Joe Glassman, a self-ruinous psychiatrist played by Rip Torn, is a corrupt sex machine. Sex deadens him. He finds it thrilling in the moment, but it’s horribly numbing afterward. There’s a sordid, comic irony to his situation – this shrink is just as loony and screwed up as the patients who come to him with their problems. The subject of Milton Moses Ginsberg’s Coming Apart (1969), Joe’s the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the free sex movement, filled with a self-loathing brought upon by a pursuit of purely physical pleasures. Received tepidly upon initial release, Ginsberg’s film has subsequently gained a cult following, and today is regarded as one of the more important pieces of American independent cinema. BAM screens this film on August 23 during a brief retrospective of Ginsberg’s short directorial career, one screening featuring a Q&A session with Mr. Ginsberg himself.
Early on in the film, Joe, pointing at the camera sitting in a box inside his apartment, quips, “I like to photograph things as they happen. I’m interested in reality.” Joe is living out a perverse, pornographic fantasy. Often without consent, he videotapes the sexual encounters he has in his apartment. The camera itself doesn’t move over the course of scenes; Ginsberg tests the viewer’s patience as readily as Joe tests his own capacity for this cyclical, numbing practice. Women fling themselves at him. One even cries, “you’re raping me, you’re raping me!” in violent, pathetic ecstasy. This fetishized power somehow thrills Joe, though he realizes it’s in service of an emotionally-muted soul.
The meta-reading of this film, of course, is almost too obvious. Cinema is voyeurism, it is self-reflection; it gives us a lens into the annals of the human psyche we otherwise don’t have. Though Coming Apart is a piece of fictional cinema, Ginsberg aspires toward mimicking a documentary style that telegraphs this man’s mental breakdown. On the surface, Coming Apart can be seen as a harrowing piece of voyeuristic realism. With each encounter he has, Joe draws further and further into his own mental vacuum. One of the women, played with a Bergmanesque nakedness by Sally Kirkland, ultimately destroys Joe’s phallic ruse. The finale involves a slow-motion, rhythmic destruction of Joe’s mirror and camera. His misogynist power is destroyed; the emotionally-battered female has overpowered her equally neurotic male counterpart.
The supposed realism of cinéma vérité has, of course, been long disputed. Ginsberg was one of many directors trying to distance themselves from the Hollywood studio system, and Coming Apart is very much the product of a subversive moviemaking impulse. Pauline Kael was one of John Cassavetes’ most vocal dissenters, arguing that his long takes and grainy shots failed to reveal any ounce of human truth; this criticism has followed, understandably, Ginsberg’s film. In a time when Lars von Trier’s unhinged films are dismissed as blatant pieces of exploitation, perhaps Coming Apart can be written off as grotesque, its actors naked both physically and emotionally. Sally Kirkland, especially, channels her neurotic furies into unrelenting, passionately earnest monologues. Coming Apart is a film of excess. In some quarters, it’s viewed as a neglected tour-de-force of acting, writing, and semi-autobiographical directing; in others, it’s an interesting cinematic failure that challenges, if somewhat indulgently, the dogmatic Hollywood structure.