Already rattled from being on the ugly end of a nasty breakup, an early thirty-something New York bohemian named Milton Moses Ginsberg happens to gaze out of his Madison Avenue apartment window — just in time to see his ex-girlfriend and the man she left him to marry standing outside, pointing at his apartment and laughing. The grim timing of the moment triggered in young Milton a crazed psychological implosion — the sort of downward spiral that can only be survived by committing fully to the madness, in hope of eventually coming out the other end. And commit Milton did, packing up his belongings and moving into a new apartment ... in the very same building as the ex and her new beau.
From this encampment he would channel his distress into a parallel cinematic narrative: Coming Apart — a story about a misanthropic psychiatrist who has left his pregnant wife to take up a room in the same apartment building as a former mistress who has sent him into (you guessed it) an agonizing downward spiral.
The demented doc hosts a revolving cast of women in his flat, most in varying states of undress, whom he prods and seduces in a last-ditch attempt to reaffirm his decaying sense of manhood. All the while, he films these liaisons through a hidden camera — the only vantage point from which the film takes place — obscured inside a “kinetic sculpture” of double-sided mirrors. It’s a sort of narcissistic attempt at psychological self-examination. What he captures in the end, of course, is the total collapse of his own ego.
He’s played by the iconoclastic actor and real-life psycho Rip Torn, fresh from shooting Maidstone, another late-60’s avant-oddity which ends in a rabid Torn actually stabbing the leg of the film’s star and director, Norman Mailer. According to Torn, it was an attempt to make the film more interesting. He succeeded.
Ginsberg‘s film, a bummer-inducing bellwether of the end of the 1960’s ethos of free love and feminist idealism, is a sort of agony in its own right. It’s so brilliantly conceived and acted that it becomes just as raw and ugly an experience as the events it portrays. Torn’s visceral meltdown, combined with the constricted mise-en-scene of the movie's peephole vantage, makes for very difficult viewing, yet you can’t fault it for not being effective.
Shortly after its initial release, it had just began to connect with an audience of forward-thinking and adventurous moviegoers when Andrew Sarris famously panned the film in the Village Voice. The audience dried up and the film receded into obscurity. So did Ginsberg, who made one more feature attempt — the even more obscure Watergate horror spoof The Werewolf of Washington — before being stricken with poor health in the mid-70’s, resulting in a 20-year bout with depression and inactivity.
Working today as a freelance editor, he’s since made a handful of fledgling attempts at directing short films, including a loose follow-up to Coming Apart called The City Below The Line. Unavailable on home video until the early Aughts, Coming Apart now challenges a new generation of cineastes, who, upon seeking it out, will encounter an experience just as potent and divisive as it was nearly 45 years ago.