11 February 2006

The Aristocrats (2005, Paul Provenza, dir.)

Many apologies for the short hiatus in posting. I have been in paralyzing panic mode for the past few days faced with everything that I must do between now and June. more on that later. last night Sam and I took the plunge and saw The Aristocrats on the advice of friends but with warnings about its--er--extreme vulgarity.

I am not a comedy fan, in the sense that I don't go out of my way to watch comedy. usually when I catch someone's act on HBO I'll watch, laugh, wonder if I should be following this more, and then do nothing. and this film is all about comedy in one sense. or to put it more precisely, it's about comedians and their own comedic narrative space. it's about the insider joke that comedians tell one another while waiting to go on, or after the show at 5 am. the film is comprised of interviews with a huge range of comedians (although overwhelmingly white, I will say) and their experiences with the joke called "The Aristocrats." so you hear this joke being talked about, epic performances of it (riffs on it) being remembered, and over the course of a little more than an hour you hear it told many many times. And it's really really raunchy and vulgar. that's the point. and apparently some people find the movie insulting because of this (what--incest is always funny, right? I don't get it.) but it is quite vulgar, so if you're not interested, don't rent it.

but it's not about the vulgarity. and not because you become desensitized to it. but because it's truly not about that. it's about oral traditions. narrative. the bardic repetition and one-up-person-ship that it entails. can you, o bard, beat the previous bard who told this familiar tale in this town last week? can you spin out that tale so that we drink three, four, five brews of meade during it? yea, oh bard, can you remind me of other retellings whilst still presenting your own telling of the tale? if comedy is about, on one level, being very true to oneself, baring one's soul on stage so that we see the truth of humanity and are enabled to laugh, then this film really gets at that core of comedy and of performance. each retelling is completely different, despite many shared elements and of course the narrative structure of the joke. and you laugh in different ways at different comedians. for some it's the punchline. for others it's the horror of it all. for others it's the way they pause to make sure you're following. for many it's the contrast between how you know these people as celebrities (perhaps the best ones are those who have played squeaky clean characters in film or TV, like Paul Reiser of Mad About You or, perhaps the best example of this, Carrie Fisher, yes, Princess Leia, doing the joke). and along the way it becomes about the art of narration. of doing jumping jacks with a particular theme. of riffing. I know there are more erudite and dare I say effete ways of experiencing this art (jazz, art, west end plays) but this one is accessible to most without a huge cultural learning curve. too bad it doesn't make a good teaching tool....


dan said...

This is an excellent read on a film that I've had many discussions about while it was in theaters and then again recently when it became available on DVD. I think your comment on the fact that most of the comediennes were white (when in America there is a very rich and long-standing culture of comediennes who are Black and Latino, who speak, again, about their particular experience of race), demonstrates that this "insider" tradition within the "comedic narrative space" is not universal to 20th century American stand-up comedy. I say that because some of my favorite comediennes -- female and queer in particular, were also nowhere to be found in this film. But still, I think that your points on what it illuminates about the culture of stand-up comedy still hold.

I thought Bob Saget was hilarious (I had heard that despite his Full House and AFV projects, he was known for being terribly raunchy in his stand-up). My other fave was Sarah Silverman. The way she created a back-story and character in her performance of the joke was really effective. And so very wrong. ;)

Rebecca said...

yes--the whiteness and maleness of the film was striking, and then in the end the overwhelming heteronormativity of it all. so bizarre to realize at the end of an hour and a half of explicit discussions of sex acts of various sorts--for some reason it seemed overwhelmingly, unquestionably straight to me. One of the women pointed out the male-centered nature of most retellings, but there was no critique of the hetero-centeredness of it. I suppose since it was so concerned to be outside of a norm, it ended up utterly and completely reinforcing that norm in the end.

Which is why Silverman's is so disturbing and fascinating, because she not only creates this amazing backstory, but then she opens up the next level of the horror for us--that truly knocks you out of your seat.