Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The King Of Comedy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2008)

So what’s your favourite Martin Scorsese movie? If you’re reading this column at all, you probably just had four or five memorable experiences go off in your head. I expect there’s a lot of support for Taxi Driver, and for Raging Bull, and some for Good Fellas. A few who’ve jumped on board more recently may go for Gangs Of New York and The Departed (if so, you need to rent some DVD’s, and fast). I myself have a liking for the wintry, meticulous The Color Of Money, although that’s generally regarded merely as a commercially minded tactic to get himself back on track in the mid-80’s. I could list five others that likely figure in the voting. But I suspect The King Of Comedy won’t be among them.

My Name Is Rupert Pupkin

When I bring that film up at work, even with people who are generally knowledgeable about movies and who express enthusiasm about Scorsese, it generally receives no more than a squint of vague recognition. The King Of Comedy has always had its passionate supporters. But too much cinema history is written by the box office, and the film was a fast and expensive failure when it came out in 1983. It’s so tonally different from Scorsese’s previous film – the instant classic Raging Bull – and so strange on its own terms that many people simply didn’t know how to react to it. Scorsese describes the period surrounding it as personally difficult, and took a few years afterwards before making After Hours, a consciously small and fast film apparently conceived as an exercise in regeneration, and then Color Of Money. Compared to the Scorsese we’re used to – the one with the dazzling kinetic camera movements – the film might feel flat and deadened. And Robert De Niro’s character Rupert Pupkin offers none of the outsized, profane pleasures of his roles in other Scorsese films.

I must have seen the movie ten or twelve times over the years – the first five of them within barely more than a year of its release. It’s probably the movie for which I can most easily reel off blocks of dialogue, more or less verbatim. And yet even now, I can’t articulate exactly what it is that touches me so effectively. It’s not as if the film’s basic premise and setting would have meant much to me in the mid-80’s. De Niro’s Pupkin is an aspiring comedian who one night manoeuvres himself into a brief conversation with his hero, the Carson-like Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. Misinterpreting Langford’s brush-off as a genuine act of friendship, Pupkin quickly loses all grasp on reality, pestering the comedian’s offices and even turning up uninvited at his country house. When he finally gets the drop-dead message, he kidnaps Langford (in collaboration with another besotted fan, played by Sandra Bernhard), demanding as ransom only that he get to perform his act on the show. This he gets, and once he emerges from prison he seems to be a genuine celebrity.

Redemption Through Comedy

De Niro gives an amazing rendition of a man whose utterances, gestures, clothes and thoughts are entirely based on a back-slapping, borderline-corny concept of comedy that peaked in the age of the Dean Martin TV specials (and may survive now only on Lewis’ own annual telethons). I can hardly think of a character in any movie that so comprehensively evades the normal range of analysis or identification. Certainly he’s grotesquely delusional, and a pathological liar. The character’s background is barely explained. We (hilariously) hear his mother’s voice yelling at him to be quiet while he playacts in his basement, but we never see the woman herself. He tells Bernhard he lives in a hovel, but it seems far from it. In his monologue he says his mother is dead.

That monologue is almost entirely built around anecdotes of a miserable childhood – how his parents were so regularly drunk that he thought vomiting was a sign of maturity; how he was so often beaten up that the school worked it into the curriculum, and so on – culminating in his on-air confession to kidnapping Langford and the rationale: “Better king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.” In one of his fantasies, where he’s a guest on Langford’s show, Pupkin’s former high school principal shows up to publicly apologize for all the wrongs he suffered at school, before instigating an on-air wedding ceremony for Rupert and his dream woman. But this isn’t merely a matter of a loser reaching out for self-definition. Another bizarrely stylized fantasy has Langford pushing Pupkin around even as he praises his comic prowess, and then again there’s the masochism of that final monologue, perhaps none of it more than loosely based on the facts of Rupert’s life. In the very last scene Pupkin at last seems to have achieved his dream, but he looks stranger than ever, and we don’t hear him speak – the ultimate validation is barely a step removed from self-nullification. And even this may merely be a fantasy too.

Identity And Self-Delusion

As proof of this, Langford appears to have no meaningful private life at all. Lewis’ brilliant performance makes his status as comedy icon wholly believable while also pushing the character as close as possible to active unpleasantness (while also suggesting the real pressures that might make this a necessary self-protection). We don’t see much of Langford as a performer – Scorsese shot a monologue but decided not to use it (it’s included as an extra on the DVD – fascinating if not exactly funny). Langford is established, a monolith – a point amusingly echoed in the way his kidnappers envelope him in a small mountain of tape. I’m not sure there are any moments in the film where someone laughs freely and spontaneously. Comedy is merely an object of exchange, something transactional, standardized, like dollar bills in The Color Of Money. Which renders the film disturbingly displaced and desperate.

I love Taxi Driver and Raging Bull too but I have to admit that in the light of my love for The King Of Comedy they seem rather crude. Certainly they are too easy to take as localized case histories – I’ve never taken much personal illumination away from Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta. But The King Of Comedy seems increasingly relevant to me. That’s true enough just as a cautionary tale on celebrity worship, but that alone wouldn’t be so exciting. It’s more that in a time of increasing apathy, separation from real issues, puerile fixation on incidentals, and induced mass delusion, the film seems remarkably resonant as an essay in the fragility of identity and self-delusion, as an evocation of how one can be utterly plugged into the cultural centre (either as participant or spectator) and yet be utterly lost. It’s surely Scorsese’s most rigorously analytical film, and crammed with incidental pleasures as well.

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