A Volatile Rip Torn Carries this Experimental work of Confrontational Cult Bombast.
DIRECTED BY MILTON MOSES GINSBERG/1969
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: AUGUST 16, 2022/KINO CLASSICS
It’s 1969, and Rip Torn is coming apart. Although, one could be forgiven for assuming that he already has. But there is nothing past-tense about Torn’s full-throttled, volatile, and even dangerous performance in the bona fide cult film Coming Apart.
Shot in three weeks on a budget of $50,000, Coming Apart is a countercultural confrontation of a different sort. In the high-stakes game of ‘69 turbulent on-screen tectonics, filmmaker Milton Moses Ginsberg boldly sees Dennis Hopper’s stoned hair-in-the-wind travelogue Easy Rider with this interior fixed-angle hidden-camera piece of black-and-white faux-documentary dynamite. It dares to ask its own version of “Who watches the watchmen?” with its central inquiry of “Who sees the disturbed psychiatrist?”. The answer is, only us. And with all the barriers (the two-way mirror that conceals his camera, the wall-sized mirror he’s shooting into, the screen that we’re watching it on, and the separation of fifty-plus-years) separating us from the characters, it imbues a certain feeling of helplessness, not to mention immobilization.
Joe Glazer is indeed one disturbed man. Portrayed by Torn in a bout of perfect casting and unspecified suppressed rage, Glazer has taken to secretly filming not only his psychiatric patients, but much of his day-to-day doings… as well as his many dates. It’s his footage that we’re seeing. To say that this formal approach (Ginsberg labels it “diary format”) is a direct engagement with cinema’s voyeuristic aspects would be an understatement worthy of Hitchcock himself. For Glazer, when confronted, the odd mirrored box that houses the secret camera is “a kinetic art object.” For film critic Richard Schickel, who reviewed Coming Apart upon its release, the whole of its yield is “a troubling art experience.”
Is that “troubling” in the sense of “avoid at all costs”? No. Were Coming Apart as real as it seems- and it seems entirely real– it would be absolutely unconscionable. As it is, we can know that this is in fact a very tactile, very stripped-bare, very uneasy construct. All of Coming Apart occupies a very particular spot near the films of Cassavetes or the dialogue of Altman. It’s the single-camera/single-angle conceit of Coming Apart, necessarily edited with jump cuts, that relegates it perhaps beyond the art house, and into the realm of art museum exhibition… of the most brazen sort. How well seen was Coming Apart back in the day? One can imagine the answer is, “not very!”
The power of the nitro glycerin performance of Rip Torn in the lead of Coming Apart cannot be overstated. When he as Glazer is direct-addressing the camera in his few moments of being alone, one instinctively braces for something somewhere to just shatter. It really is that powerful. In this, one is overcome with the notion that one hasn’t seen all the major counterculture cinematic dynamos if one hasn’t seen this. Still though, it can be a tough watch. Unflinching in its central character’s gross unpleasantries, the many women of Coming Apart don’t fare well in the unfeeling gaze of Glazer’s (Ginsberg’s) camera. His sexual escapades are many, though far from sexy. Key among them are Joann, a former patient played by Sally Kirkland and Monica, a mistress he’s broken off with, played by Viveca Lindfors. Though female nudity was de rigueur in this era of film, Coming Apart pushes the boundary uncomfortably further. The fully dramatically committed actresses are all unflinching, even if we aren’t.
Kino Lorber revisits Coming Apart with this high-definition upgrade to its 2000 DVD release of the film. Though this was never a visual stunner per se, Ginsberg’s compellingly layered, canted visual approach (it was smart of him to shoot into a mirror) looks properly “present”. It’s a good, absorbing transfer, accompanied by sometimes very loud sound and music. The dialogue, also intended to be captured through our surrogate viewpoint of the “kinetic art object”, is sometimes all too clear, sometimes muddled. This is all by design.
There is no audio commentary to contextualize the film and its making, though there is a wildly flickering and handheld on-stage Q&A with filmmaker Ginsberg at the Metrograph on the occasion of a sold-out screening for the film’s fiftieth anniversary. Ginsberg is amazingly forthright and honest about his methodology and his roving infidelity at the time, which inspired the movie. It’s a terrific Q&A where even the audience questions are good. But man, the flickering, due to “the camera struggling with the darkness of the room”, renders this nearly unwatchable. Thankfully, it’s just Ginsberg onstage, so by all mean consider listening to it but not looking at the screen.
Two of Ginsberg’s later D.I.Y. film projects are also included on the disc. Neither begins to live up to the experience of Coming Apart. At a merciful five minutes, Ginsberg’s recent short Milonga in a Lonely Station is a still-image meditation on, well, an empty train station. Truth be told, the filmmaker’s use of garish preprogrammed editing software effects is embarrassing. It’s not even acknowledged by Letterboxd, so it may well not pass muster as a movie.
Kron (aka Kron Along the Avenue of Time), a forty-nine-minute keyframed-image collage, chronicles an aging watch repairman’s inner reflections on his own life and mortality. Ginsberg, unseen, narrates as old photos and even clips pilfered from Coming Apart drift over ticking clock innards. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick… so much incessant ticking. It’s okay, I guess. But like Milonga, it’s presence alongside of the feature presentation just looks ridiculous. Note that the disc’s packaging has the running time for Kron incorrectly listed at 105 minutes.
Throughout the bonus features, Ginsberg often makes pleas for someone to give him funding to make another film. Sadly, he passed on before this ever happened. But if Kron and Milonga are the recent works that he had on-hand to demonstrate his cinematic wherewithal, it’s hard to blame any potential backers for skepticism. 1969 was a long time ago, and much can and has changed in the meantime. It leads one to conclude that though Ginsberg wielded bold vision back in the day, Rip Torn IS Coming Apart.