Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Double Displeasure
have a theory about Steve Martin. Actually, I have two theories about him. The
first is that Steve Martin is the kind of artist who is best dealt with in terms
of a theory. A corollary of this theory holds that if you can have one theory
about someone like Steve Martin, why not have two? Things generally look better
in matched pairs.

The second theory, a necessary
product of the corollary of the first, holds that Steve Martin, considered not
just as a person but also as an artist, and indeed as an artist who in some
lights looks uncannily like a person, represents the latest, and most assuredly
the final, stage in human evolution. He is, in fact, the Last Man. Not only
that, but he is also the Last Man’s Straight Man. In sum: he exemplifies
humanity when it reaches the stage of being doubled over by a joke it doesn’t
understand, namely itself. Call him Homo Absurdicus–but be sure to duck
after saying the first word.

The previous stage of human
evolution, as I’m sure you will recall if you weren’t napping, was
the stage of alienation. People were estranged from themselves. They looked
in the mirror and saw Walter Mondale. This was even more depressing than reading
Sartre, so consequently many people began throwing themselves under trains,
drinking heavily and watching tv when nothing was on. If this had kept up, the
planet would have rapidly been depopulated and real estate values would have
plunged accordingly.

Mother Nature’s big
joke on the doomsayers and whiny pessimists (you know who you are out there)
was Steve Martin. Steve transmuted existentialist angst into something new:
styrofoam bunny ears. He didn’t banish the modern condition of being alienated
from oneself, but he did realize that it increases one’s chances of finding
a partner for table tennis. Refusing to give in to despair, or even to return
its calls, Steve converted humanity’s dark slide toward extinction into
an endless tango with a dame called Irony.

This saved the species but
it also left Steve in what Freudians call a classic double bind. The bind, that
is, of being classically and forever double. In such a state, one cannot think
of oneself without also making a joke re: thinking of oneself. Witty self-consciousness
becomes the true meaning of life, and dating the Doublemint Twins starts to
look like a realistic goal. Thus does the world get a guy who makes films with
titles like The Man with Two Brains, and who just naturally assumes that
he can be a bigshot movie star and a writer for The New Yorker at the
same time.

If you think about it, this
condition of ironic doubleness explains everything about Steve Martin’s
career. When you see Steve in a movie that someone else has written, you are
seeing only one Steve: the double (sometimes the stunt double). The real Steve
is somewhere else, perhaps having a laugh over martinis with David Denby, or,
more likely, cashing his checks down at the Malibu Savings & Loan. When,
however, you see Steve in a movie that he has written, you are getting both
Steves. And not only that, but his doubleness affects every aspect of the story
and production. Instead of a Steve Martin movie, but for the same price, moviegoers
are confronted with a Steve Martin Steve Martin movie movie.

This perhaps still sounds
a mite theoretical, but you will see exactly what I mean if you go to Bowfinger.
Would Steve Martin even consider writing a movie in which he plays, say, an
ordinary joe from Anytown, USA? Of course not. Thinking self-reflexively from
the time he brushes his teeth in the morning, the dexterous hyphenate naturally
crafts a screenplay in which he, a real-life moviemaker, plays a fictional moviemaker
setting out to make, of all things, a movie, in–can you guess?–Hollywood,
US of A.

An inveterate dreamer, a
lovable loser with a fake ponytail, the character Martin plays, Bowfinger, lives
in a shabby little bungalow with a portico grandly emblazoned Bowfinger International
. He has about him a small core of like-minded losers who look to
him for leadership but who seem close to despair. Then Bowfinger hits on his
long-awaited dream project. It’s a sci-fi action script called Chubby
, the premise of which involves aliens coming to Earth in raindrops,
hence the rain’s chubbiness. This, as I’m sure you’ve already
noticed, is a clever reference to Steve’s core existential dilemma: aliens
equaling alienation, raindrops all looking exactly alike, etc. In fact, the
concept of Bowfinger’s film-within-a-film is so dazzlingly self-reflexive
that you will get carsick if think about it for any longer than it takes your
eyes to reach the next paragraph….

Anyway, Bowfinger soon discovers
that he can only get Chubby Rain off the ground if he enlists the services
of the world’s biggest action movie star, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). Not
to be unkind about it, but Kit is a hair-trigger head case who’s so paranoid
of white people that he thinks any mention of Shakespeare is a coded racist
insult meaning “spear chucker.” The star also belongs to a Scientology-like
cult whose nefarious leader (Terence Stamp) can barely keep Kit’s overheated
paranoid fantasies at a slow simmer. (An aside: I didn’t realize Hollywood
stars were allowed to satirize Scientology. Perhaps this is an unconscious existential
feint on Steve’s part: an attempt to have his double commit career suicide.)

Vis-a-vis Kit, Bowfinger
has two obvious problems: he is white, and his entire budget for Chubby Rain
is just over $2,000. But this is where Bowfinger’s ingenuity–which
is to say, Steve’s–saves the day. The filmmaker’s solution to
his own problem is brilliant. Rather than convincing Kit to take the lead role,
Bowfinger decides to film the movie around him, having his actors stage scenes
wherever they manage to encounter the star, who simply reacts without knowing
he’s being filmed. Of course, since Chubby Rain and much of its
dialogue concerns aliens, and Kit’s as paranoid regarding aliens as he
is regarding whites, this method proves not at all conducive to soothing his
troubled mind.

Bowfinger is just as ingenious
on other fronts. He and his cohorts manage to “borrow” most of the
equipment they need. To recruit crew members, they go down toward Mexico and
make captives of illegal immigrants crossing the border. Though at first not
at all familiar with filmmaking, these real-life “aliens” are soon
perusing Cahiers du Cinema on their breaks. For his female lead, Bowfinger
discovers a comely lass just off the bus from Ohio (Heather Graham) whose down-home
ways and peach-blossom innocence disguise a steely determination to have sex
with every man who can advance her career.

Bowfinger’s other big
discovery is a gawky, sweet-tempered black kid (Eddie Murphy again) who’s
hired to be Kit’s double–you will have noted the Nabokovian proliferation
of such doppelgangers–and to run errands, mainly fetching coffee from Starbucks.
Since his work as a double involves running in sheer terror across busy freeways,
the kid naturally prefers going to Starbucks. Then the company discovers that
he is Kit’s younger brother. Suddenly he’s too valuable to be sent
lunging into rush-hour traffic, even for coffee.

From even this brief synopsis,
I’m sure you will gather that Bowfinger is Steve Martin’s most
elaborate and multileveled allegory yet dealing with the state of being mirthfully
estranged from his own reality as a big-time moviemaker. It will surely be analyzed
and debated for decades by academics and other anal-compulsives, who perhaps
have already noted the similarity of “Martin” to “martian”
and of “Steve” to “Reeve(s),” the name of not one but two
ill-starred actors to play a superhero alienated from the planet of his birth,
namely Krypton. (Coincidence? Oh sure.)

However, the main thing
for scholars to parse in regards to this movie is that it casts Eddie Murphy–aka
the funniest man in movies, and worth the price of admission even if he were
playing Willy Loman–in two roles. I submit that this is nothing other than
Steve Martin projecting his own condition of droll doubleness onto another,
and trusting we won’t notice. Thankfully, it works. Of course films about
filmmaking are a dime a dozen at the moment, but this makes Bowfinger
truly special. It’s like The Blair Witch Project, but with a double
helping of Murphy instead of no helpings of the witch (whatever happened to
truth in advertising?).

Bowfinger, in short,
belongs in the company of every movie one happens to like, such as Sunset
, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, Day for Night,
The Stewardesses and The Wizard of Oz. Speaking of the latter,
Bowfinger was directed by Frank (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) Oz,
or so the credits say. Personally, I suspect that “Frank Oz”–what
a name, right?–may be a Martian anagram for “Steve Martin.” But
that’s just a theory.

directed by Andrew Fleming

Speaking of Sartre, Hollywood
has been evidencing a particular form of bad faith in the last six months or
so. It puts out movies with teenagers as main characters and then waits for
naive or ill-tempered film critics to bemoan that teenagers don’t go see
them. But teenagers aren’t stupid. They know that a movie like Election
isn’t really about teenagers; it’s about a point of view that may
be naive or ill-tempered but is always profoundly middle-aged. American Pie
is for teenagers, as they will gladly tell you.

The faux-teenager movie–which
comes from older filmmakers’ unsuccessful attempts to deny or evade the
current demographics of moviegoing–reaches a suitably absurd crescendo
in Andrew Fleming’s Dick, a comedy in which all the events and famous
personalities of the Watergate scandal are seen through the eyes of two teenage
girls (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst). That narrative focus is supposed
to make it appeal to younger as well as older audiences, but guess what? Teenagers
don’t get the references! Duh.

A friend told of seeing
the movie at a screening in L.A. In the back rows were middle-aged critics and
industry types who laughed regularly and appreciatively. Down front were rows
of teens and twentysomethings, who sat through the satire in glum silence, despite
its groovy period costumes and music and gleeful pokes at figures like Kissinger
and Haldeman. I guess I’m regressing because I didn’t laugh that much
myself. The most amusing thing about the movie, actually, is the advance glimpse
it affords of the faux-teen movie’s imminent collapse.