Thursday, October 20, 2011


So Holy Flying Circus has turned up, I've watched it, and, until some well-mannered and somewhat apologetic BBC watchdog slaps the uploader with a cease-and-desist-if-it-doesn't-inconvenience-you-sir-and-I-do-apologize-for-the-slap order, you can too:

And, at last the 1979 show that inspired it:

As for Holy Flying Circus, I can report with some relief that I quite liked it.  Relief because I'm one of those unpleasant sods who characterizes his affection for Monty Python in terms like "worship," who has been known to drunkenly spout the text of the "Cheese Shop" sketch the way certain fundamentalists might reel off large chunks of scripture at the slightest provocation (though, to be fair, I have come across very few in my experience who actually do such things, whereas I can name dozens of adenoidal dweebs with no muscle tone and limited social skills given to quoting Python, so which group really poses the greatest threat to our social fabric?), who uses terms like "sods" even though he's never so much as set foot in Great Britain or its remaining protectorates.  So I have somehow managed to elude the irony that, if I didn't like this film, I'd have every chance of sounding like a real-life version of this:

...but I did like HFC, though it could have gone very, very wrong.  The preview clips the BBC posted weren't especially encouraging, particularly the one which featured perhaps the worst joke in the film ("Harry Balls"?  Really?), and the overall remit - let's do a Python biopic like Python would have done! - was, on the face of it, a most unpromising idea.  Trying to replicate the blend of undergrad revue comedy, thesaurean verbal invention, form-and-function-twisting presentational fuckaboutery, astringent social satire and men in suits of armo(u)r hitting other men with rubber chickens with which the magnificent six revolutionized comedy seems like a nigh-impossible thing to do.  As a matter of fact, a quick glance at the new material used to lash together the various repackagings, documentaries and special editions that have popped up over the last decade or so proves that the Pythons themselves can't do it anymore.  (And let's not even speak of Spamalot.)

And then there's the matter of casting - finding the appropriate actors for the job is one of the major challenges for biopics, particularly when dealing with figures who still walk among us or at least have a lot of easily-accessible footage made of them.  ("John Adams? Couldn't get through it - Giamatti sounded nothing like the guy!")  But when the figures being dramatized are comedians, well, that's a whole 'nother container of wrigglers.  (Warning: rambling tangential aside to follow.)  Comedy is hard, all right - just ask those who were foolish enough to try replicating it.  Take Bob Fosse's Lenny (1974), please - a pretty good film on its own merits with a fine lead performance by Dustin Hoffman, but the guy he's playing comes off more like a slightly jittery professor of semantics rather than the man who'd spritz Pearl Bailey in the face with a fire extinguisher to get a laugh. You're left wondering just why this twinkly, amiable little fellow was considered such a threat to the social fabric. (However, as portrayals of Lenny Bruce go, that's far from the worst of it.  I don't have the heart to blurt it out, so I encourage anyone who believes that Lenny suffered no worse indignities than being unfairly persecuted, hounded to his death and having the police let a conga line of photographers in to snap his bloated, naked corpse to go here and scroll to the bottom of the cast list.)  Lenny laid down the template for most of the dramas about comics to follow - he/she/they made millions of people laugh, but good heavens, what miserable human beings they were - a premise juicy enough to keep attracting writers, directors and big-time thespians again and again.  Robert Downey, Jr. played Chaplin, Geoffrey Rush did a turn as Peter Sellers, Jim Carrey portrayed Andy Kaufman, Michael Chiklis looked to fill the shoes of the mighty Curly Howard (and I seem to remember Chiklis playing another beloved comic icon, but I appear to have repressed all memory of it, as I suspect he has as well)... on and on it goes, and the results are generally the same: the actors manage the drama with aplomb, but when it comes time to recreate that for which their subjects are remembered in the first place, something always winds up missing.  Actors can pull off playing rock stars, for example, without too much trouble - they can lip-sync if they have to, get choreographers in to perfect their crotch-grabs, and CGI their hip-swivels if need be, and then you can get on with the more crucial task of pulling sinks out of walls - but portraying comedians winds up being another thing entirely.  Why is that?  Maybe it's because what makes the great comedians so great is far more elusive - most of the greats probably didn't even understand it themselves, which contributed to them being such miserable bastards.  You can imitate mannerisms and delivery and still never get at the true spark of madness beneath the wacky surface. The element of surprise endemic to the best comedy is also much harder to achieve when required to recreate classic bits, characters and routines.  All of which adds up to a fatal flaw - no matter how skilled the actors are, they almost never manage to be... oh, what's the word I'm looking for?... oh yes, funny.  (This flattening-out process doesn't only affect mere actors, either - consider 1986's Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, wherein Richard Pryor is unconvincingly portrayed... by Richard Pryor.)

Others I know have disagreed with me about HFC, and perhaps my positive response to it was affected by watching Not Only, But Always - a BBC production about the relationship between Peter Cook and Dudley Moore - just beforehand.  If there's any one of the Pythons' rough contemporaries I admire as much, if not more, than them, it's Peter Cook.  "Genius" is a word I generally disdain, "comic genius" even more so - I reserve the term for those few whose brains are (mis-)wired in a particular way, especially if it enables them to fabricate an entire, skewed comic universe out of whole cloth.  Jonathan Winters?  Genius. Spike Milligan?  Genius.  John Cleese?  A brilliant, thoughtful man blessed with a gift for comic construction and mad logic, but not a genius.  (Cleese would agree, incidentally, and I quote: "It was almost discouraging... Whereas most of us would take six hours to write a good three-minute sketch, it actually took Peter three minutes to write a three-minute sketch.  I always thought he was the best of us, and the only one who came near being a genius, because genius, to me, has something to do with doing it much more easily than other people."  So there.)   I can't think of any other star in the Brit-com firmament since his heyday who deserves the title, at least not until you stumble across Chris Morris.  (And Morris, unlike those mentioned above, knows how to harness and utilize his gift, which makes him that much more remarkable - blessed with a unique gift for spontaneous absurdity but also focused enough to devise and construct a complex infrastructure in which to house it.  The 1993 BBC radio series Why Bother?, where Morris [in character as a variation of his pompous On the Hour/The Day Today newsman] interviewed Cook [in his guise as the quietly insane British peer Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling], stands tall as the final flowering of Cook's genius before his 1995 death, in no small measure because, for once, he was evenly matched - Morris able to steer Cook out of reflexive cul-de-sacs, scoring strong conceptual/attitudinal hits of his own, and meticulously winnowing down the resulting hours-long improv sessions into tight, seamless ten-minute blocks for broadcast.  Well, hell, since I'm so high on embedding these days and I've once again wandered well off the point, you might as well listen to this while I try to find my way back to the main road:)

Done?  Okay.  

I wouldn't claim that Not Only, But Always defames Peter Cook's memory per se*, but a steady diet of biopics (and biographies in general) renders it drearily predictable.  Watch/read a few and you internalize the structure - start near the end, flash back to the beginning, then follow the protagonist through his early bursts of brilliance (if he hasn't suffered a defining childhood tragedy, that is), his struggles against offended/uncomprehending audiences, meeting/marrying his first wife, the previously offended/uncomprehending audience suddenly "getting" him, the skyrocket to fame and fortune, the drugs, the alcohol, the groupies, neglecting/abandoning the first wife, meeting/pining for/courting/marrying the second (inevitably more glamorous) wife, scandal, downfall, washed-upitude, spitting on the people who boosted him in the first place, months - no, years of dissolution, the disintegration of the second marriage, the years on the skids, rehab and/or third wife, reconciliation/wiping off the spit from those old, abandoned colleagues, the big comeback, and then either fade out on his triumph (if the subject is still alive or the director's arm's been twisted) or quickly descend back into dissolution and/or ironic (because he had cleaned himself up those last few months, his friends claimed!  He never looked better!  If it weren't for that one stupid night...) demise.  Even NO, BA's winking self-referentialism - the black and white framing device where Pete and Dud, Peter and Dudley's famed working-class git characters, sit in a theater and comment on those same biopic clichés - is in itself such a cliché at this post-post-modernist juncture that it's no more than cute.  

(* You know, I'm looking at it again and scratch that - Peter Cook was clearly a complicated, sometimes very troubled man, and compressing lives into their most dramatic moments is part and parcel of the biopic game, but if Cook were as unrelentingly withering, miserable and vicious at all times as this film makes him out to be, no one would have put up with him for twenty seconds, genius or no.)

Aw, hell, take a look at it:

Okay, so let's cut to the chase, a mere ten days after starting this blog post: you can probably recognize the big problem with comedy biopics from watching a few minutes of the above, and the big problem is this - they are just not funny.  Off-stage, for the purposes of drama, you can count on a fairly grim slog through endless exposition-as-dialogue


Anonymous said...

You didn't post anything yesterday.

William said...

Right you are. Been trying to add coherent comment to the existing post, which has been tortuously slow going. New post added above while I tinker...