Saturday, February 26, 2005

Lenny Bruce Without Tears

So many people know Lenny Bruce only through his reputation as St. Lenny, the martyr of free speech, the victim of his own drug habit as well as of moralistic prosecuting attorneys, that it’s easy to lose sight of one of the most important things about him: he was a very funny guy. Copping a feel from the zeitgeist at exactly the moment when the Eisenhower 50s turned into the swinging Kennedy 60s, Bruce found his voice after more than a decade floundering in strip clubs and promoting ill-conceived movie projects. Suddenly his almost childlike fascination with the world – a world in which the maneuverings of presidents and popes seemed as fanciful as that revealed on “The Late, Late Show” (the used car ads as well as the old movies).
Suddenly Lenny was swinging on the mike, creating elaborate bits in which high-placed religious figures and mythic heroes like the Lone Ranger opened up to reveal their human side, their petty neuroses and their secret desires. Listen to Lenny’s album with classic sketches like “Religions, Inc.”, “Thank You Masked Man”, or “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” and you’ll find a gifted comedian, a hipster showman just on the cusp of genius, happily riffing on his own imagination and allowing the audience to come along for the ride.
And then on October 3, 1961, everything changed. Lenny got busted for obscenity in San Francisco. While the complaint mentioned several portions of his act, the most damaging part of it was a ten letter word, a reference to a sexual practice described in court as “related to homosexuals” but now so common a part of contemporary parlance that you can hear it on tv sitcoms or read about it in government reports.
The arrest, the first of many, changed Lenny. He made bail in time for his 1 a.m. performance, where he closed with a line that would come to define the rest of his career. “I’m sorry if I’m not very funny tonight” he apologized to the audience, “but I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce.”
After that moment, Lenny’s performances changed from nightclub shtick to a more personal combination of soul-baring and free association. At his best, as with the Curran Theatre and Carnegie Hall concerts (both available on cd), he was funnier than ever, but more inclined toward improvising meditations on his legal problems than to deliver the popular routines from his records. (Later, of course, he would become obsessed with is legal problems and his live appearances became rambling arguments about legal minutiae. )
(Bruce’s troubles with the law are given an excellent interpretation through the perspective of subsequent obscenity cases in the recent book “The Trials of Lenny Bruce”, which also includes a CD with pertinent excerpts from his act.)
Fred Baker’s Lenny Bruce Without Tears, just released on DVD by First Run Features, isn’t the most thorough account of Bruce’s life, but for Bruce aficionados it shows the comedian at a rare moment in his career, making the rounds of tv shows designed to validate a hip audience, playing the showbiz game but pushing the boundaries and reveling in his new status as “obscene”. (Baker, a friend of the comedian, was the director of the underground hit Events and a veteran of tv jazz performances. He made his tribute to Bruce hoping to sell it to PBS.) Taken largely from Bruce’s appearances on television, it offers a slightly sanitized view of the comedian, clearly enjoying his new notoriety but recognizing that the “Sick comic” label is a way of getting attention but is not without its drawbacks. Bruce fans won’t want to miss this though they won’t be able to help noticing that it stows only one side of the comedian as he tempers his act for the sake of reaching a wider audience, talking about “how I became obscene” but safely avoiding the blunt honesties that made him a legend as well as a felon.
That said, Lenny Bruce Without Tears pays tribute to Lenny’s short and tumultuous life, but it’s best appreciated by those who already know the man and his work. It’s respectful and maybe even a touch too reverent, but it’s no substitute for the real, raw thing. It’s worth a look, but`check out a few of Bruce’s recordings first and get a taste of the real thing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

By way of introduction (a few months late)...

For those of you loyal observers out there (Hi, mom!) who are wondering just what this is all about, I've decided to make some changes to this blog. First of all, I've decided to make it more personal and subjective, less of a series of links to other articles and more of an account of my own impressions on the cultural landscape. This is not to say that it will be an intimate diary, a confessional, a cry for help or a collection of pictures of my cats. There are other places for that sort of thing, and in all honesty, I am too private (some would even say secretive) a person to comfortably reveal much of myself. Also, I tend to side with Fran Leibowitz' statement that "spilling your guts is as attractive as it sounds."
(In the interest of full disclosure, my mother doesn't actually read this blog.)
I’ve been writing about movies (and occasionally other things) for almost twenty-five years, teaching film studies for a little over fifteen years and for a variety of reasons have come to a point where I am no longer interested in practicing the kind of publicity/gossip/dollar-watching that passes as critical commentary in most places these days. I’d rather just make my observations in this informal capacity and make them available to anyone who passes by.
So while I’m dropping the pretense that this is anything other than a reflection of my own interests (unless anyone else wants to contribute), it will still be primarily about movies, books, music and the arts - or any other items from the world of ideas that seem worth noting.
What else does this mean? More frequent posts, more reviews and a more consistent presence...once I get a few technical issues worked out.
A few other things:
Why the Amazon links? Well, why not? I assume that if you’re interested in reading about a particular subject – say, the DVD of L’Age d’Or, you’ve probably had the idea of buying a copy cross your mind anyway, so why not hit one of the links I provide and let Jeff Bezos throw a few pennies in my direction? The idea that this blog could be self-sufficient – in theory – amuses me, but I promise not to abuse it.
Perhaps you stumbled across this blog through a search or you saw my reference to it in the signature line of an e-mail. If you are actually out there looking at this (and I’m by no means certain that a single soul on this planet has ever read a word on this page), send me a comment. If you’re a blogger, let me know and I’ll post a link to your site over on the left.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Straight Shooting
Orson Welles reportedly said that The Outlaw Josey Wales would have been recognised as a great film "if the director's name wasn't Eastwood". It's hard to believe that nearly thirty years and a few dozen great films later, there are still commentators would roll their eyes at the idea that Clint Eastwood is a filmmaker to be taken seriously. Fortunately, this group obviously doesn't include his peers; The Director's Guild gave him a well-deserved recognition as Best Director for Million Dollar Baby a few days ago. If you haven't seen Eastwood's latest film yet, do so immediately. But prepare to be left shaken by a film that makes even the bleak atmosphere of Mystic River seem like a day at the beach.
Eastwood is one of the last masters of a classical mise-en-scene, a director who doesn't put a single thing into a shot unless he means it. His films are lean and exact, and while he's not above reaching for a shpwy effect, he's not likely to draw attention to it; no flashy 360-degree turns or MTV editing here. He's also good at getting his actors to underplay, finding meaning in their pauses and silent moments rather than reaching for emotional crescendos: Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Eastwood himself have rarely been as good as they are in Million Dollar Baby.
And that's all that I really need to say about it. I'm not much of a fan of the current need to shout about "spoilers", but I'll reverse my position and simply state that Million Dollar Baby is a devestating, heartbreakingly poignant story about human beings pushed to emotional and ethical limits. If you haven't seen it, do so - but be prepared.
Then read Amy Taubin's interview with the director over at the "Film Comment" site.

They had faces then....
The good folks at Milestone Film and Video have just announced their plans to release Beyond the Rocks, a 1922 film, long believed to be lost and starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson at the height of their respective careers. The announcement isn't on Milestone's site yet, but should be soon.... Go on and take a look at their other fine selections anyway...