Tuesday, July 26, 2011

One favorite Amy Winehouse video… well, two

So much has been written in the last few days about Amy Winehouse’s premature but sadly unsurprising death at 27 that I can’t add anything new, except to note again, as I did in my Peter Falk entry, how downright jackal-like and ugly the tabloid press is when it comes to troubled celebs. (Of course, as disgusting as TMZ is, the British press has been expert for decades in digging up unnecessary dirt.)

The singing that is heavily vaunted these days in the American mainstream (where soulless pap reigns supreme) is the pitch-perfect kind of emotionless swill that wins on American Idol and fills Vegas arenas (Celine Dion). Winehouse, on the other hand (and her un-addicted — as far as we know — countrywomen Adele and Joss Stone), was definitely connected to the great soul and jazz vocalists who gave emotional performances of songs, rather than technically perfect renditions of them.

Her addictions clearly linked her to Billie and Janis, but she had much more money at her disposal than either of those songbirds ever had (thus the sheer volume of drugs she was taking). She was also covered by the press in a nonstop fashion; Holliday and Joplin never had paparazzi camping outside their houses. Thus, her disease was in the public view for as long as she had it — and, of course, the song that “broke” her in America was perhaps the anthem of contemporary addiction (“Rehab”).

You can find an enormous amount of detail about Amy on the Web (too much in fact — and, yes, a few of the commentaries since her death have been extremely mean). I’ll just direct you to two of my favorite clips of her in performance.

The first is a beautiful version of the evergreen “Teach Me Tonight” done for the Jools Holland show (where she also performed “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”):

And the second is a live performance at the Mercury Prize ceremony in 2007 of one of her own songs, one that she seemed to always perform with a great deal of emotion — the final complete concert she performed in Belgrade (which is available on YT, but I’m not going to link to it) contained a sad and uncomfortable version of the tune. Here she’s in fine shape and excellent voice (again, I don’t give a shit about pitch-perfection, it’s the emotion in the delivery) singing “Love is a Losing Game” (an alternate great live version is here):

Sunday, July 24, 2011

British humor 7: Bill Bailey

When I last wrote about the British musical comedian Bill Bailey on this blog, it was in the context of my discovery of a whole raft of brilliant English (and Irish) comics. At that time, there was very little of Bailey’s best work available on YouTube. But in the past few months the floodgates have opened, thanks to the appearance of an official Bailey channel. In honor of that fact, and also to salute the fact that Bill will be venturing back to these shores to play NYC (at the NYU Skirball Center, Sept. 14-17) with his show Dandelion Mind, I hereby offer this “update” of my tribute to him.

First, a little context for those in the U.S. who haven’t yet heard of the gent: Bailey is an expert musician who mixes music and absurdist observations — that’s the nearest I can come to putting a label on the kind of surreal verbal comedy he’s best known for. His act is, of course, better seen than described, but I will note that the best point of comparison for U.S. viewers is mid-period George Carlin, when George was doing an odd, trippy variant of standard observational humor. Add in the musical component, and you’ve got a very unique act indeed.

There are some rare clips of Bill before his act was honed here (check out those outfits!) and here. The single best quick intro to Bailey’s style is a clip from the special “We Are Most Amused,” where he’s introduced by some guy who looks very familiar:

Bailey has done quite a bit on British TV, but the first blossoming was probably his series Is It Bill Bailey? (1998). The show is not available on DVD over there, which is odd, since it not only is fondly remembered, but was directed by Edgar Wright and costarred Simon Pegg. The whole series is available on YT here, but here’s a sample of the sketch humor found in the show:

Bailey does not tell conventional jokes. Well, he does tell them, but a bit… differently. Here’s one of his many original takes on the old “three guys walk into a bar…” gag, from his Bewilderness (2001) performance DVD:

Bailey is a brilliant fellow and is unashamed to move his act into “higher” areas of speculation, while still keeping the tone extremely light. Here is his routine on Hawking’s Brief History of Time, where we get Bill’s take on the same notions that Carlin tackled in the link above:

Of all his DVDs, perhaps the best set of material is Part Troll (2003). He hits all the marks in that show, including more surreal flights of imagination…

musical absurdity…

and joyful musical parody (with Kevin Eldon, who does appear to be a through-line in all of the best recent-vintage British TV comedy):

Bill has done quite a lot of British TV, most notably the popular gameshow Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Here’s a talk show appearance, where he introduced host Jonathan Ross to the wonders of the theremin:

Perhaps Bailey’s most successful TV role was as accountant sidekick Manny in the Dylan Moran/Graham Linehan series Black Books (2000-2004). I have absolutely no idea why we have never seen this series in the U.S., since The IT Crowd crowd has proven to be such a success, and at its best Black Books is delightful. Here is our intro to Bailey’s initially uptight character:

Bill’s best work, though, is done on the stage. Here is a routine about the creation of the universe and Satan from his performance DVD Tinselworm (2008):

One of Bailey’s specialties are unconventional reworkings of old musical numbers. Here he adds an Indian flavor to “Dueling Banjos”:

His most ambitious undertaking to date in terms of live performance has been his Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra (2009). Here his rumination on the bassoon and its relation to Seventies pop:

A most recent creation, his ode to the intricacies of romance via Twitter:

Finally his Web-only videos, made from his “bunker” where he is planning to avoid the upcoming 2012 apocalypse. A few thoughts on the Mayans:

And the Bailey clip that has been ringing in my head in the last few days (in a good way): his discussion of the “devil’s chord” in heavy metal music and his brilliant take on a Metallica anthem. Spike Jones lives!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Surely, Dennis Potter would be smiling….

As I’ve been watching the developments in the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal grow in severity — from “merely” hacking the phones of celebs to those of politicians and murder victims — and have seen Rupert and his son James be called on the carpet by Parliament, I’ve been thinking a lot about Dennis Potter.

Now surely this “unraveling” won’t really harm Murdoch financially, since capitalist moguls are made of Teflon and never truly suffer for the crimes that were committed in their name. Yes, his responsibilities as the head of a dynasty of uncommonly sleazy “journalistic” enterprises is finally coming into question, but no doubt News Corp will continue on, with the old man perhaps retiring and putting one of his kids in charge. If the shit really hits the fan, an outsider (read: someone not named Murdoch) will take over and the sleaze will continue. The same business under a new name.

However, for the time being we can indeed take some small comfort in the fact that what everyone pretty much suspected is true: that Murdoch can, without blinking, simultaneously state that he is a “hands-on” mogul, and yet he knows nothing about the illegal activities carried on at the newspapers he so prizes.

There have been several media commentators who have spoken about the nature of Murdoch as both an omnivorous acquirer and despoiler of media, including Bill Moyers. However, I want to point you to the words of the exceptionally talented writer of brilliant teleplays, Mr. Dennis Potter.

Potter was the best British television writer ever and was certainly one of the world’s best as well. His creations were emotional, cerebral, and trailblazing — just look at how many people, including talents like Alain Resnais and Woody Allen, have made use of the “fantasy musical” construct that Potter pioneered in Pennies From Heaven.

When you reflect upon the contributions of the two men, perhaps the only entertaining thing that Murdoch has been involved with was the fashioning of the catchiest and sleaziest headlines ever (as with The New York Post’s memorable “Headlesss Man in Topless Bar”). He wasn't creatively involved with this at all, though — he was just the "wallet" behind the news.

What Potter created, on the other hand, are some of the finest television programs EVER. Full stop, no arguing about it. His work has a resonance for me and the millions of others who’ve seen it because he reflected upon both the darkest and the most hopeful parts of the mind and heart. This can be seen to best advantage in this scene from Pennies From Heaven, in which he uses for the first time the song that became a kind of signature piece for his “memory” plays, “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By.” Potter’s gift lives on long after his departure:

And yes, he despised Murdoch, and here is the clip I’ve been thinking about all week:

The gent who put this up at the Handwritten Theatre blogspot, notes that Dennis left us in 1994, and Murdoch is still prospering. But whose name will live on longer? I don’t think I even need to answer that. Just watch the plays.

“The song is over, but the melody lingers on.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

"This Old Man": Deceased Artiste Peter Falk

It is an extremely trite cliché that a TV star can “feel like one of the family” to members of the viewing public. If the expression has to be used at all, it might as well be used for Peter Falk, the inimitable Lieutenant Columbo, who died a few weeks back at 83. Falk was both a larger-than-life TV personality and an extremely talented movie and theater actor who did indeed occupy a sort of imaginary space in my growing up, as both my mother and father really loved his work (like Nicholson, Falk was the kind of a performer who was enjoyed equally by both men and women). As I became a diehard movie buff I discovered the depth of his work, and his ability to both “play large” and give the most nuanced and moving performances.

Columbo is, of course, the linchpin of devotion to Falk. The incredibly touching outpouring of affection for the gent across the Internet is pretty daunting: not only is he considered a kind of “member of the family” by most Americans over a certain age, he was genuinely loved the world over, as the Columbo TV movies were dubbed and shown throughout Europe and Asia (Falk also maintained that he was recognized on the streets of an African town when he went there to shoot a film).

The Columbo concept was indeed “something new under the sun” in the mystery world (the formula had no doubt been used before, but never so deftly and so often): a thriller wherein we the audience know from the very beginning who the murderer is, and the only true mystery is how will the police entrap him/her.

In the meantime nearly every one of the telefilms (minus a few of the final ones and two directed in the Seventies by Patrick McGoohan, who crafted a grimmer view of the character) offered a beautifully nuanced comic portrayal by Falk as Columbo: the shambling walk, the rumpled raincoat, the cigar, the dilapidated car, the dog named “Dog,” and of course that brilliant way of luring in the overstuffed pompous murder suspects and then lowering the boom with a simple, “…just one more thing…” The Columbo movies were TV at it best, with a comfortable, familiar lead character, exemplary writing, excellent (and, yes, often hammy) acting, and a plotline that could indeed be tied up in 90 minutes of TV time (minus commercials).

My mother adored the show from its first appearance in ’71 as part of the NBC Mystery Movie and became a diehard fan over the years, watching and rewatching the episodes, and contributing to a fan newsletter that covered everything related to both the series and Falk’s career.

The movies were indeed ideal family TV viewing: not as sickly sweet as a children’s movie (there was a cold-blooded murder taking place — right at the beginning!), not as simple-minded as a sitcom, not as tied up in scientific and legal procedure as today’s TV cop dramas. The running joke in places like Mad was that no court could convict one of Columbo’s murderers, because he built his cases against them on flimsy, circumstantial evidence — thus, the Thin Man-style outbursts or open admissions from the killers that they were indeed the culprit.

Watching the show as a kid was as invigorating as one’s first exposure to Conan Doyle: a steady accumulation of detail and character quirks, and a detective who was putting the pieces together quite handily as the program moved on. The Columbo movies have their wonderfully dated Seventies and Nineties hallmarks (hairstyles, wardrobe, plot twists involving “new” technologies like cellphones), but the storylines and, most importantly, the character of Columbo make for timeless TV. I’m happy to have experienced watching and discussing so many of the shows with my mother, and will keep those memories close to me as time goes on.

My dad enjoyed the Columbo series, but he opened me up to the “other side” of Falk’s work at an early age, when he praised John Cassavetes' incredible (and also, incredibly timeless) Husbands to me as a kid. There was no way I was going to “get” Cassavetes’ work at a young age (in fact, his work, like all perfect art, grows with you as you get older), but the bits of the film I saw on local Channel 11 were fun to me as a kid because the movie seemed to be about grown men acting in a silly, childike manner (but indulging in adult things, like drinking, smoking, and flying to London).

Years later I saw the sublime and as-near-to-perfect-as-cinema-gets A Woman Under the Influence, and realized that not only was Falk a terrific television personality, he was an incredibly nuanced actor who could play a part that at first glimpse seemed like the “villain” of the piece (a husband who can’t understand his wife’s breakdown at all) but was in fact an incredibly difficult part to play — the two things that always hit the hardest about that film are Rowlands’ delirious devotion to her kids, and Falk’s beautiful desire to help his wife and his common-Joe inclination to just ask her to please snap out of it.

The film is a difficult one, that remains as difficult and rewardingly beautiful to watch as the years go by. I think it was the critic Raymond Durgnat who said that, no matter how many times you watch the beginning of Un Chien Andalou, that razor cutting the eye never gets any duller. Similarly the almost endless scene where Rowlands tries to hurt herself in the family home and Falk tries to “wake” her up and keep his kids from witnessing what’s going on never becomes any easier to watch.

It is the trauma of both the person breaking down mentally and emotionally (Rowlands) and the person who cannot accept what is happening and wants it to stop immediately (Falk) that makes the scene so extremely powerful. The scene is a testament both to Cassavetes’ willingness to subject his audience to emotional discomfort and to the unbelievable talent of both Rowlands and Falk (the other actors in the scene respond thoroughly authentically because they are Cassavetes’ mother playing Falk’s mother and a trio of child actors who honestly don’t seem to understand what the adults are doing).

So Falk’s work has a resonance on several levels, both with the most comfortable material imaginable and the most blissfully uncomfortable. And staying in the realm of the uncomfortable (and integrally connected to Falk's final years), let me just put in a word here about how utterly disgusting the self-congratulatory crew over at the TMZ website are (while the website is bilge in cyber form, that godawful TV show is beyond noxious).

I’m a self-admitted fan of trash TV and will read gossip items by the yard, but there’s something REALLY ugly about the TMZ “ambushes” on celebrities, which have in some cases made me feel sorry for celebs I have absolutely no pity for (the only time I can feel bad for the Paris Hiltons of the world is when I fall across a TMZ link or the heinous TV show — the constant screaming of the name; the handheld camera racing to keep up with the person; the annoying, stupid questioning).

Falk was the victim of this kind of really ugly tabloid shittiness around the time that it was coming to light that he was suffering from dementia. It was reported that he was found “wandering in Beverly Hills” one afternoon in a sweater looking out of it. The photos reproduced on the Web seemed to show him talking to himself and screaming (the one to the right is not from that "news" story; I'm not going to reprint their pics). Then I actually saw the clip — yes, I succumb every so often, and as happens when you watch the infamous Bud Dwyer suicide video, I do feel really dirty afterwards. Porn makes you feel a lot (and I do mean a lot) cleaner.

What was clearly going on was that, yes, Peter was addled and was walking down the street and might indeed have been talking to himself (now how many of us have ever done the same thing?). The screaming he did and the “wild” look in his eyes and his tousled hair were due to the appearance of a camera; he begins to tell the cameraman “turn that off” and appears angry that they’re shooting video of him at that moment. Falk might’ve been having problems in the later part of his life, but I have no doubt whatsoever that the consummate pro in him immediately knew that the camera should not be there, he was not “on,” he was not in character. This was, need I add, a private moment for the guy.

The only victory I saw in this horrible moment (which was echoed, again, in the beautiful verbal tributes when he died the other week) was that commenters on the Net were as one saying “leave the old guy alone!” There is no way any of us couldn’t sympathize with this situation, either as a person whose mind wanders, or as the child of a senior who might someday have a problem similar to Falk’s.

All I can remind you of, happily, was the fact that when sleazy guys with eyes for a buck broke into Marlene Dietrich’s apartment when she was ailing and housebound, the European press did not purchase the photos they took of her looking terrible (yes, they have shown up in later biographies and on the Net). Marlene wanted her audience to remember her as she was (as did Stan Laurel, who declined to be seen in public after he had a debilitating stroke), and somehow the usually incredibly sleazy major tabloids in Europe took a stand and did not purchase the pictures. All TMZ is made of are such pictures.

But enough with the final years of Falk’s life (and yes, there are several less-than-compelling movies at the end of his filmography, including one in which he played second fiddle to SNL drone Chris Kattan), and let me celebrate the guy as he was and will ALWAYS be remembered. He spoke in interviews as if he came very late in life to acting, but in fact he began doing it in his late 20s in an amateur theater group. To that point he had been a cook in the Merchant Marine, had gotten a political science degree in college, and had worked as an efficiency expert in an office (the fact that Columbo once had that job title was one of the many wonders in Falk’s life).

When he finally devoted his life to acting in the late Fifties, he broke through in mainstream theater with a small but steady part as the bartender in the Circle in the Square production of The Iceman Cometh (this was the mind-blowing Jason Robards production preserved thankfully for TV by Sidney Lumet, without Falk). He played roles at the tail end of the “Golden Age of Television” on shows like Studio One and Kraft Television Theater, and distinguished himself in starring roles in episodes of sublime anthology series like The Twilight Zone and Naked City.

Around this same time (1960), The Chevy Mystery Show presented a teleplay by Richard Levinson and William Link called “Enough Rope,” with a shrewd detective who was smarter than he looked, based on the character of Porfiry in Crime and Punishment. The character had been played by Thomas Mitchell in the theatrical version of the show, while Bert Freed played him on the TV anthology series. His name was “Lieutenant Columbo.”

In the meantime, Falk established himself in the movies playing gangsters in Murder, Inc. (1960) and Capra’s last movie, A Pocketful of Miracles (1961). He tried to shake his “mob boss” image by playing a broad variety of roles on TV and in the movies in the decade that followed (although he met Cassavetes for the first time working on Machine Gun McCain in 1969). He shook that image forever in 1968 when he played Columbo for the first time in the somewhat dour Prescription: Murder, and then when the show began in earnest with the 1971 pilot film Ransom for a Dead Man.

As the years went by, he did vary between earnestly brilliant dramas, like the two Cassavetes milestones already mentioned (he also has a worldless cameo at the end of Opening Night), and broad farces, the best being those written by talented scripters like Neil Simon (Murder by Death) and Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws). He kept working until his final health troubles emerged, and although he never did do that long-promised “final Columbo movie,” he appeared as the character in 67 telefilms from 1971-2003 (with ten years off, from ’78-’88) and left us many happy memories.

His first movie role was a small part in Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades as one of Burl Ives’ band of mangy-lookin' rogues. He appeared in countless TV dramas, including this 1959 Omnibus episode. His first starring role was in this low-budget Beatnik potboiler, The Bloody Brood (1959).

The first role that got him major attention was his picture-stealing turn as Abe “Kid Twist” Reles in Murder, Inc. (1960). This segment from the film contains my favorite scene, him urging Stuart Whitman and May Britt to “TAKE!”:

This is the special reason that YouTube exists: upon Falk’s death, a collector uploaded an episode of the obscure 1960 TV series The Witness in which Falk reprised the role of “Kid Twist.” This is extremely rare stuff:

Falk’s theatrical roots are in evidence in this film adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Balcony (1963). A bit overdone, but still very strong:

And, showing that the guy loved to broaden his range early on, here he is singing in the Rat Pack musical Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964):

Another role in a musical, this time a 1966 TV adaptation of Brigadoon, starring Robert Goulet:

Falk’s first starring role in a TV series came with this one-season 1965 NYC lawyer show, The Trials of O’Brien. This episode begins with a great go-go club scene featuring Vincent Gardenia (!):

The sublime Murray Schisgal play Luv was adapted into an uneven but still very funny movie in 1967. In the parts played by Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson on stage, there was Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Elaine May (whatta cast!):

Falk also appeared regularly on variety shows. Here he is on The Dean Martin Show playing (what else) a gangster:

We arrive at Columbo with the advent of the 1970s. There are literally a few hundred Columbo clips on YT, but I’ll have to let the next few suffice. First, the Lieutenant annoying the hell out of a stuffy old lady. Then Columbo getting sidetracked by a book on erotic art:

A fan-created vid done in the style of Jack Haley, Jr’s “here’s the same phrase as it appeared in several different movies” montages:

The Columbo TV movies had a spectacular range of guest-star murderers. Of course Falk had to have on his friend Johnny C. (as an orchestra conductor):

The guest star who Falk seemed to enjoy having on the most was Patrick (“I am not a number — I am a free man!!!”) McGoohan, who wound up directing episodes of the series (as noted above, they are not exactly fan favorites, due to presenting a far grimmer Columbo). Here is a fan-created tribute video to the two actors. And here is a marvelous duo on one episode (who never met): William Shatner and the always overwhelming Timothy Carey:

A perfect example of the wonderfully scripted Columbo conclusions. This time the Lieutenant accuses the always-awesome Rip Torn of the crime:

If I haven’t already stressed the fact that viewers LOVED Columbo, here’s a fan-created vid illustrating Harry Nilsson’s strange but fun song “Kojak Columbo” with images from… well, take a guess…:

Falk was fine with reprising the role of Columbo in other venues if the offer was entertaining, or lucrative, enough. Here’s the entertainment — the Lieutenant shows up at a Dean Martin roast for Sinatra (and does a full ten-minute bit, a very long segment for a Dino roast):

And, yes, the filthy lucre. Falk did a series of ads for Japanese TV in the early Nineties. He promoted the Toyota Corolla dressed as Columbo. He also did ads for Suntory whisky relaxing at “home” and in pajamas and a halo with a chick in a bonnet (I have no idea). Here is a Suntory ad shot in English where Falk plays a bartender:

The trailer for Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970), narrated by NYC radio personality William B. Williams. This contains my favorite Falk scene in the picture, his singing “Good Morning, Mr. Zip-zip-zip,” a WWI-era tune out of a clear blue sky to seduce a young Chinese woman:

The opening scene from A Woman Under the Influence (1974):

The trailer for the film:

The most Cassavetes-like film that Falk was in that wasn’t directed by John himself was Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976), which costarred Falk and Cassavetes. This sequence is a gorgeous riff on death set in a graveyard that is, by turns, funny, touching, annoying, ridiculous, and profound. May encouraged the actors to improv on camera, which is what made her approach completely different from Cassavetes, whom was she presumably mimicking (John tried to limit all improvs to the rehearsal period):

A Falk interview segment from the French documentary Trois Camarades, about the friendship of Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzarra:

Falk and Jill Clayburgh in a meet-cute scene from the TV-movie Griffin and Phoenix: A Love Story (1976):

In certain roles, Falk sounded like Humphrey Bogart. Here he is doing a delightful sendup of Bogey in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976):

Falk formed a sublime comedy team with Alan Arkin in The In-Laws (1979). Here is the “serpentine!” scene:

While The In-Laws is well-remembered by fan of Seventies comedy, the other film that Falk and Arkin made in tandem, Big Trouble (1986), is completely forgotten. It is uneven but features a very good spoof of Double Indemnity, offers more of the two acting as a good comedy team, and was in fact the last film directed by John Cassavetes, who took over when scripter Andrew Bergman left the project. Here is a plum bit of business:

A film with Falk that is well-remembered by gentlemen “of a certain age” is the women’s wrestling picture …All the Marbles (1981). The last film made by director Robert Aldrich, Marbles finds Falk managing a sexy female tag team as they move up the circuit to the big time. The film is one of those cult items that actually satisfies its “mandate” — namely, devoting a large amount of the running time to the matches. Falk is the colorful, devoted manager and, yes, this is one of the many pro-wrestling films that posits that the sport is entirely real. My favorite line in the picture (Burt Young’s crack about the Brontes) is in this trailer:

From a sexy sports pic to one of Falk’s best-loved supporting roles: as himself, the former angel, in Wim Wenders’ beautiful Wings of Desire (1987). One of the many fans who loved the guy wrote in the comments field for this clip, “I can’t see you, Peter… but I know that you’re there…”:

And, similar to Big Trouble, there was a sequel to Wings of Desire that was wholly unnecessary but was nonetheless pleasant. Here’s an outtake from the film, called Faraway, So Close! (1993), featuring Falk:

Falk did indeed work steadily in the last years of his life before the health troubles emerged. Here is the trailer for one of those films (usually comedies and family fare) that went straight to DVD, an “old guy” farce featuring Peter, George Segal, Rip Torn, and Bill Cobbs called Three Days to Vegas (2007):

In closing I offer my personal fave online offerings. First the absolutely wonderful appearance made by the stars of Husbands on The Dick Cavett Show. The episode was taped on 9/18/70, and the boys put on Cavett, refusing to submit to a conventional interview (one easily assumes they visited a local “establishment” before the taping began — their playfulness seems fueled by something…). An online commenter noted that “These guys were the Rat Pack of independent film!” And this interview pretty much proves that they were:

And finally two clips that play on the same theme, in fact the same song: when Columbo had to wait for something in the series, he began to whistle or hum “This Old Man.” The song thus became a sort of in-joke for diehard fans of the show, and inspired one devoted fan to create this very touching tribute to Falk as the Lieutenant:

There is no better way to close out than with the finish of the last show in the 1976 season. The producers of the Columbo movies were not getting along with NBC, and it was assumed that the series might’ve reached its end (they were only 27 years off!). As a result they closed out the season with this nice bit of business where Columbo leaves in a rowboat, going to meet the all-important but never-seen Mrs. Columbo, as his favorite tune plays on the soundtrack:

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The comedy of discomfort: Albert Brooks

First the book review, then the career retrospective. By way of explanation: I’ve been following Albert Brooks’ career since I was a kid in the Seventies and saw him do standup on The Flip Wilson Show. That show also served as my intro at that couldn’t-stay-up-late age to Pryor, Carlin, and Robert Klein, among others. I’ve followed Albert from his TV standup work through his two utterly perfect LPs (only one of which was ever reissued on CD — and now it’s out of print), through his short films on SNL to his acting work and his filmmaking career.

Albert is a difficult figure to explain, if only because, much like two other favorites of mine (Martin Mull and Chris Elliott) his comic persona has always been difficult to summarize in a few words. Incidentally, I will refer to Mr. Brooks (as The New York Times calls him) throughout this piece as “Albert,” not to claim any personal acquaintance with the gent, but because using his last name might conjure up the more famous (and overwhelming) Brooks, namely Mel (no relation; Albert’s family name is actually Einstein). Or Richard Brooks. Or Broadcast News director James L. Brooks.

There was, and is, sort of an enigma to Albert. He currently holds the status of “comedian’s comedian,” which was demonstrated in the late-night interviews he did during a recent blitz of publicity for his new novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. The publicity tour, which included what seemed to be his first lengthy stints at the mic since the Seventies (bookstore Q&As), was very successful, in that it helped the book crack The New York Times bestseller list and got it reviewed in countless outlets. Most of the reviews were exceptionally kind; the only dissenter was the reviewer for the NYT Book Review, whose piece was unfortunately the nearest to accurate.

2030 contains some terrific ideas about where America is headed, and by extension is an interesting reflection of where we’re at. Albert spoke at length in interviews about how he didn’t want the book to be labeled “dystopian” because he’s “hopeful” about the future. However, the best scenes in the book occur in the first third, and all of them offer a deeply grim (but realistically grim) look into the near future. Thus, at its best, the book is indeed dystopian, no matter Albert’s intentions, and winds up becoming a lot less interesting when the characters’ personal melodramas take centerstage.

The plot element that has been discussed at length in reviews and interviews is the notion that, by 2030, seniors will live longer and thus use up more of the country’s financial resources. This leads to the “olds,” as they are called, being loathed by younger Americans, who hate paying into the endless extension of the seniors’ lives.

It may sound like a variant on Clockwork Orange, but Albert is too reasonable a gent to explore the darker side of his premise — in fact, one scene where teens are menacing the hell out of some “olds” just winds down and ends with our principal senior protagonist musing on how lucky he was not to get beaten up (not very realistic…). The violence in the book is “offscreen,” to the point that even the terrorist event that is the book’s anticlimax seems like a fait accompli where nothing truly tragic will occur.

The first third of the book, though, is literally teeming with valid ideas. The one that hit hardest for me is Brooks’ take on American healthcare: 19 years from now the country still has no plan in place for uninsured folk, so patients and their relatives will take out the equivalent of high-interest, college aid-type loans to pay for operations. Needless to say, this “health loan” business has a resonance and makes one wish Albert had just explored the notions of young-versus-old and America’s lamentable healthcare status in the novel.

Instead, there is a profusion of ideas and events, each of which is fascinating on first introduction and becomes less so as the book moves on. Close to the book’s beginning comes the first trauma: a massive earthquake devastates Los Angeles. Hot on the heels of that disaster comes an event that affects every American, as China refuses to lend the U.S. any more money and opts instead for a “greater stake” in the functioning of the country.

The loan-refusal scenario is the stuff of a true “nightmare comedy” (the label that was used to hype Dr. Strangelove), but somehow Albert reconfigures it to be oddly reassuring and even heartwarming. The idea that China is, and has been for more than half a century, an authoritarian government is never dealt with because, as the case is presented in the book, the Chinese are an orderly, clean race — and besides (this joke appears at least once, possibly twice) we already like their food!

The young/”olds” war and the China-as-America’s-savior premises are big enough concepts that one could hang an entire novel on either one, but Albert — seemingly intoxicated with the prospect of creating his own universe — betrays an epic vision in the book, while still wanting to keep it down to a reasonable length. A commendable notion — and given his inexperience as a novelist, a wise one — but 2030 loses a lot of steam as it goes on, and sinks its fascinating premises in melodramatic two-character confrontations.

Running nearly 400 pages, 2030 is in fact three books in one:
—A “shape of things to come” prognostication (entertaining and thought-provoking)
—A political thriller in the book’s final chapters (where we should be in Richard Condon territory, but never are)
—A Dickensian or Altman-esque “tapestry” about disparate characters whose lives are going to intersect because of a special event

A tapestry narrative is a HELL of an ambitious endeavor for a first-time novelist to carry off, since it requires hundreds and hundreds of pages to follow each character (unless you’re a master miniaturist like Raymond Carver — who, of course, never wrote a novel — or a master satirist like Thomas Pynchon). In terms of length, 2030 isn’t an epic, but it begins to feel like one as it reaches its midpoint. (By comparison, a genuinely dystopian pulp fiction like Stephen King’s The Stand glides along.)

Perhaps this is because Albert avoids any sort of modernist techniques and instead writes in simple, declarative sentences. The book is comprised of third-person descriptions of the character’s actions, thoughts, and emotions — one gets the impression while reading it that Albert is aware of both modernist sci-fi/fantasy (Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick) and the turgid, oversimplified (but sporadically suspenseful) writing found in potboilers of the DaVinci Code variety, and he opted to go for neither.

The page count is somewhat evenly split between the many protagonists, but the most fully developed characters are sadly also the dullest. They are America’s first half-Jewish president (presumably the role that Albert would play if 2030 were ever to become a film), his Treasury Secretary (an all-too-wise and far-too-noble individual who, as the NYT reviewer noted, seems like a character custom-built for Meryl Streep), and a Chinese healthcare expert, brought in to help the ailing city of L.A., who is nothing less than an Asian variant of a Frank Capra hero.

There are no real villains or even solid antiheroes in 2030, since Albert oddly envisions a social landscape where everything is wrong… and then things start to go “right.” It’s sort of a fluffy, politically naïve tack to take, and it mirrors the “lovable” period of Albert’s movies, when he tried to make his scripts simpler and cuter, but still proved unable to make a film that would wow the public, and in the process lost all but the hardliners (yes, I paid to see The Muse in a theater — yes, it was cute, and yes, I can barely remember a moment of it).

The opposite has happened with 2030: its reviews haven’t just been positive, they’ve been near to raves — making me wonder, “did they read the same book I did?” I know it doesn’t seem like it from the above, but I am genuinely happy to see Albert back in the national spotlight and am glad that his first book was such an ambitious endeavor. The best I can say for 2030, though, is that he wrote at least one-third of a great book, and put the spotlight on some very important topics.

Now on to the happier portion of the program, intended to show that the above came not as a drubbing of Albert, but merely as the thoughts of a weary reader. Let me now celebrate the career that led up to the book:

Despite his having worked simultaneously as an actor, most of us who were around in the Seventies became aware of Albert as a standup. His act was always conceptual (although not as aggressively or as experimentally weird as that of Andy Kaufman), and his subsequent screen persona was that of a bothered/harassed guy (one critic used the helpful term “worrywart”) who boasted a sense of urgency mixed with panic and righteous indignation.

An important component of his comedy throughout the Seventies and Eighties was that “Albert Brooks” the character was both abrasive and blithely unaware (or uncaring) of the havoc he caused. The latter is a classic comic conceit and was brilliantly carved out by the man. His standup routines were airtight bits like this gem:

He hasn’t been one who is given to “explaining” his comedy, but in the recent spate of interviews he’s done he has commented, apropos of his new, wonderfully funny Twitter account, that he has “spent years deconstructing Bob Hope,” meaning he did acts that dissected and mocked the old show-biz models, like this extremely rare clip of him doing an “and then I wrote…” songwriter act. And, of course, this ventriloquist act from… The Flip Wilson Show:

Perhaps his finest conceptual moment is this Tonight Show moment where he does slapstick comedy while commenting on the fact that he doesn’t do slapstick comedy:

His standup career is also unusual in that he gave it up entirely after a half-dozen or so years, but would return to the form sporadically, but only for The Tonight Show. Carson was such a powerful force in show business at the time, and he was such a fan of certain acts that they would do things for him they did for no one else. Thus, Steve Martin and Albert both would return to their standup roots when appearing with Johnny. Two great examples of this are thankfully available on YT:

I mentioned his two excellent LPs above, and they are both must-listens; they exist as downloads at various places online, and you should indeed take advantage, since they are both currently way out of print. The second LP, A Star is Bought (1974), is a brilliant concept piece created by Albert and Harry Shearer in which Albert devises several ways to get his record played “on every radio station in the country.”

One of those gimmicks is this incredibly esoteric but spot-on abuse of Dickie Goodman’s “flying saucer” records, which sampled hits of the day. Albert explains before the track that he couldn’t afford the rights to popular songs (neither could Goodman — he was frequently sued), so he just had some made up. What is notable about the track is that two of the singers are the late, GREAT Harry Nilsson and Albert’s girlfriend in the early Seventies, a certain Linda Ronstadt:

This is the Albert bit that I’ve listened to the the most over the years, his six-minute evisceration of talk radio that is as absolutely perfect now as when it was released back in '74:

And the rarest piece of Albert vinyl, his Xmas single (also co-written by Shearer):

Albert left standup comedy behind for filmmaking in the mid-Seventies and unfortunately has often been thought of as working “in the shadow of Woody Allen.” Plainly put, Woody’s schlemiel character was lovable; Albert’s brash character was not. Woody made wonderful, conventionally structured films, while Albert’s films were conventionally structured but also commented on the ugly, manipulative side of show business (Real Life) and the destructive side of relationships (Modern Romance). Most importantly, Woody developed a solid following in Europe and the UK, while Albert has remained a well-known supporting actor and cult filmmaker solely in America.

Additionally, Woody started making serious films as early as the late Seventies and has made films in which he didn’t appear, while Albert has always remained an onscreen comic figure in his films. With his fourth film as a writer-director, Defending Your Life (1991), he softened his onscreen persona, making him a harassed but lovable figure — presumably because he wanted to get more features made and was not of a mind to make indie films (many filmmakers who have worked in Hollywood stay infatuated, like Orson Welles, with the “greatest train a boy could ever have” and can’t conceive of working with a smaller palette on a far lower budget).

His first three films — Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985) — remain hysterical today, not only because his comic instincts are razor-sharp (he was hailed as the “funniest white man alive” in the Seventies — because Pryor was assumed to be the single funniest person), but also because he was willing to play an abrasive protagonist in his own films, an antihero who had a bit more backbone than Woody’s screen persona, but just as many neuroses.

In my opinion the really brave, truly interesting artists are willing to be disliked by the audience if it benefits the work they’ve made (not to evoke Woody too many times in this piece, but even he adopted an abrasive variation on his comic persona in both Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry). The works may fail commercially, but they definitely acquire the right audience as time passes.

But first, the aspiration. Albert broke into filmmaking with a series of shorts in which he appeared that aired on the first season of Saturday Night Live (all of which are worth your time and attention). His first-ever short, though, was called “The Famous Comedians School” and aired on the PBS series The Great American Dream Machine. The abbreviated version that is available on YT is a weird edit made for a Milton Berle-hosted special on comedy; the producers unwisely added a laugh track — had Albert emerged in the Eighties or Nineties, one can easily see him starring in an HBO, laugh track-less sitcom of the Curb Your Enthusiasm variety:

His first feature is indeed a marvel. Real Life is a brilliant (and brilliantly abrasive) satire on the PBS documentary series An American Family (the forerunner of today’s “reality TV”), cinema verite, pretentious filmmakers, and money-hungry studio execs. Co-written with Harry Shearer, it remains a pungent piece of nasty comedy. There are no clips from the film available online, but the fucking wonderful trailer, in which Albert uses 3D effects when it’s certain the audience won’t have the glasses, is right here:

His second feature, Modern Romance, is a fascinating artifact of the Eighties zeitgeist that finds Albert and his costar Kathryn Harrold playing characters who are hard to warm up to, involved in a relationship that is difficult to care about. And yet the film is extremely funny and very perceptive about the screwed-up patterns people manifest in their love relationships. One of my favorite bits from the film is online thankfully. It consists of Albert rambling around his apartment after taking a quaalude:

A memorable bit from the film set in an editing suite:

And the only onscreen meeting of Albert and his brother Bob Einstein (aka “Super Dave Obsorne” and “Officer Judy”):

Of the seven films he’s made, I believe Lost in America was the biggest hit at the box office. It’s easy to see why — his “Easy Rider for yuppies” is filled with great dialogue and situations (and is oddly in synch with everything that has happened in this last decade). At this point Albert’s character was still abrasive and capable of having a world-class freakout:

An amazing bit of uncomfortable comedy, with Garry Marshall as the casino owner:

The infamous “nest egg” speech:

With Defending Your Life (1991) Albert and his writing partner Monica Johnson “softened” the character he played, a change that stayed in place until recently. I enjoyed the films that ensued, but they were clearly attempts at a “family friendly” Albert Brooks. Here is a great moment with the one and only Rip Torn from Defending:

His seventh and most recent film as a writer/director/star, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005), was a major flop, but it represented a return to the Brooks character of the Seventies and Eighties. His rendition of himself in Muslim World is again an abrasive and blithely unaware individual who constantly questions his own behavior and that of others. The film failed at the box office due to political events, Americans’ disinterest in really solid comedy (as opposed to crap SNL- and Apatow-related farces), and the criminally unwieldy title. But I thought it brought us full circle, back to the Albert I’ve been a fan of since the early Seventies:

This clip from Muslim World encapsulates what Albert does at his best: crafting a *thoroughly* uncomfortable situation, putting his brusque character in the middle of it, and lampooning the way we communicate with each other. In this scene he also quite deftly decimates the improv comedy process. We’ve all encountered this situation in comedy clubs: a performer asks for suggestions, and then proceeds to simply go with whatever he/she feels confident doing:

The oddest thing about this whole “resurgence” in Albert’s career is that, as a major fan, I’ve actually been more enthused to read Albert’s wonderful Twitter feed, which is funny and caustic as hell, than I was reading the last half of 2030. His career as an actor has been fertile for more than two decades now (I guess I’ll take the very sentimental My First Mister over the please-WHY-are-you-guys-doing-this? remake of The In-Laws), but I do hope that he gets the opportunity to make more films.

If he continues to write fiction, I’d hope he takes a slightly less ambitious tack, and (please!) avoids the personal melodrama. I’d also earnestly, amiably suggest that he avoid EVER AGAIN ending a piece of writing with a speech that earnestly, amiably makes suggestions about how something could be changed for the better. I, for one, would never conceive of… whoops!