Pith requires no antecedent. Shortness of sentence and completeness of meaning are compatible. Sometimes. But other times, pithy writing and shoestring budgeting hinders a process and matching mood to method becomes a challenge. Curt for curtness’ sake will ensure that story and characterization, plot and meaning, and any semiotics or symbolism are compromised. The ability to tell a concise, simple story is not an antecedent to worthiness nor is it a precursor to credibility. Audiences in the early-modern period of cinema developed an appetite for the Epic and film, especially ones that starred ensemble casts and would run two-and-a-half to four hours. The mid-1950s capitalized on this demand and also pushed length for, presumably, a multitude of reasons (unionized labor, capitalism, nostalgia, et cetera). Notable examples include: The Greatest Show on Earth, Giant, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur. Almost all of these films focus on the tragedy of Human Existence or the Atlasian weight of worldly matters on the human soul. Still other films run around two hours – the amount of time it takes before a human checks how long it has been since time was last checked. Some of these films hold status as simple, yet effective stories and to wit: 12 Angry Men, On the Waterfront, Sunset Boulevard, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
And then, Marty.
At a pithy 90-minutes, Marty builds a simple and titular character and surrounds him with s vibrant story borne from stereotype. Tropes include: overbearing, widowed Italian mothers; husbands and wives quarreling over minutia [but really, not minutia]; the idealistic, unrealistic best friend; the creepy, naïve idiot-friend group; an Italian butcher; and the soul crushing loneliness when Marty Piletti continues to lament in the most honest way that he is a fat and ugly guy who does not deserve love. This last one is a trope, but a dangerous and burning one, often misplaced. All people feel it at some point; most people find a multitude of numbing tropes (like alcohol, womanizing/hooking, cruelty, violence – and sometimes all of them simultaneously), but Marty (Ernest Borgnine) does not. Nor does he sink into a massive depression. Marty is not a story of deep depression and low-brow drama, but a pithy take on the resilience of the human spirt. A simple point-to-point story sheds pretense. The audience likes Marty, not because Marty ‘represents the human spirit’ so well, but rather because Marty is a fictionalized version of the simplicity the audience all seeks. Through minimalism comes clarity – a clarity not found floating in a half-full tumbler.
Marty harnesses a singular vision, and through the narrowest of lenses allows for a brief escape into the life of a man who needs a lucky break, he gets it, and it ends. Nothing is that simple to reduce this man’s entire existence to a ninety-minute film and yet, Marty wins Best Picture nonetheless. Pith requires no antecedent, sure, but it can unravel ex post facto into a lifelong quest to understand age, experience, love, loss – name it. Marty is not a singularity, but rather a piece of singular fiction that has evolved, 60 years later into a precursor to a lyric: “Being this age always seemed so far away,” that resonates, deeply and with the simplicity of a man named Marty who could not yet bear to be 35 years old.
Marty defeated four films in a relatively weak year (which helped it considerably): Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic, and The Rose Tattoo. Released a year earlier or later, Marty probably falls into the annals of could-have-been, much like the man himself. Simple, indeed, but certainly lucky, too.