Twenty-fifth year

1249.) Vintage: To honor the memory of the recently departed Shelley Berman, I re-air (in its new, spiffy, digitized form) my interview with Mr. Berman from 2002. The first of two episodes finds Shelley talking about his early experiences on stage as an actor and sketch comedian, in particular his work with The Compass (the Chicago group that also included Nichols and May and Barbara Harris). We discuss his standup comedy (which made him a strong precursor to every neurotic comic out there), and some of his acting work, in particular his starring role on a memorable Twilight Zone and his appearance as a peeved dentist on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the process he shares his opinions on voicemail (anti) and the work of Kafka (pro).

1250.) Vintage: Our guest gets cranky and very funny in the now-digitized, second (and last) part of my interview with the late Shelley Berman from 2002. We start out talking about him being bothered by other drivers and then segue into a discussion of his great (and very touching) “father and son” routine. Mr. Berman then takes some very funny swipes at public access and we end up discussing the merits and non-merits of NYC. All in all, it was a lovely talk with a lovely gentleman who just pretended to be a cranky old man – well, some of that was true, but like the gent whose father he played in his last terrific role, Larry David, he got out all his crankiness in his comedy. One of the nicest interviews I’ve done.

1251.) Movies “disappear” for different reasons. In the case of the movie I’m discussing and showing excerpts from this week it is most likely because the film’s true “auteur” was not pleased with the result. Well, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., might’ve disliked Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971), but I love some aspects of it and the rest is perfectly in tune with our perennial discussion in the Funhouse about the Sixties being “the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving….” It’s essentially a filmed play, with a very simple set-up: a previously missing Great White Hunter type (Rod Steiger) returns to his Manhattan family apartment and finds that his wife has moved on from him, as she’s dating not one but two “weak sister” characters. His son (Steven Paul, who later made the *stunningly bad* Vonnegut adaptation Slapstick of Another Kind) is curious about his dad’s adventures but doesn’t seem to cotton to his dog-eat-dog (or, more appropriately, hunter-shoots-prey) philosophy of life. Besides the joy of seeing Steiger thoroughly devour his role, two things distinguish the film: a number of fantasy sequences, in which we see what people do for fun in Heaven (clue: it’s a cruise-ship specialty), and a scene-stealing performance by William Hickey as Steiger’s thin, confused sidekick (who actually conveys the film’s message about American violence in one stirring, unexpected dialogue exchange).

1252.) Following the trail of my favorite filmmakers takes us down some interesting alleys on the show. This week I review and show excerpts from a comedy by Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi) that hasn’t been shown in America at all, Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (2015). The film is a yakuza farce about old gangsters who are bored with being treated “old farts” (the single most-used phrase in the movie), so they band together as a new criminal gang. The situation is somewhat familiar to American viewers, but Kitano’s take on the scenario is that the old-fart yakuzas face off with the new criminal generation: crooks in suits who do their thieving and conniving in corporate boardrooms. Beat has played a yakuza numerous times over the past few years, so here he cast himself in a supporting role as a cop who has a soft spot for the old gangsters (as one suspects the real Kitano does). I’m happy to share scenes from this film, which has never been seen on these shores.

1253.) Part one of my interview with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who has done brilliant work with a host of the greatest filmmakers working in France over the past 35 years. This part of our chat begins with her discussing the somewhat recent films she was doing Q&As for at the Alliance Francaise. The first is Anne Fontaine’s fact-based WWII drama Les Innocentes (2016) and the second is Leos Carax’s triumphantly imaginative and strange Holy Motors (2012). We talk about one of the most flawlessly shot scenes in the latter and she discusses her high-def camera of choice. From there we move backward to the beginning of her career, when she was an assistant to the great d.p. William Lubtchansky (a great collaborator of Rivette). We talk about her work on Chantal Akerman’s 1982 film Toute Une Nuit (like Holy Motors, it’s a journey through one evening; although in this case it’s taken by many different characters) and Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s ultra-deadpan adaptation of Kafka, Class Relations (1984).

1254.) Part two of my interview with the great French cinematographer Caroline Champetier. In this section of our talk, I asked her about two of my all-time Funhouse favorites. First up is a discussion of her work on films and videos with the inimitable Uncle Jean (aka Jean-Luc Godard). I asked her to talk about the comedic “Uncle Jean” character he has played in several films (including two that she shot). She also addressed his reputation as “a master of lighting” (she had a very interesting answer to that). We talk about his indoor and outdoor shoots, as well as the time that she was utilized as an (unbilled) actresss in one of his fiction films. From there we move on to her work with Godard’s “new wave” comrade, Jacques Rivette; Champetier was one of the two cinematographers on Rivette’s great “comeback” film Le Pont du Nord (1980). She talks about that shoot, which was a truly minimalist, extremely “new wave” affair. We close out on a discussion of her work shooting Rivette’s The Gang of Four (1989) on her own – the film is a combination of genres (character study, thriller, political drama), in the classic Rivette fashion.

1255.) Vintage: Back in the British comedy department, I have an update on the career of that most deadpan and sarcastic of comics, Mr. Stewart Lee. This week’s episode includes commentary on, and clips from, the very recently aired second season of his “Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.” This year the show had less of a budget (thus, only one short sketch per show, at the close) but contained a “devil’s advocate” in the form of producer Armando Iannucci (“I’m Alan Partridge,” “The Thick of It”). Iannucci persecutes Lee in every episode (“will there be any jokes this week, Stew?”), and the show is all the better for it. I am happy to put the spotlight on one of the more bizarre episodes, in which Stew renders onto us a Tristram Shandy-like discussion of charity that winds up being about crisps, his grandfather’s racism, and the King of Monsters.

1256.) The first of three episodes devoted to the great work of the brilliantly subversive filmmaker Robert Aldrich. These shows came out of watching (and being annoyed by) the overwrought miniseries “Feud,” which dragged Aldrich’s reputation through the mud and ignored his many accomplishments making independent films with and without studio backing. In this episode I focus entirely on the Fifties and the string of genre pictures he made that overturn the genres in question. The films included in the show range from his first adventure/noir film World for Ransom to his mid-Fifties slew of splendid genre movies, including two great Westerns (both with Burt Lancaster), a “woman’s picture” (with Joan Crawford), a why-Hollywood-is-evil melodrama, and two of the greatest subversive films ever, his anti-war war movie Attack! (1956) and one of the best (and arguably the “last”) noirs ever, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).