Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Here I Come to Save The Day: Andy Kaufman on DVD and The Problem with Bio-Pics

It's a hard thing to pull off, the filmed biography--harder than ever, probably. If a life is exciting enough to spawn cinematic translation, then I’m sure—via the number of middling bio-pics I’ve seen--that the directorial temptation is to simply, one by one, dramatize those events that made the life portrayed so special in the first place. Do this and, hey, you got yerself a movie. These “They did this, and then they did this and, oh, surely, you remember this” bio-pics are what I call “just-the-facts” films. (by the way, the correct pronunciation of the term is "bio-pic," not "biopic"--I've heard some people make it rhyme with "myopic," making it sound like a twin-eye disorder).

There’s many of them--well, for instance, almost every show business biography, from What’s Love Got to Do With It to Ray to The Buddy Holly Story (as is common with the genre, these three feature stellar lead performances, but the movies themselves are otherwise somewhat flat), La Bamba, Till The Clouds Roll By, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Houdini, countless TV movies, and so many other theatrical titles--all of them fall victim to what should be an obvious problem: they redundantly recount the lives of pop cultural icons whose business it was to make sure that scads of people were already watching at their moments of success and failure. Let’s face it, it was easier for great biographical movies to be made when their subjects were people like Van Gogh or Pastuer, who actually achieved notoriety in times when people weren’t peering over their shoulders with a camera.

Among the unscathed in the show-biz bio-pic genre is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which to my mind has an entry pass into the pantheon of great film bios like The Passion of Joan D’Arc, Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Coal Miner's Daughter, Raging Bull and The Elephant Man. As in those ambitious films, Burton and the movie’s writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski showed us the truth and grace beneath their subject, beneath Ed Wood and his thankfully singular talents (see Film #11 in this blog). Unfortunately, Alexander and Karazewski were less lucky--much less--with Man On The Moon, their treatment of comic visionary Andy Kaufman’s sadly short life.

Directed by Milos Forman (who also helmed the screenwriting team’s previous picture, the somewhat more successful The People Vs. Larry Flynt), the film is so “just-the-facts” that it becomes pointless to watch--we already know he wrestled women and masqueraded as his unctuous alter ego Tony Clifton. Ya got anything else? And the whimpering, too-bad answer: nope. The movie is a Kaufman’s Greatest Hits compilation, as performed by the skilled Jim Carrey, who has Kaufman’s vocal cadence down, but not his essential sweetness. (A note here: I've often found that the best bio-pics limit their coverage of the personality; the less time spanned, the better the movie--look at Capote, which documents only about ten years of the man's life, or Good Night, and Good Luck, which chronicles even less time. Rarely does a birth-to-death bio-pic come forth successfully, because dramatizing a person's entire existence in two hours is just too much to chew.  Unfortunately, Man on the Moon makes this mistake.)

As such, Man in the Moon works better as an advertisement for the real Andy Kaufman’s groundbreaking work, plenty of which is available on DVD, and all of which lend us more intimacy with the comic’s persona than does Forman’s film. Gaze at Anchor Bay’s The Andy Kaufman Special, originally aired on ABC, as the host talks so revealingly with special guest Howdy Doody about his ongoing fascination with the marionette. As you watch, note the audience, simultaneously giggling nervously and finding themselves emotionally spellbound at this obviously meaningful personal moment for Kaufman. His sheepish attempt an unprepared talk show interview with his guest, a gloriously game Cindy Williams, is just one feature in this special that makes one realize that Kaufman’s genius lies in helping us keep our silly side alive.

Witness the excellent Andy Kaufman Plays Carnegie Hall and the moment where Kaufman-as-Clifton raucously introduces a new act he found on the road, the Partridge Family/Cowsills-esque Love Family, who deliver a cornball version of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” replete with symmetrical choreography and toothy smiles. It’s all pure kid’s stuff, as is Andy’s happily out-of-breath delivery of his opening number, “Oklahoma!” or his hand-clapping joy in listening to a special guest sing a Happy New Year song or his famous climactic milk-and-cookies stunt.

Take a gander at My Breakfast with Blassie, Andy’s bright My Dinner with Andre spoof, chronicling his morning at an L.A. Denny’s with the famed King of Men, wrestler Fred Blassie, and you’ll see Kaufman deftly toying with reality as we peer into what sometimes seems like close-circuit camera footage of his conversations with Blassie about breakfast foods, annoying fans, and post-toilet-use hand-washing. You sense Andy’s been a longtime admirer of Blassie’s just by the way he reveres the great wrestler’s flamboyantly-spoken wisdom.

And watch Kaufman jabbing at wrestler Jerry Lawler with a hilarious, playground-quality taunt/song delivered to an arena crowd in I’m From Hollywood, the documentary on Kaufman’s influential sojourn into the wrestling world, and you’ll see Andy the Kid right in front of you, being naughty and angling for a spanking from the wrestling audience, who loves nothing more than to hate their villains (especially ones who are so cowardly as to only wrangle with women). In his cajoling of audiences to let go and have fun, so ably captured in all four of these video works, Kaufman gave us entertainment-starved saps a glimpse of what we’re so often after in our media consumables: a ticket back to childhood, guilt-free and joyous, if we want it.

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