This is, I think, a nice opportunity to take stock.

Alan J. Pakula directed three of the most significant films of the 1970s New Hollywood Cinema in his loosely-defined "paranoia trilogy": Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men. I have argued that Klute in particular is not just significant, but is one of the foundational texts of the run of urban-bound prestige dramas that so dominated that decade in the scholarly histories (much as urban crime films dominated the tawdry exploitation circuit that exploded at the same time, though I think that Klute clearly has little influence over those, and I think it unlikely that it is derived from them in the same way as The French Connection could be). And yet, despite the massive respect rightly given the period 1967-1980 by most American cinephiles, Pakula is not typically cited as a particularly important filmmaker even when his movies - All the President's Men especially - are named as being greatly important moments. At first glance, this is a strange thing, for those movies are clearly not being made in spite of their director - if there's one thing I have grown certain of in my study of Pakula, it's that he had a surprisingly strong hand in guiding his films on every level from acting to the image.

It doesn't take much thought to figure out why it's the case that Pakula has fallen through the cracks, as it were. He's not that sexy a figure, rising not from the film school brats but from the very serious-minded adult drama field of the 1960s as a producer. A great many of his films are not instantly appealing to male viewers - not a small thing! Sad though it is to admit it, the history of cinema is dominated by male critics and male audiences, who are more likely to embrace the masculine crises of Martin Scorsese, who I needn't mention is a genius and arguably the best American director of his generation, than someone with a pronounced tendency towards female protagonists (and consider which of Scorsese's 1970s narrative films is most commonly looked over these days: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the one with a female lead). I suspect that if Pakula had only made those three movies, and not his earlier feints towards tender love stories, there would be people eager to defend his 1980s weirdness.

Moreover, while Pakula has certain readily identifiable technical idiosyncrasies throughout the first stage of his career (the way that sound is used in his films is especially characteristic and identifiable), it's hard to say that he told the same kinds of stories over and over again, in a way that we like to pigeonhole our auteurs. I keep trying to bring everything back to "psychoanalytical studies of people in a moment of crisis or transition", but that seems impossibly vague on paper compared to "stories of men destroying themselves and others with their maleness" (Scorsese), "people who can't communicate imploding" (Cassavetes), "cynicism-heavy generic experiments with ginormous ensemble casts" (Altman), or "romantic tributes to the pop culture of youth" (Lucas), even if watching them next to each other reveals many more similarities between Klute and the earlier The Sterile Cuckoo than a simple plot description suggests. I'm not necessarily claiming that Pakula is a better filmmaker than Altman or Cassavetes or even George Lucas (though he is a much better filmmaker than George Lucas), but he is an auteur in his way - just not an auteur who lays everything out so that you can easily connect the dots from one film to another. In some ways, he's an impenetrable figure, and I think this, too, has kept him from the kind of easy analysis frequently given to the biggest directorial stars of that era.

But he is, in some ways, a more definitive 1970s director than any of the men I've named, and worthy of consideration on those grounds if no other. Some, like Scorsese and Altman, made Scorsese and Altman films - it's much easier to compare Taxi Driver to Goodfellas and Nashville to Short Cuts than to compare either of those films to the rest of what was coming out in the same years, because those directors had such an imposing authorial presence and aesthetic that the films seem to drop out of time. For many other great directors, the very fact that they limited themselves to a small range of narrative paths limits the degree to which they can stand in for their decade. But Pakula, perhaps uniquely among the great directorial craftsmen of the 1970s, seemed to dabble in just about every major trope that was going, other than exploitation. He made his thrillers and crime movies, of course, in both violent (Parallax) and non-violent (President's Men) flavors; he made a swooning romance (Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing), a harshly nostalgic period piece (Comes a Horseman), and a bittersweet comedy in the peculiar, uniquely 1970s subgenre of divorce films (Starting Over, which I swear I'll get to in a moment). His films range from the strictly representational to the borderline experimental (Klute) to the flat-out avant-garde (Parallax again). It was as though he had a compulsion to hit every note that somebody else struck during that decade, to make sure he stretched himself into every niche that a nice respectable filmmaker could find, and he did it all without sacrificing his aesthetic willy-nilly, even if some of his movies are more immediately recognisable as "an Alan J. Pakula film" than others (ironically, it's his most famous work from this period - All the President's Men - that is arguably the least characteristic). That kind of delight in pushing oneself to play in different styles and genres is extremely rare, from the stuffiest auteurs to the cheapest hacks, and if I had no other reason for respecting Pakula, the grace with which he moved from a European love story to a political thriller to a revisionist Western would certainly be enough for him to earn my admiration.

Starting Over, the last film he made in the 1970s, finds him at the very opposite pole where he started the decade: it's his first out-and-out comedy (Love and Pain... comes very close), and while it's urban in the strict sense, a movie set in Boston has a qualitatively different feel than one set in New York City or Los Angeles. The story is reasonably low-stakes, and by far the most universal one he'd ever touched: a man has two women that he wants, both of whom want him, and he's going to have to hurt one or the other. As I mentioned, it is firmly nestled in the Divorce Picture fad that in the same year produced one of the most inert Best Picture Oscar winners of all time, Kramer vs. Kramer, though it is a decided improvement on that deathly dull prestige cinderblock, Hoffman and Streep or no.

The oddest thing about Starting Over is how many small things about it are needlessly thoughtful and complex, even though the film is mainly a very simple if well-made example of what adult entertainment looked like in 1979, and one of these small things takes place at the very start. While the credits fade in and out, written in a horribly obvious fake handwriting font, we hear two people discussing the fact that they are about to be divorced. The shot underneath this is static, a still life, and perfectly unremarkable (I can no longer recall what the camera was even pointing at). Yet because of that audio - which is, by the way, a rather civil, grown-up conversation, not a shouting match - the effect is unnerving and really kind of exciting. We are carried into the drama swiftly but simply, given all that we really need to know before we've seen the face of a single character: it's an unintuitive choice that gets the movie rolling without any needless talky exposition. Pakula had consistently shown a real knack for the compelling use of off-screen sound, and in this, his smallest film in fully ten years, he figured out a small but very important way to continue that trend.

The movie centers on the tribulations of Phil Potter (Burt Reynolds), in the immediate aftermath of his divorce from his wife of seven or eight years, Jessica (Candice Bergen), following her affair with his boss. It's not at all clear who wanted the divorce, though at any rate, Jessica is not leaving him to be with another man. At any rate, Phil is aimless and depressed, and spending a lot of time with his brother Mickey (Charles Durning) and sister-in-law Marva (Frances Sternhagen), and one night he meets Marva's good friend Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh). They have a meet-cute in front of the Potters' house, when she thinks he's a mugger or rapist, and threatens to cut his balls off; after they've gotten to know each other a bit better, she concedes that he's attractive, but she's smarter than getting involved with a man that fresh from a divorce. But Phil has nothing else to do, so he pesters and pesters until she agrees to a date that goes extremely well, and they become a couple and after not very long, they move in together, and that is the exact moment at which Jessica comes back: she's now the writer of a hit single, but has found life entirely pointless without somebody to love, and she's pretty sure that Phil is the only man she's ever going to want to be with. Phil, having never completely gotten over her, flips his shit (he literally has a panic attack), and pretty much runs the risk of alienating both of his One True Loves.

Before I get to any of the other niceties about the film, I feel like I must point out a curiosity about the screenplay: it was the first theatrical feature written by a television comedy veteran named James L. Brooks; moreover, it's the only one of Brooks's feature screenplays that he did not himself direct. Now for some people, that's mostly just a trivia nugget; some might even call it a compelling reason to seek out the movie. But I'm someone who has virtually no use for Brooks (take away Broadcast News, and "virtually none" becomes "absolutely none what-so-fucking-ever"), and when I saw his name in the credits I was prepared to give up on Starting Over right then and there. Yet while there is a definite Brooks tang to the dialogue and to the preciousness in some of the scenes (most of them involving Marilyn's very precise blend of neurotic and quirky), on the whole this does not suffer from any of his worst habits. Pakula doesn't strike me as a director interested in saving a film from its own screenplay, and I am thus forced to concede that Brooks didn't completely fuck this one up, though it does not please me to do so.

I have given you more than enough information to figure out exactly how the plot plays out - I only had the Netflix envelope, and I almost had it down to the minute - and the only other thing I really have to say about the drama or screenplay is that it's a better story than you'd probably expect for a film of this kind of this vintage, thanks mostly to the actors rather than the scenario, and by the actors I pretty much mean "Burt Reynolds can act? Where the hell did that come from?" Yessir, Alan "Gets career-best performances out of underperforming actors" Pakula struck gold again with this one, and speaking as one whose pre-'90s knowledge of Reynolds consists solely of his "yee-haw, I'ma tough and funny sonofabitch!" roles (mostly because they seem to be the only damn thing he made for about 25 consecutive years), I was blown right out of the water to see him, in his relative youth, play a character as complex and mature as Phil Potter. Like Bree in Klute, Phil is an ideal Pakula lead, because not only does he get submitted to a probing psychological study in his time of crisis, the form that probing takes is actually, literally, therapeutic: at his psychiatrist brother's insistence, Phil joins a support group for divorced men (one of whom is the great Wallace Shawn in but his second film role after Manhattan, looking 25 years older than his actual age, as always), and though the result is nowhere near as soul-bearing as Bree's sessions, each of these short little sequences triggers a new forward move in Phil's development in the narrative.

Then there is Marilyn. One of Clayburgh's first roles after becoming lightning hot from An Unmarried Woman, her performance is sort of... look, I've never seen her in anything before, and I know that everyone was falling down with praise for her back in '78-'80, but I found her honestly a bit unbearable; every single scene was played like someone doing their level best at a Diane Keaton impression but failing. My dislike for the performance very definitely reflected back on the character, who seems less a bit too affected and imbalanced for the film to work the way I think it's supposed to. Of course, part of the point is that she's in her own way just as broken as Phil, but she's really mostly annoying, especially in comparison to Bergen's measured, collected tones (incidentally, both women received Oscar nominations). The contrast is clearly deliberate, but I do not think it makes Marilyn seem the more desirable woman, and it seems to me the one serious flaw in an otherwise charming romantic comedy.

The film was made with Pakula's customary sure hand, and certain moments are put together in the most inspired way: an early shot of Marilyn after Phil leaves lingers for much longer than we're conditioned to expect, a small signifier of the fact that she too is in pain, even if the film isn't her story; and throughout, the movement from wide shots to close-ups (there are few of Pakula's customary extreme wide-shots, but this is a more housebound film than anything he'd made before) is controlled in a manner that rarely or never drifts towards the hidebound shot-reverse shot boilerplate typical of character-driven stories. One of the film's best moments is the handling of Phil and Marilyn's first kiss, though this nice bit is practically ruined by a disastrously bad cut that tromps on the 180º line for no discernible reason; it is indeed the worst cut in any of Pakula's films to that point. But that is a gross exception to the general rule that this is as controlled as anything in the director's filmography, if notably unambitious.

Of course, he was working once again with a truly great cinematographer, and that helps. Gordon Willis being busy elsewhere (he was shooting the insanely gorgeous Manhattan), Pakula secured the talents of Sven Nykvist, one of the very few people who could actually give Willis a run for his money as one of the truly great cinematographers of the 1970s. Admittedly, Nykvist was rarely as good in color (or in comedies) as in black and white - his Bergman films being an exception almost too obvious to mention - but he was still Sven Nykvist, and his particular talents are a perfect match for the dark wood interiors and wintry exteriors that make up the whole of Starting Over. If the film doesn't re-write the rules like Pakula's work with Willis, there's no denying that it's a superb-looking film, and one that plays to both men's visual trademarks well.

And now I'm going to try to bring it all back together: if Alan J. Pakula really is the director who most embodied all the twists and turns and blind alleys of 1970s American filmmaker, than it is only right that he ended the decade much the same way that the industry did as a whole: abandoning psychotically complex, violent dramas for much simpler, much easier human-sized stories notable not for their creativity but for the precision and accuracy of their depiction of human behavior. Like many films made in those early years of the divide between adult movies and blockbusters, Starting Over is essentially conservative in its aesthetic, but well-made; you could as easily use it as the standard-bearer for "little" movies in 1979 as anything else. That's not too much of a compliment - for look where that departure from the mid-decade burst of invention led to, the bleakness of the 1980s - but at any rate, Starting Over is a more-than-fair success, and a fine place for Pakula to end the decade for which he is unquestionably best-known.