Get with the Times: Philip Kaufman’s “The Wanderers”

Posted by Max Nelson on 7.16.2012

"We try, with varying degrees of success, to create and explore a world of beauty, mystery, sensuality—a world with its own rules, its own inhabitants. Characters, players, artists, clowns, jokers, and sometimes monsters—a world of fun. Fun while it lasted. Eventually each of these films had to bite the apple, to get released into that painful world where they journeyed through pain and suffering, often misunderstood, sometimes maligned. Yet when I look back over these films, they are now all suffused with a warm, golden glow of memory, green thoughts in a green shade." —Philip Kaufman, as quoted by Annette Insdorf at the end of her new book on the director, recently published by the University of Illinois Press' "Contemporary Film Directors" series

Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers is a sprawling film about a small world: a handful of high school friends in the gang-ravaged Bronx of the early sixties. They have their own codes and customs, rites and escapes. In their innocent recklessness, their unfocused aspirations, these kids—along with the private community they’ve built for themselves—end up looking like an uncanny reflection of their era. But Kaufman never turns them into case studies: he’s content to linger over down time and dead ends, ramble along with The Wanderers through school days and parties and the occasional gangland confrontation, and enter their world on their own terms.

Insdorf calls Kaufman a consummate adapter: "Richard Price's autobiographical novel about the Bronx in 1962 posed quite a cinematic challenge," she proposes. "The reviews likened his explosive first book to popular films: Rolling Stone called it 'the flip side of American Graffiti,' and The Los Angeles Free Press termed it 'a kind of teenage Godfather.' But Price's interlocking structures, pungent prose and internal monologues were hardly conducive to movie storytelling. Kaufman and his wife Rose transformed it into a rich screenplay that allowed for the expressive visual and aural detail that Kaufman always brings to his films."

Here as in so many other great idle-adolescence movies, the peculiarities of a single subculture become hopelessly entangled with its members’ youth, or at least with their image of youth. The Wanderers’ breakup takes on the import of a rite of passage, and one greaser’s final words to another—"wanderers forever"that of a call to remember.

What separates Kaufman’s film from a crowded pack of end-of-an-era high school films is its utter lack of sentiment, its willingness to earn nostalgia rather than take it as a given. For the world of The Wanderers, and The Wanderers, doesn’t always look like a "world of fun"—it’s marked by betrayals, beatings, full-blown racial animosity, alcoholic mothers and brutish dads, infidelity, unplanned pregnancy and, of course, the ever-present threat of gang warfare. If Kaufman is to celebrate this world and pine for its return, he has to justify himself.

He does. And he finds justification in precisely those circumstances that most resist our nostalgia and our praise—in the structure of gang life itself, in music born out of savagery, in victory won through violence rather than over it. In The Wanderers Kaufman found a group of kids who needed friendship, not just to flourish but to survive. In the rock music of the late fifties he found all the defiance and anxiety of gang life, transformed into the stuff of poetry or myth. Disown the harsh circumstances that these kids inhabit, Kaufman suggests, and you risk disposing, too, of everything that made their youth so unmistakably rich.

Moreover, you risk blinding yourself to the climate and texture of their era. Kaufman might not have been the first filmmaker to equate the passing of youth with the passing of an age, but few have explored with greater eloquence the difficulty of separating personal memory from its cultural double. By the end of the film, The Wanderers may no longer exist, but neither does the world beyond their own, the world that conceived and shaped them. If Kaufman’s nostalgia is at all bitter, it’s thanks to the totality of his loss. It’s because his heroes yearn not only for a girl, or a subculture, but for an age. Not that it’s so easy to distinguish between the two: in one of the film’s most affecting scenes, [spoiler alert] soon-to-be-married Richie follows the woman he secretly desires into a bar, where she watches a young folkie sing, in a very familiar warble of a voice, "the times they are a-changin’…"

Richie lingers by the window for a second, then trudges back to the bar where friends, family and assorted mob bosses are celebrating his engagement, to the strains of doo-wop hit "The Wanderer." Maybe that's what's so sad about the final moments of The Wanderers: that Richie and his fellow Wanderers might remain trapped in their own age, immune to the times a-changin', resigned to forever linger over the songs and dress and parlance of their youth. Maybe the tragedy is not that they might move on from the gang that once gave them comfort and community and hope, but that they might never leave, might actually become wanderers forever.

The Director’s Cut of The Wanderers screens Monday, July 16 at 6:00pm. Acclaimed critic and scholar Annette Insdorf, author of seminal texts on Kieslowski and Truffaut, will be on hand to discuss her new career-spanning study of Kaufman’s work. The screening will be followed by a book signing and reception.

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