Many years ago, I found myself seated next to an elderly woman at a wedding reception. Our table was in the back of the room, and as the evening wore on our tablemates pulled out their chairs, set down their napkins and went about the business of table-hopping. We were, for all intents and purposes, alone.
Across a sea of white-linen table cloths I could see the newlyweds and their twenty-something friends dancing on the modest dance floor. The music was loud and intense—so loud that my friend could have confessed to being an ax murderer, and no would have been the wiser.
Looking straight ahead, this widow of some years reflected on her own marriage, which, she said, had been a mismatch of souls: she, the intellect, he, the tradesman. She wondered aloud what her life would have been like had she married someone else: someone who shared her thirst for knowledge and enjoyed talking about literature, the arts and other cultural endeavors. There was something in her voice—in her eyes and words that told me that this was not the first time such thoughts had traversed her mind, nor would it be the last.
I was reminded of her and others I have known with similar regrets, as I watched Phyllis and Harold, a very personal documentary by writer/director and daughter, Cindy Kleine.
A week or so after watching the film I was still toying with the idea of recommending it to you, my main reservation being that it was not a movie that would appeal to everyone. And yet I was quite sure that just about everyone would find something in it to ponder, if not identify with.
I was still mulling when I read a something written by a woman whose mother, like Kleine’s, had been totally self-absorbed: a mother who pitted her daughter against her father, had her do her dirty work, and shared things better kept to herself. Her words were could have been Cindy Kleine’s words, so similar was her description of her mother to that of Phyllis Kleine. It was then that I came to the conclusion that Kleine’s story wasn’t perhaps as unique as I had thought.
At first glance—even second glance, Phyllis and Harold Kleine appeared to be an average middle-class couple. He was a dentist. She was a homemaker. They were native New Yorkers, and Jewish, but not overtly so. They had two children—daughters Cindy and Ricky, and lived in their suburban Long Island ranch-style home for some fifty years. Phyllis, the Pearl Mesta of her generation, appeared to be a happy –if not ecstatically-so housewife. She certainly looked the part. But looks can be deceiving.
After years of wondering why her mismatched parents not only married, but stayed married for close to sixty-five years, Cindy Kleine decided to find out. Camera in hand, and often without a crew she interviewed her parents separately and together over a period of twelve years. With a daughter’s mindset, and writer/director’s sensibility, she mixed and matched confessions, contemplations, observations, conversations and consternations, molding them into a film that is both unsettling and thought-provoking.
The final product is a compilation of those interviews, punctuated by music of a particular era, some surprisingly beautiful black and white 8 millimeter home movies, and candids culled from her father’s collection of more than 4,000 slides. While most of the footage is of Phyllis and/or Harold, every now and again Cindy and Ricky step in front of the camera to offer their memories, thoughts and observations or move the story along.
That story begins at a college dance in 1939, where, Phyllis recalls, an over-zealous Harold held her so tightly when they danced that she couldn’t breathe. “I think in a sense, that’s the way he’s been ever since-” she says, noting that the tighter he held her, the more she tried to pull away.
So why did she marry him?
“I think it was time for me to get out of the house,” she says. “It’s like playing Musical Chairs. I don’t know if you’ve ever played that game or not, but you walk around in circles and when the music stops, you sit down on a chair because it’s time.” And I think that’s why I got married.”
For Harold’s part, it appears that Phyllis basically filled the bill. “She was beautiful, outgoing, and Jewish” he recalls, adding that his parents would have disowned him had he married outside his faith.
But what of love? When the writer/director discovers a packet of letters written during their courtship, she asks her parents to read a few of them out loud before the camera.
Phyllis, who we later learn was quite the romantic, reads from a letter she wrote to her then fiancé while he was in the army.
“Honestly, getting that letter felt much better than taking off alligator pumps after walking in them all day”, she reads, looking up at the camera, and rolling her eyes. Like Phyllis, Harold can’t believe he they engaged in such folderol. Shaking his head after reading something close to endearing that he had penned, he bewilderingly asks, “Did I really write this shit?”
And so we begin. What follows is a “he said/she said” account of their marriage. So intimate and candid are Phyllis’ recollections that one has to wonder why she would have agreed to have them served up for all to see. And yet, the more we learn about Phyllis, the more we can see how this self-centered woman would have reveled in the thought of being immortalized on film.
Far from June Cleaver or other TV moms of the day, Phyllis Kleine spent the bulk of her girls’ formative years out and about. “Even when she was there, she seemed to be somewhere else” says Ricky, describing a mother who was disinterested and unimpressed with her children.
“People would say, “Look at that cute baby” she recalls, “and she had this standard line; she’d say, “Cute now, but wait until they start to be five or six or seven. Wait until they get to be teenagers. They don’t stay cute for long.”
That apathy appears to have remained intact for the rest of her life. In a telling moment, Cindy reveals that not once in the twelve years she spent interviewing her parents for the film, did her mother mention her children. Not once. And not because she thought to mention them and changed her mind. At least not in my mind. I believe that she did not mention them, because she didn’t think to mention them. And Harold? Harold, it appears was a necessary inconvenience— the price she had to pay for a well-heeled life.
What is most interesting here is that Harold appears to be oblivious to his wife’s feelings. Whether he failed to see or chose to ignore her discontent, is unclear, although it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t aware – at least on some level, that something was wrong. He does say that as they grew older, she became more vocal, criticizing him for everything from the clothes he wore to the time he spent in his easy chair. But when asked about their first years together, Harold recalls, “It was a wonderful time in my life: the golden years,” while Phyllis reveals that she spent those “golden years” in total agony—in love with one man, while married to another.
Over the course of the film we learn more about the back story that dominated her life and that of her daughters, long after the affair was over. “We were like foot soldiers in my mother’s own private war” remembers Cindy. “The weapon: secrets. ‘Don’t tell Daddy. He’ll be mad. He’ll be angry. He’ll punish you. He’ll punish me. He’ll have a heart attack.’”
According to ‘the girls’ the keeping of secrets was easy enough, as ‘daddy’ wasn’t home much, and when he was, he, like Phyllis, wasn’t engaged. He was, they explain, a father who took photographs of his children, rather than with them. Cindy reveals that in searching through that sea of slides, she had trouble finding images of the two girls smiling. Click. Flash. Whurrr. Four thousand photographs of unhappy children, and a wife who wanted to be somewhere else with someone else.
So is Harold the helpless victim in this story? Not if we are to believe Phyllis. For while the Harold we see on-camera appears to be an even-tempered fellow who spends the bulk of his time dozing in his recliner, his wife wants us to know that for most of their married life he was a workaholic who drank too much, grouped too many, and went around angry all the time.
Ozzie and Harriet, not.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. The Harold interviews paint a picture of a man who loved his wife, was proud of his accomplishments, and unaware of his shortcomings. Cindy tells us that his most revealing interview had to be scraped, because the camera failed to record his voice. She fills us in, revealing that during that elusive interview her father eluded to having a few dalliances of his own. No shock there.
Phyllis and Harold is a fascinating look inside a marriage and affair over a period of nearly seven decades. An accompanying commentary track offers further insights into their minds and motives, for it is there that Cindy Kleine and her producer husband Andre Gregory (of My Dinner with Andre fame) deliver an interesting narrative, filling in the gaps, and sharing their thoughts on this not-so-average couple.
Cindy Kleine intentionally waited to release Phyllis and Harold until her father had passed away, so that any secrets—and there were many—would remain secret while he was still alive. As a result, we see how the widow Kleine handled his passing, a mixture of distress, reconciliation and self-abortion. When the funeral director asks Mrs. Kleine what her husband wished to have done with his cremains, she responds, “I’d like half of my ashes to be buried at sea, and the rest to be buried in the family plot”, at which point daughter Cindy steps in to remind her mother that the funeral director was asking about her father's cremains.
As it turned out, Phyllis too would pass away before the film was put to bed, bringing their story both behind and in front of the camera to a natural conclusion.
I don’t know if this modest documentary, which could just have easily been called The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent will answer any questions for anyone whose own life in any way mirrors the Kleine's, but at the very least, it is a fascinating look at one long— if not loving—marriage.