Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The King of Comedy - Getting the Celebrities We Deserve

Released in 1983, Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy was a box office failure. Watching the film, even now, it's easy to see why: There is an uneasy frankness about the way Scorsese depicts his characters' obvious delusions. He lets his stalker protagonists, played by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard, rant and ramble in long, uninterrupted, improvised takes, often keeping the camera at eye level and free from the angles and canting often associated with madness on film. There's not a lot of judgment in Scorsese's choices. He simply invites us to watch.

This matter-of-fact approach makes for tough viewing. Remember, this film came out decades before American Idol and other "reality" programs, where the fantasies of the untalented and (in some cases) plainly deluded are used as fodder for cheap laughs. At that time, viewers would have had a very different frame of reference: King was released only two years after John Hinckley Jr.'s attempted assassination of President Reagan. Hinckley himself had been a stalker, going after Jodie Foster after her appearance in an earlier Scorsese picture, 1977's Taxi Driver. It was his obsession with getting Foster's attention that led to his assassination attempt. So, if the film seems uncomfortable to watch now, it must have been unbearable then.

And yet, this is meant to be a comedy; the word even appears in the title! Most of the humor, such as it is, comes from the audience's own discomfort, from our ability to perceive the boundaries that the characters cannot. In this regard, King was ahead of its time, as awkward humor was rarely played with a straight face then. Today, shows like the BBC version of The Office and HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm approach the level of unease found in King. But they balance the awkward moments, when the audience isn't sure if they're meant to laugh, with gags and running jokes whose humor is more apparent. King never allows its characters to wink, keeping the audience firmly on the ropes.

The King of Comedy is also distinct from some of the pitch black comedies it can count as descendants in that it makes a serious attempt to grapple with weighty issues, most notably the way America's obsession with celebrity dovetails with the American Dream. De Niro's Rupert Pupkin is a 30-something loser, still living in his mother's basement and working at an apparent dead-end job. Instead of finding happiness via the traditional modes of the American Dream (hard work, family, relationships), he spends his time fantasizing about being a famous comedian. I say "being a famous comedian," and not "becoming," because Pupkin doesn't wish to work his way to the top. Celebrity offers him an escape, perhaps the only chance he has to show his doubters, real and imagined, how wrong they were.

Pupkin talks about how anything can happen, and honestly believes his talent is so great that all he needs is to be seen. Scorsese presents us with a number of fantasy sequences early on, but they're played entirely straight, undermining the film's sense of reality. We lose trust in what we're shown, such that, as Pupkin's acts become increasingly transgressive, we keep waiting for a return to "reality" to contextualize each transgression. When we don't get this return to reality, we get quite uncomfortable at the level of sympathy we've given to Pupkin, implicating us in Scorsese's thesis about fame.

The film's ending plays with this ambiguity. Instead of simply going to jail and losing hope, Pupkin appears to become a nation-wide human-interest piece. He pens a memoir, makes the rounds on TV news casts, and even seems to land the stand-up special he's always desired. But is any of this real, or is it all another of Pupkin's delusions? The unrealistically-repetitious announcements playing over the final scene seem to indicate that it's all in Pupkin's head, but the film doesn't provide a single clear-cut answer.

What IS clear-cut is the premise that the lure of celebrity ensures that the country gets the celebrities it deserves. Jerry Lewis's character is an unstable person; he walks the streets knowing full well he'll be recognized, but is uncomfortable actually dealing with the public and describes the whole celebrity game as wearying, brutal, and dehumanizing. He's always afraid that, just as he replaced his predecessor, so too will he be replaced. Fame is fickle and uncaring, and, if dangerous people like Pupkin can circumvent the system and make it big, what does that say about the population that allows them to succeed? We feed on bad news and spectacle, now even more than when this film was new. This film seems to be saying that, by hyping celebrity above all else, we set ourselves up to have only celebrities who have either cynically played the game for years or who, like Pupkin, find that misbehaving is an easy way to the top.

All of this is revealed through Scorsese's careful, non-judgmental observations and skillful use of film style in creating awkwardness. He gives us the space we need to feel uncomfortable about the characters and our feelings about them without shouting "THIS IS THE PROBLEM" or harping on his preferred solution. Scorsese cuts to the core of what has become of the American Dream in the age of media overload, but wisely forgoes providing easy answers because, as a big celebrity himself, he knows that there are none.

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