to my queue. Hope you're doing well!! ~Daria

  2. you are my son and I loved this movie too. Maybe that is why you like it

  3. I'm shocked Mike. Just finished watching it and I agree. Totally underrated. Nicely done, sir. I look forward to more in the future!

  4. Can you tell me how to find "Blank Stare"? Has it been re-issued?

  5. I am anxious to read more reviews. I am always hunting for new movies to watch.