Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Confessional style (The King of Comedy)

I’m going to go ahead and stake a claim on having one of the most backwards possible relationships with the works of Martin Scorsese. Or, at the very least, an improbably haphazard history with him. I guess at this point the relationship is all right: I consider him a gifted, rightly revered director, and that’s how it should be. But for the longest time I was more or less ignorant of who he was and how much of American cinema he was responsible for creating or influencing.

The first Scorsese film I ever saw, when I was in high school, was his remake of Cape Fear, which I thought was, y’know, OK. (If you listen closely, you can hear film studies professors all over facepalming right now.) Between then and hooking up with the 1001 Movies Blog Club, I only saw two other movies he directed: Goodfellas and The Departed; I was probably one of the last people on earth to finally get around to Goodfellas, but I was slightly quicker to pull the trigger on The Departed. Still, it’s entirely possible that I saw the PSA they used to run in Regal Cinemas movie theaters, the one where a mother is tucking her son in and letting him say goodnight to his father on the phone, and Scorsese barges into the bedroom and starts re-working the scene (the tag was “We don’t interrupt your phone calls, please don’t let your phone calls interrupt the movie”) before I really had a clear idea of who the old guy with the thick-framed glasses was supposed to be.

I’m still embarrassingly behind on the man’s body of work, however you slice it. Taxi Driver? Never seen it. Raging Bull? Nope. The Last Waltz? Nuh-uh (despite my wife being a superfan of The Band!). The Aviator? Negative (despite my Very Little Bro owning it!). Last Temptation of Christ, Casino, Shutter Island? No, no, no. What can I say? There are only so many hours in the day, days in the year, and squeezed between Legitimately Important Things (my job, my family) and Monumentally Trivial Amusements, Irritations and Distractions (most everything else), sometimes the quality art gets completely shut out. But that’s why I hitched on to the 1001 Movies Blog Club in the first place, right? To correct some of the oversights.

So thus far since embarking on the quest I’ve seen Gangs of New York and now The King of Comedy. And maybe it’s strange to go for one of the more obscure entries in Scorsese’s filmography ahead of, say, Raging Bull, all I can say is the assignments come up the way the assignments come up, and I roll with it.

And honestly, I’m glad The King of Comedy came up, because it’s really a pretty fascinating flick. I’m no fan of Jerry Lewis, but I found him really compelling, believable and sympathetic as the lightly fictionalized version of himself, Jerry Langford. And I am a big fan of Robert DeNiro, but he gets to play completely against type in a way that’s a hoot to watch as the delusional Rupert Pupkin.

Delusions make up a critical component of the movie, and the one that hooked my interest the most. The plot, such as it is, is motivated almost entirely by Rupert’s delusions (of being a gifted comic, of being a friend and confidante of Jerry’s, of being the romantic soulmate of an old schoolmate, &c.) and the movie itself weaves in and out of reality and fantasy. Sometimes the audience is able to see Rupert dealing with everyday life more or less the same way that a normal person would. Sometimes we see him interacting with other people via strategic deployment of willfully blindered obstinacy. Sometimes we see him retreating to his sanctuary (his mother’s basement) where a variety of homemade props allow him to play-act his daydreams, following established scripts that are clearly the result of obsessive repetition. And sometimes what is up on the screen is actually what exists only in Rupert’s mind, the alternate version of his life where he is the mega-successful entertainer to whom Jerry Langford turns when he needs a personal favor.

(There is apparently some disagreement as to the ending of the movie, and whether everything that happens after Rupert is arrested following the broadcast of his headlining act on the Jerry Langford Show is real or imaginary. There is no doubt in my mind that it is all imagined. I’ll concede that it’s a matter left to the viewer’s interpretation, but at the same time there’s really only one way to interpret it based on both the content of the ending itself and everything else in the movie building to that point.)

On one level, the extent to which Rupert is willing and able to lose himself in his fantasies, and the masterful way that DeNiro sells it the whole way, makes Rupert a hypnotic character, pathetic and sad and scary and hilarious all at once. And on another level, the techniques Scorsese uses in his scene transitions and juxtapositions to keep the audience off-balance for a while on the whole “is this really happening?” angle is particularly well-done. From Rupert as a slightly defective human being, to the intercutting between his internal and external worlds, to the heart of the plot involving Rupert kidnapping Jerry and demanding a spot on the show as ransom, everything about The King of Comedy is fairly warped. But of course I totally mean that in a good way.

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