Sunday, January 31, 2016

Best of 2002

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

Not a bad year at all when I’m able to point to a line-up like this.

Va Savoir (Jacques Rivette)
Rivette is one of my very favourite directors, but my first viewing of his latest film left me a little disappointed. It seemed more earthbound than I’m used to with Rivette – the convolutions in the structure didn’t seem as philosophically or intellectually revealing. But further viewings on DVD helped me realize I’d fallen into the easy trap of underestimating him: as with much of Rivette’s work, his films are so subtle and unforced that you can overlook their exquisite balance.

Late Marriage (Dover Koshashvili)
An Israeli film of a man resisting his parents’ pressure to marry, while carrying on an affair with an older divorcee. It’s one of the blackest comedies in a long time, one of the most fascinating takes on human relationships, with one of the most striking sex scenes, and one of the most compromised happy endings imaginable. The film deftly suggests an Israeli society (this particular subset is the Georgian émigré community) with huge cracks down the middle. And for those of us unacquainted with that society, I suspect it gains in translation a certain surreal, disembodied nastiness.

Je rentre a la maison (Manoel de Oliveira)
This is the first of 93-year-old (93!) de Oliveira’s films that I’ve seen, and I think my lack of familiarity with his work may have prevented me from fully engaging with the film. But surprisingly, I found it stayed in my memory as much as anything else I saw – it’s clearly self-referential, but it has its own entrancing sense of ethicism and elegance. Michel Piccoli plays an esteemed actor trying to get on with his life after the death of his family in a car accident, including accepting a phenomenally miscast role in a film of Joyce’s Ulysses (the deadpan depiction of this episode is one of the year’s most unexpectedly funny contrivances).

Last Orders (Fred Schepisi)
Schepisi’s film about three aging drinking buddies mourning the death of a fourth could hardly look and feel more authentically drab and desolate – there’s very little misplaced romanticism or nostalgia here – and yet it gradually takes on the expansive, limitless feel of a Bertolucci film. It skillfully finds moments of hope, of extreme possibilities squandered, of faith and longing. It allows us both to feel the impact of those moments and to appreciate that they don’t amount to much from sixty or seventy years on earth. The actors (including Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins) are all great to watch, and I think this film will grow in one’s memory.

Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl)
This sexually explicit film follows a few desperate characters in a seemingly affluent suburb, suffering through a heatwave. It takes the voyeurism inherent in cinema and blows it up to the point that conventional pleasures quickly wither, leaving us scrambling for self-justification. Seidl provides enough relatively easy (if never comfortable) laughs and points of identification that the film’s generally an enveloping experience – but the extent to which it’s straightforwardly pleasurable just make all the more uncomfortable the myriad occasions on which it isn’t that. His characters may look pathetic in a certain way, and we may wonder about the sanity of the actors, but the point is that we end up pondering a unique sexual terrain, and one that’s expansive rather than limiting.

L’Anglaise et le duc (Eric Rohmer)
81-year-old Rohmer’s film, set during the French Revolution, uses digital technology to insert its characters into painted settings. The technique is unsettling at first, but as the film progresses, the artificiality strangely becomes a means of authenticity – the unfamiliarity of its appearance reinforces the sense of a true window into the past. The matter-of-fact air of even the most dramatic events seems like a further guarantee of verisimilitude. It’s a film that’s extremely modern while possessing the most classical of qualities; some might find it a bit talky and distended, but it will probably stand as a key Rohmer film.

The Believer (Henry Bean)
I haven’t actually seen the end of this film. With no more than ten minutes to go, the Varsity projector broke down and they couldn’t get it back up. Still, I saw enough to know that The Believer is a near-must see. An astonishing creation about a Jew who embraces Nazism, the film is the most articulate of the year, and one of the most subtly perverse: the character’s escalating violence and radicalism coexist with a longing to reimmerse himself in Judaism. Ryan Gosling gives a fine, fiery performance in the main role. The film is sometimes too cluttered, and events take place on such a melodramatic scale that they threaten to swamp the character, but the worst never happens (not up to the last ten minutes anyway).

Talk to her (Pedro Almodovar)
Almodovar has mastered the art of making outlandish narratives seem as natural and graceful as a dance. His new film, in which dance is actually woven prominently into the design, revolves around two men, both in love with (wait for it) women in comas. Events build to a shocking violation that Almodovar somehow manages to render smooth and understandable. This is as beguiling a movie as he’s made, even if the broader insights (the title sets out the main message – the importance of communication) don’t amount to much. It shifts gears and perspectives with imperceptible ease, sliding forwards and backwards in time in a way that makes most narratives of that type seem highly self-conscious.

Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes)
Haynes’ film recreates the look and feel of a 50s suburban melodrama like All that Heaven Allows, but takes advantage of modern production freedoms to deal more explicitly with themes of race and sexuality than Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli could have imagined. Julianne Moore is the housewife who’s drawn to the black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while her executive husband (Dennis Quaid) is fighting his homosexuality. In some ways it’s a rather esoteric project, willingly accepting outdated idioms and attitudes, but Haynes sustains the experiment brilliantly, investing it with almost unimaginable subtlety.

Personal Velocity (Rebecca Miller)
Miller’s film, consisting of three separate stories about women, is an almost exemplary example of how small things, seen on screen, may seem profound. The middle section, with Parker Posey as a book editor falling out of love with her husband, is particularly superb.

Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last few weeks of the year. Near misses include All or Nothing, The Last Kiss and Roger Dodger. As always, I doubt that I saw the year’s worst films, but the most overrated include Signs and Roads to Perdition. I was most disappointed not to have like Adaptation better, but at least I enjoyed a Bond movie more than I had in years. I guess I must have seen a good Canadian film this year too, but I’ve forgotten what it was. See you next year!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Aesthetic appreciation

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

Once everyone got over the hype of its film festival gala premiere, and Salma Hayek’s whirlwind visit to Toronto, I’m not sure too many people were excited about Julie Taymor’s movie Frida. The general consensus seems to be that the visuals were much more interesting than the script, which is my own opinion as well. The initial buzz about Hayek’s chances of an Oscar nomination also disappeared. But one element in the film seems to endure. David Poland put it like this in his review in

“One of the most profound pieces of art in the film appears when Kahlo finally is freed of her full-torso cast. When that cast is removed, like a piece coming out of a kiln, there is a surprisingly long shot of Ms. Hayek’s bosoms. And they are, without just being a silly boy, aesthetically perfect. The camera lingers like a fresh set of eyes seeing a Michelangelo or DiVinci (sic) for the first time.”


Poland’s rival Jeffrey Wells, at (yep, that’s right) printed a still of this profundity, with the title “Object d’Art” and the following aesthetic commentary: “If someone were to take this ridiculously cheesy shot of a scene from Frida and blow it up and mount it on the walls of a respectable art gallery, it would sell for $10,000. The artistic mark of distinction is that slightly out-of-focus balcony railing off to the lower left. That and those tiny bits of plaster stuck to the breasts, and the general graininess. It might be even better if someone were to paint the photo as photo-realism. I just know it’s got an interesting ‘off’ quality.”

“Lowlife rutting beast that I am,” writes Wells later in the column, “it’s one of the things about Frida I can’t shake from my memory.”

Johanna Schneller in The Globe and Mail wrote in her column about a conversation she had with a bunch of male film critics after seeing Frida, where this scene was just about the only object of conversation. “Did you notice how Taymor lingered on Hayek’s breasts for a good five seconds,” she quotes a guy in “thick eyeglasses” as saying, “almost as if she were saying the breasts were the works of art?” This drove Schneller to track down the compiler of The Bare Facts Video Guide, a guy who fast forwards through two movies at a time, hits pause at any hint of skin, and then meticulously documents the details.

I then looked up the reviews by The New York Times and Roger Ebert, which failed to mention this scene. But the Times and Ebert aren’t the cutting edge any more, if they ever were. There’s a cultural phenomenon here – a transcendent moment that will live on in clips and stills and the popular memory, long after the rest of Frida has passed into oblivion.

Bare Facts

I think Poland is right that there’s a certain aesthetic perfection to the moment. It’s the last thing you expect at that point in the movie: the plaster cast comes off, and if you were thinking about it at all you’d assume the camera would pan up to her relieved face or something like that, but it stays in place, and there they are. It’s a very effective surprise moment. As are the moments in horror movies when someone leaps from behind the door and you jump out of your seat. And, by the way, there’s a certain aesthetic perfection to the outfit the girls wear at Hooters too. And I know (as I’m sure we all do) a guy who buys Playboy because the pictures are like “art.”

The fact of director Taymor being a woman, and a very astute one, strengthens the odds that there is indeed an aesthetic calculation to the scene (although to the extent you can figure out what that calculation is, it doesn’t seem to belong in this particular movie). But that’s obviously secondary to the lowlife rutting beast appeal. Surprise eroticism carries ten times the charge of the scene that everyone’s waiting for. They deluged the world in publicity about Halle Berry’s topless scene in Swordfish, and then the moment was so matter-of-fact and lackadaisical that the world just yawned. Much the same goes for Katie Holmes in The Gift. I’ve always been convinced that Teri Hatcher’s career went into immediate decline after her topless scene in Heaven’s Prisoners. She was famously the most downloaded woman on the planet, then she threw the mystique away.

On the other hand, Meryl Streep’s brief flash in Silkwood is probably the main thing that endures about the film. And although we’re talking a different part of the anatomy here, Julianne Moore’s half-nude scene in Short Cuts still gets written about more than anything else she’s ever done.


In a world where erotic images aren’t exactly hard to come by, it’s surely a little puzzling that so much extra cache would attach to this celebrity material. The Bare Facts Video Guide is just one of many sources of that kind of thrill; for example, has a “celebrity skin showcase” recording such privileged moments from the careers of Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and many more. I’ve sometimes wondered what the actresses think of this, if they know about it. No doubt they accepted those movie assignments based on a certain calculation – maybe involving economic pressure (many of the scenes come from earlier in the actresses’ careers), insecurity, and in all likelihood a genuine commitment to artistic intent. Bullock and Judd are probably well-adjusted enough to be philosophical about it, but even a freedom-of-speech stalwart couldn’t fail to understand why they might muse about lawsuits.

You would think we’d be blasé about celebrity by now, and I think most of us are, at least with half our brains, but maybe it’s not worth resisting. We might profess an ironic distance from the subject, but we end up talking about it just as much, so I guess ironic distance isn’t exactly worth its weight in gold. For my part, I’ll certainly admit it was more fun writing this article than an actual review of Frida would have been. Still, since there’s a little room left, I should say that the movie contains a great deal of exquisite imagery beyond that one scene, and finds a visual language that complements and deepens our appreciation of the paintings. But although the movie talks about the depth of Kahlo’s physical pain, Hayek’s rather superficially feisty performance doesn’t make us feel it. Alfred Molina isn’t much more subtle as Diego Rivera, but his more vivid presence overshadows hers, further skewing the film’s emotional centre. Add to this the overly conventional structure, and it’s an overall disappointment. Albeit with one, or two, compensations.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Movie stories

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

I recently spent a long weekend in Winnipeg (is there any other kind?) attending a conference. Winnipeg strikes me as a fairly miserable place, which makes it an excellent location for a conference. With nothing much to draw us from the hotel, we all hung out and got to know each other better, which was the whole point. You can only take so much conviviality though. I needed to get at least one movie in there, so I took a cab one afternoon to see I Spy.

Had I been in Toronto, I could have gone to see either Frida or Roger Dodger, but I was in Winnipeg, so I saw I Spy. I’ll probably remember it my whole life, just as I seem to recall almost all the movies I’ve seen on various trips. Gaudi Afternoon in Oslo, Arlington Road in Zurich, Backbeat in Paris, Liam in Madrid, and now I Spy in Winnipeg: a list forged through sheer circumstance, but seeming to me somehow coherent, forming the coordinates of some mysterious geometry.

I Spy

The theater in Winnipeg was yet another Famous Players multiplex, apparently just a few years old but already past its snazzy prime – like all those places, it’ll look awfully dated in a few years. It was pretty empty (the movie was a box-office disappointment) and I sat in the same kind of position I usually choose – four or five rows back. Nothing exceptional about any of that. Not about the movie, which is distinctly formulaic. But I enjoyed it more than would ever have been possible in Toronto, I think. Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy make a serviceable double act. The film has no social relevance whatsoever, and it’s about as surprising as the taste of Coke, but it has good pace, and an amusing recurring theme about Wilson being hampered by sub-standard spy gadgets.

Most people see movies, of course, as an outing, which as likely as not includes a drink or dinner before or after. Weekends at the Paramount, the movie may be a preamble to the nightclub. For many, it implies a rigmarole of planning – babysitters, parking, etc. I suppose the movie watching experience gains some additional contours from these surrounding logistics. Me – I usually just go to the movie, then come home. My I-Spy experience made me reflect that I may be missing out on something. If a minor variation to the routine adds some spice to I-Spy, what might be achieved through a more dramatic departure?

Anyway, the following weekend I caught up with Roger Dodger, but the movie had already been relegated to a single location – the Varsity VIP. These are the ultra-plush screening rooms at the Varsity where you pay a few dollars more for an extra-comfortable space and leg room, and where the attendants bring the popcorn and drinks right to you, to save you the walk. I don’t make any great claims for the social significance of lining up for popcorn, but something about this particular form of pampering puts me off.

Roger Dodger

Having said that, it wasn’t a bad way to see Roger Dodger. I was all by myself except for (I think) a couple of other people sitting at the back, and the resulting feeling of sealed-off privilege complemented the elegant isolation that defines the movie. Campbell Scott plays a Manhattan advertising copywriter who’s a ladies’ man – he tells his teenage nephew he gets lucky every night. The nephew is a frustrated virgin who’s turned up unexpectedly to get some pointers, and Scott takes him on a tour of the nightspots, spilling a mesmerizing torrent of snappy advice on how you get the job done; the movie has the most consistently enthralling dialogue since The Believer.

Based on what we see in the movie, Roger strikes out much more than he succeeds, but that seems truer to his real intention. He approaches his targets too directly not to be frightening – he seems to hold out the prospect of bypassing orgasm and going straight to the recrimination afterwards. The only exception is an affair with his female boss, in which he behaves like a jerk. The nephew on the other hand is beguiling in his innocence, and seems potentially capable of connecting even with two women much more worldly than he is. The contrast gives the film an efficient narrative line, but the women seem too idealized (although the skillful acting by Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkeley hides this pretty well).

The movie’s grip lies in pure self-destruction, and Scott has never seemed as much like his father George C (in desolate Hardcore mode, not the dingbat of Dr. Strangelove or the overpowering tyrant of Patton). The character could have eaten himself alive, but director Dylan Kidd spares him that, and allows him a much-criticized coda where he now visits the nephew in his school and resumes his education. It suggests that the film is ultimately less interested in exploring the implications of Roger’s behaviour than in establishing him as an icon.

If you saw it as part of a couple on a date, with your mind as much on what’s happening later that evening as on the movie itself, you could be forgiven for mistaking Roger Dodger for something of a romp. Seeing it alone, it’s unmistakably depressing. But I think that’s the better reading of it.

Far from Heaven

Fortunately, I’m not yet fated to watch quite all my movies alone. Later that same day, my wife and I met up with three friends to watch Far from Heaven. The film recreates the look and feel of a 50s suburban melodrama like All that Heaven Allows, but takes advantage of modern production freedoms to deal more explicitly with themes of race and sexuality than Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli could have imagined. Julianne Moore is the housewife who’s drawn to the black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while her executive husband (Dennis Quaid) is fighting his homosexuality. In some ways, it’s a rather esoteric project, willingly accepting outdated idioms and attitudes, but Haynes sustains the experiment brilliantly, investing it with almost unimaginable subtlety.

Later on we went for some beers. We talked about the movie, of course. We all liked it, and as with any group, we came at it from different angles. I knew the director Todd Haynes’ previous work, so I talked about that. I wasn’t around in the 50s, but others in the group were, and testified to the film’s verisimilitude in many respects. Our group lacked any black or gay representation, which may have held us back from having the best possible discussion about the film, but it’s not like anyone was keeping score. As in most walks of life, you send your ideas bouncing around in a good debate, and they come back that much stronger. And they stick better in the memory too.

Moral: sometimes you’re better off seeing movies alone, sometimes with other people. But the main thing is – see a movie!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Killer video

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

I haven’t seen the Japanese original on which Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is based, and until I saw the remake I’d never wanted to. This is a function of too many movies and too short a life span – the whole cultish Japanese thing has long seemed to me an easy area in which to turn a blind eye and avoid spreading myself too thin, cinematically speaking. But my resolve is slowly crumbling. Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away may well be a masterpiece of some kind. I was gripped last year by Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse and even the Pang Brothers’ The Eye (which I wrote about in fairly lukewarm terms in my film festival review a few weeks ago) left a surprisingly vivid aftertaste.

Foreign films

I’ve been through this kind of surrender several times before. I remember a period when I was fairly certain I could ignore contemporary Iranian cinema, before a screening of Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House put paid to that. More recently, I’ve started to become much more aware of India’s “Bollywood” movies. For years, my knowledge of Indian cinema began and ended at Satyajit Ray (and James Ivory, who I don’t think really counts). Then, a few months ago, someone at the office lent me a DVD of a Raj Kapoor movie called Shree 420. It’s not a masterpiece exactly, but it’s highly entertaining, although I’m enough of a Bollywood novice to have been quite disorientated by the film’s many abrupt shifts of tone. But almost as intriguing was the promotional reel at the end of the film – a long clip montage that gave me an inkling of how huge and diverse that body of work actually is.

Talking to my several Indian-descended colleagues at the office, and realizing how they swapped memories of Bollywood actors and classics as effortlessly as I speak of Jack Nicholson and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I started to feel out in the cold. So I’m determined to make up ground there. Still, given the length of the movies (Shree 420 is 168 minutes, which isn’t even at the longer end of the Indian scale) and the volume of material to catch up on, I fear this task really will outlive me. I thought Vision TV was going to help recently by screening the classic Sholay, but I doubt I’m the only one who was appalled at the truly wretched editing job someone did on it (a 216 minute movie plus commercials, butchered into a 180 minute slot).

Anyway, the Japanese The Ring seems to be a true cult classic. Here’s a typical (verbatim) comment from the Internet Movie Database: “this is a great movie and hopefully the American version doesn’t funk it up to much cause its just about perfect the way it is, in japanese, with english subtitles, the ‘horror’ follows you after you watch this film leaving you creeped out, seriously, very very disturbed, and the only way you can overcome it, is to watch it again and again…..eeeek!” (By the way, if this raises any thoughts as to how I might improve my own reviewing style, feel free to write in). I guess another way to overcome the horror might be to watch the film’s two sequels.

The Ring

Another reason to get into this genre is to stay young. Apparently the remake of The Ring had some of the higher recent pre-release “want to see” buzz among teenage audiences, and accordingly opened to solid box office. The film doesn’t pander to that audience in all ways though. Most notably, it’s one of the relatively few thrillers built around a female protagonist. She’s a journalist investigating the recent death of several teenagers. The rumour is they died after watching a videotape that kills everyone who views it, exactly seven days later. She tracks down and watches the videotape, and quickly becomes convinced it’s not just an urban legend. After that it’s a race against time to locate the source of the tape and save herself, and her young son who’s inadvertently seen the tape as well.

The film is shot in a sombre, brooding manner that’s generally reminiscent of the movies I mentioned in my first paragraph. It’s the contrast of this unforced mood with the plot’s outlandish mythology that gives this genre its unique frisson. The Ring proceeds through a series of deductions, but these are all highly arbitrary. The ultimate explanation leaves an awful lot of loose ends. It’s never explained, for instance, how the videotape was made. Even so, this plot device draws effortlessly on vague disquiet about the underbelly of technology.

Naomi Watts plays the woman, in her first major role since breaking through in Mulholland Drive. She’s almost as good here as she was in that film, although it’s an inherently simpler role. Actually, it’s a more logical follow-up than one might think. Her role in Lynch’s film was one of the most ambiguous in memory, first painting a sunny exterior with hints of hidden depths, and then revealing those depths with startling clarity. The scene where she does an audition with Chad Everett summed up how acting and reinvention are central to the film’s theme, while also providing one hell of a showcase for Watts herself.

Face value

The Ring may work best if you see it in similar terms, with Watts’ unraveling of the story constituting an invention as much as a discovery. True, in its final stretch the film becomes so explicit that you have to take it at face value. But before then it’s plausible that the supernatural elements may just be projections of a widespread psychosis. It’s a shame though that Verbinski doesn’t make this interpretation easier. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films seem to carry a profound allegorical punch, maybe in part because his observation of young people is so quietly scrupulous that the films can’t be read as an “escape.” The Ring seems to lack that much ambition. It’s a shame, because the potential is so clearly apparent.

The film has a superb sequence involving an escaped horse on a boat, and the video itself is an appropriately disquieting piece of montage. On the whole, The Ring discharges its commercial obligations more than adequately, while preserving enough of a foreign sensibility to set itself apart. While keeping the audience content to live in the mainstream, it will surely persuade some of them to seek out the Japanese original, and then maybe to move on to other foreign films. Who knows, some may even find their way from cult movies to the accepted canon of world cinema; maybe I’ll cross paths with them as I come in the opposite direction.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Laugh riot

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

Among my intensive movie-watching schedule, there’s only one show I’ve designated as appointment television – Curb your Enthusiasm on TMN. The show is gradually getting more attention (it was up for a best comedy show Emmy this year) although no one I’ve mentioned it to has ever seen it. Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, writes every episode, and stars in it as a stylized version of himself – a multi-millionaire living in plush circumstances in L.A. hanging out with celebrities, not doing anything in particular, but constantly battling aggravation and embarrassment. It’s partly the result of his dyspeptic, rough-edged personality, but also reflects an almost cosmic bad luck, as though to punish him for getting rich from such lightweight achievement.

Curb your Enthusiasm

The show has superb plotting – very much like Seinfeld in how it sets several off-the-wall plot strands in motion and steers them toward a generally wince-inducing collision. He hangs out a lot with people he may or may not actually like (Richard Lewis seems like an actual friend despite their fighting; it’s harder though to tell what he thinks of Ted Danson) – he needs the interaction, but it pains him. But it’s a much more bitter show, acknowledging no taboo subjects. One episode featured the making of a Martin Scorsese movie, the death of Larry’s mother (which struck him mainly as an excuse to get out of unwanted obligations), counterfeit money, and grave-robbing. Week after week, the show further defines its own universe – one that’s increasingly as complex and resonant as Seinfeld (which inspired at least one dictionary).

I love how, again like Seinfeld, David positions the show between reality and surrealism. The shows are broadly sequential, with running plot lines, and yet Larry can only escape pariahdom because people (or the Federal government for that matter), aren’t keeping score. In various episodes, he’s been despised by everyone in L.A. for putting Shaquille O’Neal out of action (Larry had a front row seat at a Lakers game and Shaq tripped over his outstretched feet), he’s emptied out the city after spreading rumours of a terrorist attack, he’s alienated the bosses of just about every TV network, been stopped by the cops on numerous occasions, etc. But life goes on.

David was apparently the inspiration for George Costanza on Seinfeld, and exhibits the same nebbish, self-centered view of the world here. But David doesn’t have Jason Alexander’s cuddliness or occasional plaintive quality. Anyway, it’s a TV show that’s as good as watching a movie – and that’s the highest praise I can give. I am, as you can see, a fan.


Julia-Louis Dreyfus made several appearances on Curb your Enthusiasm last season, for a recurring storyline about her and Larry trying to set up a new comedy show (one by one, every network reacts positively at first, then Larry blows the deal for some reason or other). Jason Alexander appeared too. In the real world, they and Michael Richards all flopped in their post-Seinfeld projects. As for the big guy himself – well, Jerry Seinfeld always marched to a slightly different drummer. He never took on a movie role. After the show ended, he didn’t do much of anything for a while. Then you started reading about him working the comedy clubs again. Famously, he retired all his old jokes. Sounded like he still thought he had something to prove, but what?

It now turns out that a camera was trailing Seinfeld throughout that period, and the new film Comedian gives us a flavour of what was going on. And the revelation is – there’s no revelation. Regardless that he drives to his New York gigs in a Porsche and flies in a private jet to his out of town jobs, he’s a true believer in the classic comedy ladder. That’s the one where you sweat it out developing material and a sense of yourself, slog around the country, work your way up the bill and then get your big break – it used to be Carson, now it’s Leno or Letterman. Seinfeld already shot way beyond that level and made his fortune, but it looks like he couldn’t imagine any greater challenge than to do it all over again.

Of course, he can’t really go back again – audiences now grant him a degree of indulgence denied to any novice. But that’s not really his fault. Jerry Seinfeld comes across as a decent, inherently modest guy. The movie contrasts him with Orny Adams, a 29-year-old still searching for his big break. By comparison, Adams seems arrogant and self-regarding – it’s clear that if he ever makes it big, no room will be big enough to contain his ego. But then at one point he shows us his room full of material – files of jokes, journals, unproduced screenplays – and you realize how much he’s poured into this, how his abrasiveness is insulation against rejection. At one point he talks with Seinfeld, telling him about friends who’ve made money on Wall Street and how he (Adams) needs to start getting somewhere. Seinfeld thinks he’s crazy – it’s not about the money, he says, it’s because if you’re drawn to this life, then you have no choice. But Jerry’s at a point where he can afford to ignore practicalities.

The King of Comedy

Comedian contains hundreds of jokes, but it isn’t actually all that funny. While watching it, you’re too caught up in the process of manufacturing comedy, with all its neuroses and pressures and traps. In this regard the movie reminded me of Scorsese’s classic The King of Comedy, in which Robert de Niro is Rupert Pupkin, a psychotic wannabe comedian who ultimately kidnaps his talk show idol, played by Jerry Lewis. Scorsese talked in interviews about how he deliberately didn’t include much of the Lewis character’s humour in the film, because it would have invited the audience to judge whether or not he’s as funny as Pupkin thinks he is. The point was purely that he’s an icon, that he’s made it. Comedian works in a similar way. You forget that it’s in some sense about laughter and fun, because no one’s having that much of either.

The famous deathbed line is that dying is easy – it’s comedy that’s hard. Comedian amply supports that premise, and yet you wonder why stand-up is quite so hard. Jerry Seinfeld labours for over a year on putting together a 50-minute act, but let’s face it – people write great novels, or direct entire movies, in less time. Larry David writes thirteen mini-masterpieces a year. But I guess there's no way you can feel the pain unless you share the affliction.