A Paul Mazursky Newark Cameo/Visions of an Airport: Harry and Tonto (1974)

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This is Newark Liberty International Airport, as seen in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974). It doesn’t add much to our cinematic archive of Newark, but since Mazursky just passed away, it seemed a fitting way to pay tribute.

To be honest, I’ve never loved Mazursky as a filmmaker. He made one great film, his first: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), easily my favorite Hollywood movie to grapple with the sexual revolution, and a smart, funny, sexy, genuinely humane take on the complexity of relationships, with one of the all-time great closing scenes in mainstream American cinema, IMHO (not sure how it plays out of narrative context, though).

Then a decade later Jill Clayburgh singlehandedly elevated An Unmarried Woman to near-greatness—and helped make partial amends for the infuriating Blume in Love (1973), with its ugly apologetics for George Segal’s protagonist despite his committing an aggressive onscreen marital rape. I can’t stomach Blume (except for the presence of Kris Kristofferson, who is watchable in every role he’s ever played, even at his most phoned-in), and I also mostly hated Mazursky’s second film, Alex in Wonderland, a horrid, Fellini-aping bit of navel-gazing-into-the-filmic-abyss. People I respect dig Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), but I find it trite and sitcomish, and then after that the rest of his films were uniformly bad except Down and Out in Beverly Hills (and I never saw his final film, the 2006 documentary Yippie {very much NOT about Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin}, though its sole IMDB reviewer liked it).

So that leaves Harry and Tonto—Mazursky’s third-best film. It’s basically John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, except with a cat subbing in for the dog, which is of course an enormous improvement. Art Carney’s Harry, displaced from his longtime New York apartment thanks to urban renewal, and single aside from cat Tonto after his wife’s death, road-trips across America, seeing his scattered children en route to Los Angeles. I’m a sucker for the cinema of wanderlust, and it’s got great location shooting in Chicago, L.A., Las Vegas, and Manhattan.

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While marred by some overly broad and sentimental scenes, especially early on, it’s mostly a sweet, low-key look at aging, family, and loneliness; a scene in the middle, with Carney seeking out a long-ago lover in Illinois and finding her in a nursing home with a fading memory, is probably the single best scene Mazursky ever shot after 1969. I wouldn’t have given Carney the Oscar for this, but I can see why I was outvoted by the members of the Academy.

Anyway, Newark: it’s where Harry initially tries to fly out, before settling for the road after refusing to put Tonto through the baggage scanner. Because I am one of those lazy internet people who pays less attention online, I accidentally called in the book rather than the DVD at the public library, and it’s actually LaGuardia there. But rest assured, the Newark location is confirmed by Mazursky’s DVD commentary track (which, alas, offers little insight into mid-70s Newark, his comment on this scene, in its entirety, being, “Newark Airport [lengthy pause]”)

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compare and contrast! my last time in the Newark airport (actually in search of an in-airport movie screening that didn’t exist…)

What can one say, analytically, about this in regard to cinematic depictions of the Brick City?  Well, primarily it’s a reminder of how many New Yorkers see Newark, I suppose: that place to catch a flight. Which is, to be sure, arguably better than other cultural narratives of the city (Riotville! That Place with Ever-Tweeting Neoliberal Superman Mayor!), but still, I’m gonna count this as a pretty underwhelming addition to the films of Newark.

It is, however, something of a masterpiece in the films of catdom. RIP, Mr. Mazursky, and RIP Tonto, too.

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One thought on “A Paul Mazursky Newark Cameo/Visions of an Airport: Harry and Tonto (1974)

  1. Pingback: Paul Mazursky dead: Five times Oscar-nominated director has died, aged 84Big Online News | Big Online News

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