I was out shopping at a thrift store with Susanne Collins this passed Thursday when I stumbled upon a VHS of Marvin & Tige. I have been trying to see every film made by or simply starring John Cassavetes for some time now, so I became very excited. The next morning I watched the film and got exactly what I expected.
By the early eighties, John Cassavetes was taking roles in mainstream American films again. The number of films he starred in between 1977 and 1985 that were made by other directors greatly out number those he starred in during the late sixties. The financial burdens of The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977) were the primary catalyst, prompting Cassavetes to take the lead in The Incubus (1982), Tempest (1982) and Marvin & Tige (1983). Of these three films, Paul Mazursky’s unorthodox adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play is by far the best over all film. However, in Marvin & Tige John Cassavetes performs very much in the style of his own films, and is able to endow the picture with more depth of character and believability than in either Tempest or The Incubus.
Eric Weston directs Marvin & Tige without very much style or intent. The jerky nature of the film’s narrative as it unfolds on the screen indicates a strict adherence to an incoherent script written by Wanda Ball. The story itself is rather preposterous, feeling as though it were shop lifted from an after school special of some sort. The film begins with Tige (Gibran Brown) coning people for change and shoplifting food to support himself and his mother (Denise Nicholas). When Tige wakes up the next day, he finds his mother inexplicably dead. So, Tige runs away to the local park, where, as night falls, he decides he will slit his wrists. Tige’s suicide does not go interrupted when at the list minute Marvin (John Cassavetes) arrives and advises Tige to sleep on it. Together, the two leave, heading back to Marvin’s house where a series of sentimental misadventures occur, designed to illustrate the strength of their bond. But their ideal father and son relationship is short lived when Tige is taken ill. Marvin checks Tige into a hospital and contacts Tige’s estranged father (Billy Dee Williams).
The narrative is neither incredible nor unique. John Cassavetes’ turn as Marvin is the one component that keeps this film interesting to watch. With an uncertain script, Cassavetes colors his character a little different in each scene, emoting fatherly love in one scene and bitter resentment the next. Cassavetes’ skill imbues these transitions from one contrasting behavior to another with a natural fluidity that makes Marvin far more organic than the characters around him. These polar shifts in Marvin’s character also create a sense of unease akin to the duality apparent in Fagin of Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. But unlike Fagin, Marvin is never given time to develop within the context of the script. Marvin’s dimensions are entirely sub textual, so the audience is left pining for the film to slow its break neck speed so that the Marvin character can develop and offer the revelation that Cassavetes seems to be building toward.
The primary inhibition of Marvin & Tige is not the formulaic nature of the script, but the sentimental approach the film takes to the relationships of all of its characters. Immediately, one recognizes how each conflict will resolve and in each way how the characters will grow as a result of the resolution. Without suspense, and without a consistent base in reality, Marvin & Tige feels like a live-action rendition of a Don Bluth film, without the benefit of the suspension of disbelief so easily afforded by animation.