Man on Man on The Moon directed by …

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Kaufman gets canonized for
legitimizing impulsive egomaniacal behavior. The 70s comic’s best-known
personas–as Latka Gravas, an immigrant stooge eventually used on the tv
series Taxi, and Tony Clifton, a boorish lounge singer–demonstrated
two kinds of idiocy. One was sickeningly cute, the other disgustingly abrasive,
but Kaufman presumed to make both acceptable by begging the audience’s
indulgence (and embarrassment) through laughter. Kaufman’s gimmicks made
money as they also made enemies, but only with the passing of time–the
stiffening of emotional identification in the 80s–were his assaults made
socially acceptable. Starting with REM’s 1992 hit record, which gives this
movie its title, Michael Stipe’s spurious poetry resurrected Kaufman as
a cultural icon. This cross-genre gambit was rare–an instance of ignorant
tv nostalgia (a redundancy, I suspect).

Looking back on Kaufman’s
fame and audacity, director Milos Forman and the screenwriting team Karaszewski
and Alexander have no perspective on Kaufman except respecting the fact of his
success and viewing his life through that bass-ackwards lens. Karaszewski and
Alexander are such jaded, wide-eyed idolaters (they previously wrote Ed Wood
and The People Vs. Larry Flynt) that they never stop to ask the basic
question: maybe success does not legitimize screwed-up behavior? Karaszewski
and Alexander would do well to study Citizen Kane rather than Hard
. Their scripts seem typical products of this era through the merely
impudent interest in subcultural traits. Mildly rebellious Karaszewski and Alexander
favor freaks without a cause. And somehow, their slacker’s interest in
homegrown anomie meshes with Forman’s own foreigner’s contempt. Even
in films he made in his native Czechoslovakia (like The Fireman’s Ball),
Forman always was interested in disturbed conduct as a sign of human essence–and
now, especially, America’s essence. Tim Burton enhanced Ed Wood through
his fond look at social oddities, but Forman never wastes his affection on characters.
Still, only fools would buy this cold view of Kaufman’s crudeness and madness,
especially since it is uncritically mixed in with a history of late 20th-century
show business. Some reviewers have called the film "a celebration"–and
they’re only wrong in settling for that.

It is unintentionally laughable
to see Forman attempt formalist tricks like the opening scene, in which Kaufman–addressing
the movie audience out of time–peeks from different sides of the frame.
This is a director with practically no visual imagination, but who disgraces
film’s realistic tradition by exploiting human misery (he’s the anti-Mike
Leigh). There’s actually less to learn here in Forman and Karaszewski and
Alexander’s acceptance of the inhumane than in the now-uncool story of
organized people in The Hurricane. Whether Forman is inflicting his usual
cinematic misery or copping to Kaufman’s quasi-subversion is difficult
to tell. Moon is never as insightful or imaginative as Arthur Penn’s
1989 Penn and Teller Get Killed. In that underrated curio, Penn used
the magic duo’s pointed comedy to flirt with showbiz illusion, but he also,
brilliantly, played with the conventions of cinematic storytelling. Penn got
at existentialism with Pirandellian wit and genuine screen bravado. By concentrating
on showbiz fakery Penn didn’t smugly congratulate himself that he was pondering
man’s fate. Stipe’s silly equation of the NASA moonwalk (patriotic
faith) with showbiz hucksterism (pop escapism) is as naive as these filmmakers’
attempt to validate Kaufman’s bad taste as a sign of their own sophistication.

Moon’s whole
illusion-vs.-reality shtick is a dodge. The film doesn’t get to the essence
of Kaufman’s character; especially not through Jim Carrey’s seriously
applied skills. Clearly a superior performer, Carrey makes Kaufman seem accomplished
when he was simply impenetrable. (If Robin Williams is the clown who wants to
be Hamlet, Kaufman is the clown who wants to be Iago.) Carrey’s concentration
on belittling his own inspired slapstick is frightening rather than compelling.
It seems false to what we always knew about desperate-to-succeed (or please)
performers. When Carrey appears on MTV saying, "The X generation is ready
for [Kaufman]," it’s an insult to the allegiance he has won–as
if Kaufman anticipated MTV’s Puck or Tom Green or embodied "rock ’n’
roll attitude." Unlike the contemporaneous, unsettling Sex Pistols, Kaufman
(and his insanity) offered no truth, just egomania. Maybe he was the Beck of

From Stipe’s wack musings
to Jim Carrey’s squandered sweat, nothing about Moon matches the
moment in Get Bruce (the documentary about comedy writer Bruce Vilanch)
where Paul Reiser confesses, "There isn’t a comic in the world who
wouldn’t trade the ability to get a laugh with the ability to kick the
shit out of somebody." Such honesty tells us a lot–even more than
Forman’s plain-faced foray into the wrestlemania phase of Kaufman’s
career. Kaufman epitomized showbiz contempt. (Is it something in the Long Island
water?) But this movie sells the lie that Hollywood wants to believe about itself:
that the public–the world–deserves every angry, disaffected performer’s
scorn. Not even Howard Stern’s Private Parts tried that one. Just
look at the old, pathetic Taxi stars in their cameo appearances–Carol
Kane, Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch and Jeff Conaway grabbing their only big-screen
work, a brotherhood of unemployables. (Leaving Tony Danza with the self-respect
not to join this funereal madhouse.)

Praising this film–or
Kaufman–becomes a way of justifying the inanities of today’s show
business. It used to be that hustlers pretended to rip the lid off showbiz.
Now they just offer postmodern permissiveness. If Kaufman deserved any grand
summation it’s as a zeitgeist comic thug who brazened the audience with
his own bad taste. But even that claim must deal with one fact: Kaufman wasn’t
funny! Somehow our culture has lost the confidence to say that. What’s
next, Chris Rock as Savonarola?

Bicentennial Man
Directed by Chris

Not exactly
a rip of Richard Pryor’s classic 1976 album Bicentennial Nigger,
Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man is just a mistitled, unintelligent
epic on immortality. Williams plays the robot Andrew, whose warranty covers
two centuries–including the winning of the frequently re-inherited heart
of the same (emotionally retarded) young woman. Williams doesn’t offer
a white version of Pryor’s Everyman (his Mudbone, like Shine and Dolemite,
are cultural figures of regeneration and perseverance; comically useful, they
respond to people, politics and fate). Williams does something less comically
sharp: he’s playing Methuselah as Pinocchio. So the reminiscent title is
just a generic brand–stealing, then suppressing, Pryor’s social critique.

Moviegoers today may not
even know what they’re missing. Their naivete will be satisfied with a
plot that distills almost every other Williams vehicle–especially high-minded
ones like What Dreams May Come and Being Human. Williams’
maudlin approach is just as valid as Forman and Karaszewski and Alexander’s
cynicism. Certainly it’s more humane. Andrews’ speeches on behalf
of decrepitude, choice and equality sound, probably intentionally, like liberal
positions on homosexual marriage–which might have made a more interesting
thematic analogy. After all, humanity isn’t a right to be argued in court.
However, the privileges accorded marriage are politically negotiable. But logic
isn’t Williams’ (or Kaufman’s) interest. In his appeal to the
audience’s sentimentality Williams has become as ruthless as Kaufman.

It’s Williams’
recurrent view of man conquering death that makes Bicentennial Man a
pixilated equivalent to the foolish "serious" thinking in Man on
the Moon
. Asimov’s nutty notion of a robot that longs to be human isn’t
a profound analogy for man’s ultimate wish. It simply stumbles into confusion
about how we relate to technology. And it’s way behind Toy Story 2’s
view of how technology "feels" about us. Williams had gotten close
to that in another misconceived project, Barry Levinson’s Toys.
But there, too, the comic star failed to clarify/rectify his sentiments. Cuteness
smothered everything. Williams had worked out his longevity and love obsession
in Hook, but Bicentennial Man, despite its futuristic design potential
(and a courthouse scene that looks modeled on The Phantom Menace), doesn’t
have a director who can visualize the emotional states of his character.

Director Chris Columbus
has become the best interior decorator in Hollywood. From Home Alone
to Stepmom, but especially with the ornate foyers and vestibules seen
here–wide, spacious, with Tiffany-style stained glass facades–Columbus
features the best bourgeois interiors in modern movies. Yet he isn’t so
adept with knickknacks that he capitalizes on the dirty mirth in Bicentennial
’s eventual dildo joke (it’s not a children’s movie).
Maybe Columbus never saw Barbarella or Demon Seed, but given his
taste in furnishings, he sounds like the right man to do the music video for
a rerelease of Bryan Ferry’s great "In Every Dream Home a Heartache."

The richest movie year of
the decade bursts the bounds of a 10-best list. But because insanity persists
in film circles, I feel–for the first time–it’s best to counter
with the 10 most destructive movies of 1999. If any of these are on your personal
best list, trade moviegoing for book reviewing. There might be a New York
job waiting for you. In order of odiousness:

The Blair Witch Project–Not
really a film, except to suckers. Crude, even by home movie standards.
American Beauty–Death as redemption, glossiness as art. Phony
from the get-go.
Liberty Heights–"Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live,"
sang Nina Simone. She must have foreseen Barry Levinson’s antiblack Semitism.
Fight Club–Anticonsumerism is not anti-capitalism. A (brief) fad,
not a philosophy.
Magnolia–They call Altman a cynic. Who wouldn’t be, with
imitators like P.T. Anderson?
Never Been Kissed–Drew Barrymore overdraws on charm. Maybe the
stupidest teen flick.
Cradle Will Rock–Tim Robbins’ smug lefty bazaar. And interminable.
The Insider–Big media self-righteousness. Also interminable.
American Movie–The Pokemon of documentaries.
The Talented Mr. Ripley–Campy greed, campy murder and B-list acting
by an A-list cast.