Sunday, March 31, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: The King of Comedy

The Story: The screenplay of The King of Comedy does not contain this scene. Paul D. Zimmerman, the film critic for Newsweek at the time, didn't write it, but he suggests it in other scenes. Director Martin Scorsese imagined Rupert Pupkin, the wanna-be "new King of Comedy," living in his mother's basement, surrounded by his obsessions with fame, talk-shows and talk-host Jerry Langford, not unlike the spartan apartment of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

And, like the "you talkin' to me" scene from Taxi Driver, this one is similarly ad-libbed by DeNiro with just a suggestion of what to do. But instead of performing for himself in a self-reflexive mirror, Pupkin throws it out there to an imagined audience—his audience—usurped from Jerry Langford, replacing Langford in their affections, the idol felled by the fan in his own mania.

And what's interesting is it's the same pattern as the Taxi Driver scene (but interrupted by real life—Pupkin's Mom, voiced by Scorsese's mother, yells to him to get to work), sentence fragments of conversation that build to an explosion of laughter. Pupkin is center-of-attention, master of ceremonies, and his own applause sign as every good, manipulative talk-show host is, solicitous and attentive until "we'll be right back..." The art of artifice, artificially duplicated and filmed.

Forget what I said about it not being self-reflexive.

The Set-Up: Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), stand-up sensation—but temporarily, a delivery boy for now until "the Big Break" comes—is having difficulty re-acquiring the ear of talk-host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), encountering at every turn a phalanx of short-sighted go-between's. After another frustrating day in the waiting area, Rupert returns home to the people he loves (and who love him).

Hey! Good seeing ya! Action!



Rupert Pupkin: I'll tell you, boy.
Rupert: Hiya, Liza. Good seeing you.
Rupert: Jerrold. Good seeing you. Jerry.
Rupert: Don't get up.
Rupert: Ahh, boy, I'll tell ya...
Rupert: ...every time you come back from a tour...I don't know what it is—but, there must be something in the air, or...
Rupert: The tour, it really becomes you.
Rupert: It's like you become rejuvenated. I don't know what it is.
Rupert: Isn't that so, everybody?
Rupert: Isn't that so? Hey, hey, there. I tell ya...
Rupert: It's amazing. It's amazing. You look wonderful.
Rupert: And...Yeah, I know. You look wonderful, too, Jerry.
Rupert: I wasn't leaving you out.
Rupert: Ri..? Yeah!
Rupert: Ha ha ha ha!
Rupert: Ah-ha ha ha ha ha!
Rupert: Ha ha ha ha ha!
Rupert: ha ha ha ha ha!
Rupert: ha ha ha ha ha!
Rupert: ha ha ha ha ha!
Rupert: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Rupert: Oh, Jerry! I love this guy!
Rupert: Always coming up with these great lines. I love'm. I love'm.
Rupert: You're wonderful. Yer wonderful.
Rupert: I tell ya, I don't know what I'd do without you. Anyway...
Rupert's Mom: Rupert! The bus is here! It's early! Try to be on time for once!
Rupert: I can't believe this.(laughs)
Rupert: I got to go. (heh) I got to catch a bus.
Rupert: Jerry. Take care of yourself.
Rupert: Baby, be good.
Rupert: Good luck in Rio.


The King of Comedy

Words by Paul D. Zimmerman and Robert De Niro

Pictures by Fred Schuler and Martin Scorsese

The King of Comedy is available on DVD from Fox Home Video.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Men Don't Leave

Men Don't Leave (Paul Brickman, 1990) More significant than what a film-maker produces after they win "Best Picture" is what they create after they've had enormous box-office success. Men Don't Leave is the film Paul Brickman made after the mega-successful Risky Business, which made a star of Tom Cruise. An Americanized version of La vie continue, written by Hollywood insider Barbara Benedek, it tells the story of the Macauley family (Jessica Lange, Chris O'Donnell, Charlie Korsmo), set adrift after the sudden death of the father, leaving them with debts and an unfinished house.

They pull up stakes and move from their idyllic (though incomplete) home in the woods to urban Baltimore, where the three must cope as best they can with their grief and their circumstances, grief not only for the father, around whom the family seemed to revolve, but also for the life that his death, scatters to the four (or, I should say the three) winds. 

The family fractures in their three different attempts to create a new life that resembles the old. Beth (Lange) takes on the father's all-controlling mode and goes to work at a bakery with a monster-boss (Kathy Bates, right on the cusp of stardom in a tough, unsentimental role), son Chris (O'Donnell) tries to be the man of the house but is pulled away, beginning a relationship with an older nurse, Jody (Joan Cusack), and young Matt (Korsmo, showing what a natural, affecting actor he could be in the first role of his short career) takes to stealing VCR's to buy lottery tickets in an scheme to win enough money to try and buy the family's house back.
As a film, it is a complete turn-around from Risky Business, which was cold, cynical, and shot with a clinical eye for composition. Men Don't Leave, is warmer, more desperate, and feels more real despite some contrivances in plot—I'm not sure a hot air balloon ride could snap one out of a "stuck-in-bed" depression, but having taken one, I know that it couldn't hurt, putting into reality a perspective change that's cathartic. Brickman still manages to produce arresting images that grab your attention and produce an odd counter-point to the comedy. The film also benefits from a quirky, textured Thomas Newman score. I suppose what I like most about it is the view that catastrophes come and catastrophes go, but life—not the same life, but a life—does goes on and, however you approach it, standing still or expecting the world to change your circumstances for you is futile.
And the performances are spot on—sometimes frustrating, sometimes inexplicable—make the characters human beings and not a collection of personality ticks. My memories of the one time I saw it are vivid (it didn't last long in theaters and only was released to DVD in late 2009 through Warner Brothers Archives site), so it's on a short list of films I want to re-view to see if my first impressions have held up over time, or if the film merely touched my individual buttons. Jessica Lange says that more people talk to her about Men Don't Leave than any of her other films, so I suspect it's the former.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Us

You, Me, Us...and Especially "Them"
or
Defending Yourself Against Your Evil Twin

Jeremiah 11:11--Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’

"It's not about 'race,' is it?" asked the friend who knew I'd seen Us. "Could be," I said. "But, probably not," I repeated. And then I started to laugh. 

And that's about the best response I can give to that question. All of it. Even the laugh.

Because if you're saying it's just about race relations in America, you're giving short-shrift to Jordan Peele, its writer/producer/director, for Us is a different experience than his first film, the crowd-pleasing Get Out; its reach is far greater, is not so "on the nose" as his previous film, and may leave a great deal of the audience wondering what in the heck he is doing with this one and, as a result, may find it frustrating, obtuse, and stretching credulity more than a bit.
I had the same experience. For instance, after its enigmatic opening (set in 1986) that starts with a teasing set-up with text, a couple of commercials from the era broadcast on television, and a visit by young Adelaide Thomas (at this point, she's played by Madison Curry), to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk with her dysfunctional parents and a totally ignored candy apple and an unsupervised visit to a hall of mirrors (where something shocking happens), we get the Main Title sequence that starts on a caged white rabbit* and slowly, ever so slowly, moves out to show more white rabbits...and just when you start thinking "where are brown bunnies?" well, there's a brown bunny. And I started thinking "Am I trying to make this about race?" Yes, I probably was. So, I turned off my critic-mind, looking for "meaning" and watched the movie.

Which is scary.
Adelaide Thomas is now Adelaide Wilson (and played by Lupita Nyong'o) and she and her family—husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and odd little brother Jason (Evan Alex), who always wears a monster mask, are on their way to visit the old Thomas family home in Santa Cruz. That Santa Cruz, where she had the unfortunate incident on the Boardwalk that gave her PTSD and that she has risen above. It's a normal family, Dad is relaxed and the butt of family jokes and rolling eyes, but he's amiable.
Adelaide is tentative about the trip, but not tentative about being with her family. Her experience at the Boardwalk has left a lifelong impression and she's anxious about it. Gabe couldn't be more excited, They're going to meet up with their friends, the upwardly mobile Tylers (Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their twin daughters, and he has plans to buy himself a boat—which Adelaide and the kids think is just nuts, but he's excited at the prospect of his new toy..
The Wilsons' trip to the Boardwalk, despite Adelaide's misgivings comes off with only one hitch—Jason goes missing on the beach. He just went to the Port-a-Potty for a moment. But when everyone realizes he's missing, Adelaide flies into a panic, finally finding him, standing transfixed at a homeless man on the beach, hands outstretched, holding a pair of scissors, blood dripping from his fingertips. This is enough for the shaken Adelaide to stop from going over to the Tyler's place apr├Ęs-beach.
Better to spend a quiet evening at home. Man plans. God...well, God has nothing to do with it (if you read your bible*).
That night, everybody's settling down about 11:11 pm, when four figures appear at the top of their driveway, blocking it. Gabe goes out to investigate, first being all-reasonable, but there's no response from up the drive. So, he escalates, going out with a baseball and a threat ("Y'all wanna get crazy? We gonna get crazy!").
It's at that point, that the group starts to move, splintering off in different directions and Gabe, wisely, sprints back inside the house. But, that doesn't prevent the strongest of the four from breaking the lock on the door and injuring Gabe's leg with the very bat he was using to defend himself.
The four figures enter the house and confront the Wilson's; they're malignant versions of each of them, dressed in red jumpsuits, communicating in animal grunts and holding a pair of ornate golden scissors. The Wilson's are scared, but incredulous at their malevolent twins. Adelaide asks her counter-part "Who are you?" Her wide-eyed doppelganger answers with the film's most chilling line: "We...are...Americans."

They are "The Tethered," duplicates who have been created, who live underground (in tunnels, access-ways, mines, and other "purposeless" channels—as mentioned in the opening text). The Tethered live parallel lives with their above-ground counterparts, but opposite to them in conditions; where they've lived above-ground in the sunlight, eating hot food, The Tethered have never seen the Sun, consuming cold food (them rabbits), cold and raw. While the Sun-dwellers live in luxury, The Tethered live in misery. The Tethered have no souls, and as the actions of the ones above affect their fates, they have decided to come to the surface and...sever ties.
Each of the family-members is pursued, dragged, paired off with their counter-parts to do them in, but each of the family-members get the better of their twins and eventually find out that they're not an isolated case—the whole country is under attack from this soulless army and the Wilson's make a plan to head to Mexico to avoid the destruction.
But...it's a horror movie, kids, and nothing is ever that easy in a horror movie.
Peele has set up a conceit that probably requires too much explanation and back-story, but it's a fascinating little metaphor for the struggles of class and of people confronting their worst selves and doing battle with—or being over come by—"it." It's a perfect little metaphor, but it's just a tough little conceit to swallow when it has so many unanswered questions of the "who, what, where, why" variety. But, especially "why." Why do this? Why create such a class of people and to what ends? The questions go unresolved because—really, does it matter? Do we really care why The Birds go crazy in Hitchcock's film? It's sure to be a let-down, not living up to the thrills depicted on-screen. The situation is what it is for the surface-dwellers and any delay or questioning of it is a momentum-killer and might cause anyone in the film to get scissored in the neck. You just keep fighting, Wilsons. We'll hold all questions until your're done.
Except, of course, for the final twist at the end which will change everything you think about the movie.
Except for one certainty: Lupita Nyong'o is one hell of an actress. After her startling performance (and Oscar win) for 12 Years a Slave, she has been sadly under-utilized, playing Black Panther's girl-friend (ferchrissakes) and (worse!) a motion-captured wizened alien in the new Star Wars Trilogy. Us, however, has her in full-force, playing two roles: one, the brave warrior, the momma-tiger, and the other, the evil step-sister who's the theatrical villain of the piece. Not only is she playing against type, she's playing it against herself—and neither role is given short-shrift. Jesus, I hope people remember this performance come awards time—the whole movie should be marked "Submitted For Your Approval."
It's the corner-stone of a clever little piece of cautionary fable about how the scariest thing you might find is in the mirror, and conquering it.

Or...do you?
Nyong'o a Nyong'o: "We have met the enemy and they is us."
*
10:1 Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:

2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

6 Forasmuch as there is none like unto thee, O Lord; thou art great, and thy name is great in might.

7 Who would not fear thee, O King of nations? for to thee doth it appertain: forasmuch as among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their kingdoms, there is none like unto thee.

8 But they are altogether brutish and foolish: the stock is a doctrine of vanities.

9 Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder: blue and purple is their clothing: they are all the work of cunning men.

10 But the Lord is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation.

11 Thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens.

12 He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion.

13 When he uttereth his voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens, and he causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; he maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasures.

14 Every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them.

15 They are vanity, and the work of errors: in the time of their visitation they shall perish.

16 The portion of Jacob is not like them: for he is the former of all things; and Israel is the rod of his inheritance: The Lord of hosts is his name.

17 Gather up thy wares out of the land, O inhabitant of the fortress.

18 For thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will sling out the inhabitants of the land at this once, and will distress them, that they may find it so.

19 Woe is me for my hurt! my wound is grievous; but I said, Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it.

20 My tabernacle is spoiled, and all my cords are broken: my children are gone forth of me, and they are not: there is none to stretch forth my tent any more, and to set up my curtains.

21 For the pastors are become brutish, and have not sought the Lord: therefore they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered.

22 Behold, the noise of the bruit is come, and a great commotion out of the north country, to make the cities of Judah desolate, and a den of dragons.

23 O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.

24 O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing.

25 Pour out thy fury upon the heathen that know thee not, and upon the families that call not on thy name: for they have eaten up Jacob, and devoured him, and consumed him, and have made his habitation desolate.

11:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord saying,

2 Hear ye the words of this covenant, and speak unto the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem;

3 And say thou unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel; Cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant,

4 Which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Obey my voice, and do them, according to all which I command you: so shall ye be my people, and I will be your God:

5 That I may perform the oath which I have sworn unto your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as it is this day. Then answered I, and said, So be it, O Lord.

6 Then the Lord said unto me, Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, saying, Hear ye the words of this covenant, and do them.

7 For I earnestly protested unto your fathers in the day that I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice.

8 Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the imagination of their evil heart: therefore I will bring upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do: but they did them not.

9 And the Lord said unto me, A conspiracy is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

10 They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, which refused to hear my words; and they went after other gods to serve them: the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers.

11 Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

12 Then shall the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem go, and cry unto the gods unto whom they offer incense: but they shall not save them at all in the time of their trouble.

13 For according to the number of thy cities were thy gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense unto Baal.

14 Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up a cry or prayer for them: for I will not hear them in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble.

15 What hath my beloved to do in mine house, seeing she hath wrought lewdness with many, and the holy flesh is passed from thee? when thou doest evil, then thou rejoicest.

16 The Lord called thy name, A green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken.

17 For the Lord of hosts, that planted thee, hath pronounced evil against thee, for the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done against themselves to provoke me to anger in offering incense unto Baal.

18 And the Lord hath given me knowledge of it, and I know it: then thou shewedst me their doings.

19 But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered.

20 But, O Lord of hosts, that judgest righteously, that triest the reins and the heart, let me see thy vengeance on them: for unto thee have I revealed my cause.

21 Therefore thus saith the Lord of the men of Anathoth, that seek thy life, saying, Prophesy not in the name of the Lord, that thou die not by our hand:

22 Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, Behold, I will punish them: the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine:


23 And there shall be no remnant of them: for I will bring evil upon the men of Anathoth, even the year of their visitation.

* Peele has said in interviews that he also thinks rabbits are scary. Cute, sure. Ciddly, okay. But, they creep him out. And that sense of instinctual unease, and his ability to use it, is one of his unique gifts as a film-maker.