Monday, March 30, 2015

Uncle Jean returns: portrait of the artist as an old comedian

Godard likes nothing better than to provoke. The filmmaker who is the cinema's finest visual poet can also be something of a ham. He has shown this side only sporadically, sometimes in other filmmakers' works but to best effect in his own films.

He created his comic alter-ego in one of the best, most entertaining, and entrancing films of his “comeback” period in the early Eighties, Prenom Carmen (aka First Name: Carmen, 1983). In that film he played the supporting role of “Uncle Jean,” an off-kilter version of himself that found him embracing and mocking the things that had been said about him over the years by critics who didn't like his work. It's a tight-wire act he pulls off very well (and in case you weren't clued in, his character carries around a coffee table book about Buster Keaton):

“Uncle Jean” showed up again, this time as the lead (called “the Prince,” taking a leaf from Dostoyevsky), in the episodic feature Soigne Ta Droite (Keep Up Your Right Up, 1987). Again, his character is a demented filmmaker who is prone to saying odd things at odd moments.

Godard has been far more serious in his onscreen appearances in recent years – in his epic Histoire(s) du Cinema, JLG by JLG, and Notre Musique. But Uncle Jean still lurks within the heart of Godard, and so his comic side emerges again in his latest video, a little number with the rather unwieldy title Prix Suisse, remerciements, mort ou vif (Prix suisse, my thanks, dead or alive).

Godard has made it a practice not to show up at any awards ceremonies or film festivals in the last few years. Instead he sends really wonderful short videos to serve as an acknowledgement and thank-you note. These videos will, of course, last a lot longer than any speech he might've made at the ceremonies.

It's important to remember in this instance that, although Godard is one of the greatest French filmmakers, he was raised in Switzerland and is half Swiss (on his father's side). The particulars of the award presentation are as follows (and I must thank Craig Keller for his English-language account on the Mubi site). The “Prix d’honneur du cinéma suisse” was given to Godard earlier this month for his body of work. The prize brought with it an award of 30,000 francs, which Godard reportedly divided in four parts between himself and three charities. His cinematographer Fabrice Aragno accepted the award on Godard's behalf.

The most notable thing about the short video he sent along to the award ceremony is that it represents the “return” of Godard's Uncle Jean character – one presumes that talking about his native land (where he has also lived and worked for several decades) brought back his eccentric comic side. Here he takes a fall — not exactly a common thing among 84-year-old filmmakers — and plays the role of the crazy intellectual old man.

Keller's piece about the award does much to “decode” the many references in Godard's recitation here. As with all of Godard's work, it's probably best to watch the video — which is quite short (under five minutes) — then read the explanations provided in Keller's piece (and the very informative comments below the piece) and watch it again.

Suffice it to say that the poetry-speak that Godard indulges in here finds him stitching together a verbal collage of Swiss references – place names, quotes from a famous Swiss novelist's text for Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, and references to a work he identifies with remembering one's childhood (a Pasolini poem).

As I have said before on the Funhouse TV show and in these pages, we are very lucky to live at a time when there are still new Godard creations coming out on a regular basis.

Thanks to friend Paul for supplying this subtitled copy of the video.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Shark jumped, better shows spawned: the “fake news” situation (Part 2 of two)

While the three major networks continue to program their late-night talk shows in the same lazy, overly predictable fashion — one part Johnny Carson promo-chats, one part bad SNL (read: anything from the mid-Eighties onward), and one part Jimmy Kimmel “building a show out of viral videos” — the cable networks have been trying to alter the formula for success in the late evening hours. E! had a hit with Chelsea Lately, and HBO has made Real Time with Bill Maher a Friday night ritual for many viewers.

Comedy Central has the best late-night comedy-talk franchise with its “fake news” duo of shows. I won't dwell on the recent decision by Jon Stewart to quit The Daily Show. Once before on this blog I discussed my feelings about him, and they haven't really changed much. I might be the only person not on the right side of the political spectrum who will publicly proclaim that I'm not heartbroken he's leaving. The shark, it jumped for me during the writer's strike several years back when I saw how limited Jon's comic repertoire is.

Granted, familiarity will breed contempt with almost any comedian. A friend of mine uses the expression “seen the dress...” when referring to Stewart and Colbert (he's left of center politically as well), and it's true that anyone appearing several times a week is going to run out of ideas and fall back on funny faces or voices. Two things that have distinguished The Daily Show, though, are the program's well-edited montages of hypocrisy on the 24-7 news channels, and their correspondents, many of whom have come from the groups that are shut out in the late-night talk “wars” (where you've gotta be white, middle-aged, straight, and male, and that's just about it....).

I noted my feelings about Colbert's comedy character in the first part of this blog entry, but following his lead there have been two other “spin-off” series from The Daily Show. One is good, the other great.

The good but still uncertain commodity is The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. I've been watching it somewhat steadily since it went on, and it is a very pleasant program that works best if you think of it as a news panel show that happens to have a humorous component. Wilmore is a very engaging presence, and the show has been filling a void by having panels of women, people of color, and other communities that you will only see on the 24-7 news programs when their communities are undergoing a tragedy of some kind.

The show begins with a monologue made up of jokes about the news, then the panel, and then, for some wildly misguided reason, nearly every single show I've seen has ended with a segment called “Keeping it 100,” in which Larry asks an either/or question, the kind of thing people will quiz each other with when they're bored at work or at a bar.
It's a very simple comic idea, and the constant repetition of it (perhaps in an effort to carve out an SNL-style fan-favorite segment?) is puzzling. Is there no other notion the writers can think of to close the show with? Presumably, as the weeks move on, they will ditch this segment or just use it once every so often instead of on every episode.

Wilmore is talented enough that having him tied down to one piece of material is ridiculous. [UPDATE: Since I started writing this piece, Larry has presented varied “either/or” question bits to end the show, but tonight's episode, in which he discussed the Ferguson, MO, police force and gave up the “would you rather...?” segment entirely, was quite good.]

The other show that qualifies in a way as a Daily Show “spin-off” is the wonderful “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO. As a second banana to Stewart on TDS, Oliver did both brilliantly funny segments and goofy ones where he dressed up in silly costumes. Last Week offers extremely intelligent comedy and, more importantly (don't be scared!), there is an educational aspect to the show, as Oliver and his writers are tackling very serious issues in a satirical fashion – real facts are dispensed with jokes as punctuation (yes, this is possible on American TV!).

The first wonderful thing about Last Week is that the most grating aspects of The Daily Show formula are gone: no audience cheering the host's name; no private jokes for the studio audience; no interviews with movie stars pitching their latest film, or authors who get a nice plug but only six minutes to quickly describe their book; random cursing is indeed allowed on HBO, so it *makes sense* on Last Week. (I've never understood cursing that is going to be bleeped – we're supposed to laugh at the absence of a word?)

It's also important that the show is a weekly one — in this regard (despite the title) it's not a true accounting of what happened in the preceding week, nor is it pretending to be. The topics are more generic, but are very important ones that are part of today's social and political scene. The notion of a “daily” comedy news program is problematic from the get-go, in that The Daily Show has gone away for weeks on end, with no Internet updates whatsoever (Oliver and his team are indeed supplying new content during the “off season” — it really is the only way to maintain momentum and continuity).

Also, Stewart, Colbert, and now Wilmore, are often wildly out-of-synch with that day's politics – witness the recent night when *the* story of the evening was the State of the Union speech, which of course hadn't yet occurred when Stewart and Wilmore taped their shows. Thus the shows are constantly playing catch-up and having to ignore the only political events people are caring about on the nights they air (on the recent State of the Union evening, Wilmore's show offered a full episode about the Bill Cosby allegations).

The most important decision made by Oliver and co. was to avoid the latest “blow-ups” and instead cover issues that the average viewer is unaware of. The concept is outlined in fine (and funny) detail, while the phrase encapsulating it — for instance, “native advertising” or the slice of legalese that is “civil forfeiture” — is repeatedly used so that we can wrap our minds around the concept. 

Last Week can thus lay claim to being arguably the smartest political humor show on the air in the U.S. It’s not a surprise that Oliver is at the helm of the show, since he is a fan of the best that British humor has had to offer in the last decade and a half — in interviews he has cited his favorite standups to be Stewart Lee, Dylan Moran, and his friend Daniel Kitson (whom he evokes each time he gets into a “bam!” turnabout moment). He attended Cambridge with future comedy stars Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, The Double) and David Mitchell (Peep Show).

Oliver has hosted a podcast with political humorist Andy Zaltzman called “The Bugle” for years now (done with Oliver in NY and Zaltzman in London), and, among his other early credits, was a contributing writer for 2004: The Stupid Version, a special created by the sharpest TV comedy producer in England, Armando Iannucci. I also have it on good authority that he is a diehard fan of the original “fake news” shows created by the visionary Chris Morris.

Thus far, the gold standard for humorous news and media commentary has been the year-end and weekly “Wipe” shows on the BBC hosted by former TV critic turned social commentator Charlie Brooker. Brooker's programs are brilliant dissections of the 24/7 news channels, minus the whooping and hollering (and vaudevillian dick jokes) of The Daily Show. 

Last Week is very different from Brooker's programs, but it shares with them a concern for the way in which news is reported and the public is deceived – or, as in the case of a lot of the topics treated on Last Week, are unaware that these phenomena exist in the first place. The Daily Show is smart- and wise-assed, while Brooker's “Wipe” series and Last Week offer the kind of intelligent, adult news and media dissection that needs to be done on a wider basis but seems only to occur in a humorous context.

Oliver is no longer a comedy sidekick dressing up as Peter Pan or a chimney sweep. He is on premium cable and thus doesn't have to worry about time limitations — perhaps the single most important aspect of the show is that the main segments on Last Week sometimes run as long as 16-17 minutes, something that isn't possible on commercial TV. Jokes are dished out every few minutes, but time is taken to discuss the very serious ramifications of what is being talked about.

The program also comes from a left perspective and is not as Democratic Party-centric as The Daily Show. Last Week has been taking the high ground since it came on, and its newly begun second season has thus far operated on the same high plane.

One of the best jokes in a segment about the use of drones was taken from a “cute” remark that President Obama made warning the Jonas Brothers music group that if they approached his daughters he would use “predator drones... you will never see it comin'!” Seeing the president joke about how deadly the drones are does, of course, remind us that we deal death from the sky, and our Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prez thinks it's okay to joke about it. A similarly pointed segment about the wealth gap in America noted how Americans continue to vote against their own best interests, in the delusional belief that they will some day be very rich and can benefit from the tax breaks that now cripple this country.

The last valuable thing Last Week does is to often conclude segments by offering e-mail addresses or Twitter hashtags that could be used to communicate to the parties responsible for a given problem (as in the case of net neutrality or student debt), or simply to spread the word about the issues being discussed. This is not done with tongue in cheek – the show's attempts to involve the viewer puts it leagues ahead of Bill Maher's Real Time, which simply preaches to the choir and lets an abrasive host tell us what is “right” and “wrong.” (I'm in political and most certainly atheistic agreement with Maher, but goddamn if that guy ain't an arrogant bastard.) 

Last Week started off in an interesting fashion in spring of 2014 by not pandering and doing easy material about U.S. politics, but instead presenting an in-depth segment about the very significant election campaign going on in India at that moment. (Note: This upload is slightly sped up, as you'll notice from the audio; it is, however, the only occurrence of the full segment on YT.)

Another early segment that was brilliantly constructed found Oliver exploring the death penalty issue, while promising that he'd end the segment with a cute-animal video from YouTube. In this way, he would “reward” the viewers who'd watch the intelligent segment – for me, though, the show was making a sharp, funny statement about how Americans require sugar-coating for every fuckin' thing that they watch:

A similar moment in a great segment on nuclear weapons highlighted the biggest problem surrounding a similar issue: that the American public doesn't give a shit about truly dire parts of modern politics (they're evidently too busy dreaming of being rich....).

When Jon Stewart announced his decision to quite The Daily Show, the biggest concern became who will succeed him as host. John Oliver has been mentioned as a top candidate, but I hope he doesn't do it. It certainly pays a shitload of money — Stewart has been earning more than both Letterman and Leno — but it's LCD stuff (not Lorne Michaels brain-damaged LCD, but LCD nonetheless), and Oliver has graduated into creating his own niche of intelligent, in-depth political humor (without the Maher-like arrogance).

It would be a shame if John went from the kind of high-minded, sharp comedy that Last Week Tonight represents and returned to dispensing dick jokes and dressing up like Peter Pan or a chimney sweep.

You can keep up with Last Week Tonight in a totally legal fashion even if you don't have HBO (full disclosure: I don't subscribe to HBO), since the producers of the show have allowed the lengthy segments to be officially posted on YouTube a day or so after they air on HBO.

Fans of British comedy have also been posting the shorter segments to YT, so you can see this incisive piece on how China is trying to erase the memory of Tiananmen Square, this funny segment on Greece's slick finance minister, and a bit that I could not resist including here: a segment noting that wretched rich arrogant bastard Mike Bloomberg has been buying up new “.nyc” URLs that mock him (like Oliver and his staff came up with insulting URLs that “Mayor Mike” the billionaire forgot to purchase.

The longer piece are the meat of the program, though, so let me spotlight four excellent segments. First, one on “native advertising,” in which the notion of advertisements disguised to look like news (both online and in magazines and newspapers) is examined and mocked at length. I enjoyed this not only as someone who very much agrees with the point that Oliver is making, but as a viewer who never, ever enjoyed Stephen Colbert's “tongue-in-cheek” promotions of real products on the Report (a snarky series of real commercials isn't satire, it's just commerce):

A superb segment on “payday loans” — the predatory lending chains (championed on infomercials) that charge up to 500% (!) interest. This particular segment was the one where I realized that Last Week Tonight wasn't cutting any corners and is a *really* intelligent show that also happens to be very funny. This isn't “fake news” at all, it's very real and very scary in its specifics, but the jokes are all solid as well:

Another excellent full-length segment, this time about “civil forfeiture,” the process by which the police can seize your property — everything from your money or possessions to your car or house — if they feel it has a link to a crime (or, as is outlined in this piece, they simply need the cash or wanted it in the first place). The show stakes out new territory with pieces like this:

To show that the second season of Last Week is thus far just as good, here's a segment that examines how, while smoking has plummeted in the U.S., the tobacco companies have grown in power in third world countries, making cig-junkies out of entire populations. This piece ends with another LWT “campaign” — this one a bit sillier than the others, but the message is very laudable:

And just because this struck me the right way (read: I fuckin' loved it), here's a piece on how the slow death of Radio Shack has been mocked by the media. The chain is perceived as a ridiculous reminder of the past, but Oliver and co. remind us how important the store was to us in years past (and I got news for ya: I have built the Funhouse TV show on a foundation of Radio Shack cords!). Bravo for this kinda satiric sarcasm: