Sunday, March 29, 2020

Miloš Forman | Man on the Moon

there isn’t a real you
by Douglas Messerli

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (screenplay), Miloš Forman (director) Man on the Moon / 1999

Roger Ebert was never a more intelligent film critic than he was when writing about director Miloš Forman’s wacky but loveable work about the comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufman (brilliantly performed by Jim Carrey, who won a Golden Globe for his acting); Ebert’s review begins with a near-perfect summary of Kaufman and the film:

Our inner child embraces Andy Kaufman. We've been just like that. Who cannot remember boring our friends for hour after hour after hour with the same dumb comic idea, endlessly insisted on? Who hasn't refused to admit being wrong? "I won't give up on this,'' we're saying, "until you give up first. Until you laugh, or agree, or cry 'uncle.' I can keep this up all night if necessary.'' That was Andy Kaufman's approach to the world. The difference was, he tried to make a living out of it, as a stand-up comedian. Audiences have a way of demanding to be entertained. Kaufman's act was essentially a meditation on the idea of entertainment. He would entertain you, but you had to cave in first. You had to laugh at something really dumb, or let him get away with something boring or outrageous. If you passed the test, he was like a little kid, delighted to be allowed into the living room at last. He'd entertain, all right. But you had to pass the entry exam.

     A less-talented director than Forman might have explained away Andy’s behavior as a Freudian-like response to his father, Stanley Kaufman’s haughty disdain of his son’s behavior.
     But Forman simply shows him as a kind of bully, called home by Andy’s mother from, presumably his jewelry sales job, to correct her son’s odd behavior of performing to a wall of sports-figures behind which he imagines to be a camera. My husband’s father was also a jeweler of sorts; Howard performed plays to invisible audiences with his toy soldiers in the family garage; and he too has always had a great sense of humor, so I sympathize with Andy’s childhood imaginings.
      Forman simply leaves it as that, a father trying to correct his son’s somewhat bizarre imaginary conversations with non-existent audiences. He does not present us with Andy’s early performances which began at the age of 9, but rather dives right into his life as a “failed” stand-up comedian, who, instead of telling jokes, created entertainment “situations” that questioned—in a manner that Henri Bergson, author of Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic might have approved—what humor truly is.

    Andy’s humor did not consist of one-liners but rather about existential situations. How does an audience react when a man stands upon a stage to sing only the “Here I come to save the day!” refrain from a recorded “Mighty Mouse” theme song? Is the performer still a mad child or an idiot-savant who draws the audience in by his own pretended naiveté? If you pretend that you’re an incapable stand-up comedian can your viewers still accept you as being actually funny.
     If laughter is a kind of method of degradation, a throw-back of what the audience is perceiving, why not go all the way? These were clearly the questions Andy Kaufman posed again and again, even forcing the sit-com on which he performed, Taxi, to accept the terribly bad lounge singer Tony Clifton for some performances. Latka Gravas was a fool, but not the only one that Andy had created, “thank you very much.”
     A somewhat incompetent, but nonetheless charming, Elvis Presley imitator, a serious British-sounding reader of The Great Gatsby (long before The Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz took it seriously) who reveals some of the pretentiousness of the original book which he reads out entirely to his exhausted audiences*, and a stint as a gender wrestler—battling with women whom he abuses both verbally and sexually, forcing us perhaps to see the real abuse by males everyday of the opposite sex—and yet other roles follow.
     Was Andy truly a man of spiritual beliefs, following the tenants of an Indian guru, or was that just also part of the shtick? At one point the movie makes clear that “There isn’t a real you.”
      Yet Carrey takes this role in different directions while maintaining impeccably the many personalities of his character, but yet letting us see through the veneer at various moments, as, for example, when his agent, George Shapiro (ironically portrayed by his Taxi partner Danny DeVito) suddenly perceives that the course lounge singer, Tony Clifton, is only another personae of his client (American playwright Len Jenkin, author of the wonderful The Dream Express, with the terrible lounge singers Spin and Marlene Milton, and even Bill Murray have to bow to Kaufman’s early revelations), or when he truly reveals himself as a would-be lover to his wife Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), and particularly when he contracts a rare lung disease which will eventually kill him—yet given his continual performative hoaxes few believe is real.
     In Forman’s movie the lovable Andy really does die, a frail leftover of a self so very prolific in its many disguises.  
     Who is a comedian truly? As early as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films we were asked to consider this question, and British playwright John Osborne in The Entertainer more seriously asked it: isn’t in necessary that to wear the mask of humor is to carry the mask of tragedy in ones back pocket. “Make ‘em laugh,” always ends with a wall crashing in or the comic crashing out. Carrey makes us realize that it is the very same thing.
      Actors have often said it was nearly impossible to work with the Marx Brothers because of their constant antic behavior on and off the set. Carrey today—who like Kaufman studied Transcendental Meditation, suffers from depression, and today espouses political and non-vaccination views that are not entirely popular in Hollywood—has seen his own career take a dive; few directors, apparently, want to work with him. So too did Andy Kaufman’s “man on the moon” improvisations eventually alienate him from those who previously had most loved his off-brand humor.
     Laughter, as Bergson reminds us, is also a mockery of society, a kind of intense release of hate.
Punch and Judy daily violently hit one another over the head.

Los Angeles, March 29, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

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