Something Wild
d. Jack Garfein (1961)
The Criterion Collection

Early in Something Wild, Mrs. Gates (Mildred Dunnock) is telling her daughter to be careful outside, the neighborhood is going to pot: “Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen to this neighborhood,” she says. “Honestly, you can’t even go out on the streets alone at night.” Her daughter, Mary Ann (Carroll Baker), who, unbeknownst to her mother, was raped the night before on her way home belligerently scowls: “Why? What could happen?” No spoiler here, but at the end of the film the question comes back. Mrs. Gates simply says, “What has happened? What has happened?” Mary Ann’s simple reply: “What’s happened has happened, Mother.” Viewers may have the same question as Mrs. Gates as Garfein’s beautifully ambiguous film comes to a close. We know the chronology that got us from A to B to C, but we cannot help but ask the same question Mrs. Gates asks. The tantalizing but inconclusive answer is in the title: Something Wild. Garfein’s long underseen film is finally getting its due today in a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection.

I had not seen or even heard of Jack Garfein’s Something Wild before Criterion announced its release. I think my experience will apply to many viewers since the film was essentially dropped from circulation shortly after its initial, disappointing theatrical run. A screening would pop up here and there, but for the most part the film has not been seen in decades. It’s a shame, since the film is a masterpiece of claustrophobia and ambiguity, but thankfully we can all watch it whenever we want now. I think most viewers will be as shocked and pleasantly surprised as I was.

And the film shocks from the first scene. Mary Ann is walking home, and Aaron Copland’s beautiful score suggests innocence and contentment. This could easily be any girl on an early 1960s television show, skipping home without a care in the world. It’s startling, then, when an assailant pulls her in to the bushes, and it’s horrific that Garfein doesn’t cut the scene right there. Instead, we see rocks jabbing into Mary Ann’s skin as she’s raped.

The next fifteen minutes of the film is a quiet glimpse at post-trauma. Mary Ann goes home, cuts up and destroys her clothing, tries to wash off in the tub, and curls up knowing that nothing will be the same ever again. She doesn’t tell anyone.

The next morning her mother comes and talks about how terrible the neighborhood is getting, leading Mary Ann to cut, “What could happen?”

The film’s surprising twists and turns don’t end here, though. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that soon Mary Ann abandons her school and family and moves from the Bronx to the lower east side of Manhattan, trying to find some kind of life in those cramped spaces where no one knows her and she can drift into oblivion when she gets home.

That move doesn’t help, though. She cannot relate to anyone, and soon the waters under the Manhattan Bridge look more inviting than any other path before her. Before she can jump, though, a man jumps from the background and grabs her. This is Ralph Meeker’s Mike, a working man who does his best in the immediate aftermath of Mary Ann’s suicide attempt to help her get some food and rest, inviting her to sleep in his basement room while he goes to work.

His attention, though, his care soon becomes another terror in Mary Ann’s life. The film is just about to its halfway point, and he won’t let Mary Ann go, leading to more surprises.

What is all of this? Why, as a storyteller, put Mary Ann through all of this. What is the message? What is the point? What has happened? Garfein offers no pat answers. Does it all makes sense? Not rationally. But does it nevertheless happen in this irrational world and, consequently, make sense on some other level? Yes.

Sadly, after its initial failure, Garfein never directed another film. Our loss. But we do have this film, available all over now, and Something Wild is a treasure.

The Criterion Collection Edition: While I didn’t get into it in the review above, Jack Garfein is one of the earliest members of The Actor Studio where many actors famous for “method” acting started their careers. Something Wild brings many of them together and is a supreme example of this particular theory of acting. The Criterion supplements cover this aspect in great detail.

  • Jack Garfein: Something Wild in the City: This is one of my favorite supplements of the last several years. Here we have film critic Kim Morgan interviewing Jack Garfein, now 86, for 26:47 minutes. Morgan begins by simply asking what made him want to be a director, and Garfein explains how he lost his entire family in the Holocaust and was himself 15 years old and only 48 pounds when he was released from a concentration camp. He couldn’t walk. He wanted to be an actor so he could deal with the feelings he’d been through without it hurting so much. Garfein has a poetic sensibility, and hearing him talk about this film, in particular how its story has mattered in his own personal life with all of its inexplicable horrors, is fascinating.
  • Carroll Baker: From the Actors Studio to the Carpetbaggers: This is a 15:01-minute illustrated interview with Baker talking about how she began her career and fortuitously ended up at the Actors Studio. This is a conventional “how I got there” interview. While not nearly as deep as Garfein’s interview above, it’s an excellent story and the supplement is strengthened by the many photos and ephemera that helps take us through Baker’s career. She spends a bit of time on Something Wild, which she and Garfein (husband and wife at the time) worked hard to pay for, and I loved seeing the pictures of the production.
  • Behind the Method: In this 20:56 supplement, historian and super-fan of The Actor Studio Foster Hirsch, author of A Method to Their Madness, walks us through the history of method acting, from Stanislavski’s work in turn of the century Moscow, to The Actor Studio, which began in New York City in 1947 and from which Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean erupted. Garfein and Baker were part of The Actor Studio almost from the start. Hirsch has been a champion for Something Wild for years (he attended the initial run in 1961), and he considers it one of the best films to come from The Actors Studio. It’s a nice supplement, though not much here will be new to folks who have even a light knowledge of the Actor Studio and method acting until Hirsch starts to look at Something Wild as a particular example. Fortunately, that segment takes up almost half of the running time. He highlights Baker’s performance in particular, calling it a “pure method performance, that is what is worked for at the studio.” He proceeds to analyze some of her scenes.
  • Master Class with Jack Garfein: With all of the talk of The Actor Studio, and of Garfein’s skills at teaching actors, it’s fitting that Criterion ends this disc with a 38:19-minute look at one of Garfein’s classes. This footage was taken over two days at the studio in 2014. It starts with Garfein looking at the role and figuring out who is absent. Someone actually is, and this gives Garfein a chance to teach about the importance, for an actor’s craft, of being on time! This pulled me right in because, as in his interview with Kim Morgan above, Garfein is so articulate and so capable of finding depth in the most unlikely of places. His knowledge, his passion, his poetry, he’s definitely the best part of these supplements, and getting to know him a bit better has made me appreciate Something Wild even more.
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