The Once and Future King

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Published November 23, 2010

 

STILL FROM THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS COURTESY OF THE CRITERION COLLECTION

The Atlantic City depicted in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is no boardwalk empire—it’s a dead end. But the American Dream is alive, if not exactly well, in this seaside depot inhabited by old ladies and scam artists, the deep frames of Bob Rafelson’s downbeat film (shot by Laszlo Kovacs) suggesting that the get-rich-quick delusions of Jason Staebler (Bruce Dern) stretch from coast to coast.  “It’s Monopoly out there,” Staebler tells his skeptical brother, David (Jack Nicholson)—there are plots to be bought and developed, piles of cash to be made. Jason’s blithe optimism is part of his hustle, and he refuses to think he might be one of the biggest losers in the game.

Made in the wake of the wild ’60s and before legalized gambling brought the empty theater of Atlantic City back to life, Marvin Gardens “was an end-of-the-road movie,” J. Hoberman writes in an essay accompanying the new Blu-Ray edition. Criterion has released it as part of a box set called “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story.” Given the searching political mood of the moment, it’s not a bad time to give this period’s homegrown arthouse cinema a second look.

BBS was the super-hip production company that defined, perhaps even created, the Easy Rider era. In addition to that landmark road movie, it was responsible for Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show, among other classics, and its portfolio explores an America torn (but also perhaps perversely energized) by extremely opposing values. In its own way, Rafelson and Bert Schneider’s indie-minded outfit did what the Staebler brothers and their female companions (played by Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson) do at one memorable point in Marvin Gardens: rented an abandoned stage and improvised a spirited alternative to the traditional “Miss America” pageant, until the lights went out.

THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS IS AVAILABLE TODAY AS PART OF THE CRITERION COLLECTION’S “AMERICA LOST AND FOUND” BOX SET.