885.) Vintage ep: The Funhouse makes another invigorating journey back to the Sixties, the decade that qualifies as the “gift that keeps on giving,” as we keep rediscovering gems from that benighted era. First up is a review of Ken Russell at the BBC, a six-film collection of Russell’s kinetic and wildly inventive early biopics. Russell forged his unique style working on these projects and even today they bristle with a wild energy and betray his pure love for the works of the artists, poets, dancers, and composers depicted. From Russell we move on to another film artist, one who made far fewer films, photographer William Klein. The Delirious Fictions of William Klein box contains his three cartoonlike fantasy films, offering savage spoofs of fashion, politics, the media, and the “model couple.” We finish our journey back to the joyously confused Sixties with a review of the new Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour box, a compendium of the best the era had to offer from a mainstream show that stepped off the ledge, and produced some timeless moments of entertainment and outrage.
886.) Vintage ep: The Consumer Guide department merges with my favorite “rare footage” feature, as I feature two “mail order” items you ain’t seein’ anyplace else on TV. First up is a collection of European shorts that includes the work of Lars Von Trier, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jan Svankmajer, and a certain Uncle Jean, among others. Then we turn from the European auteurs to an American filmmaker quite beloved in “on the continent,” back when he was a gag-meister. Some rare b&w Woody Allen on TV, from a British special which consisted of nothing but Woody doing his stand-up — with an Irish lounge-singer guy as his guest (but I’m not showing the lounge singer).
887.) Vintage ep: Some filmmakers just can’t be replaced. Their works are just so unusual that terms have to be created to describe them. In the case of Deceased Artiste Ray Dennis Steckler, who left this mortal coil a few months ago (but we still love him, and have no need for time limits on obit-tributes), the phrase used to describe his movies — and that of several dozen other bizarre exploitation/genre moviemakers — was taken from the name of his best known-work. Thus, we salute this week the “incredibly strange” movies of RDS with commentary by yours truly and a slew of clips including scenes from his famous pictures, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies, as well as his other gonzo action/horror/comedy/musical features and his more prodigious output, namely soft and hardcore porn. Although we’re using only “hard R” segments, I hope to convey Ray’s strange way with post-dubbing his porn: anytime you hear a male narrator, it’s most likely Ray himself — and if you hear some guy just making odd noises and sounds, affecting a silly voice, or just repeating a phrase over and over, that’s Ray too. The man was one of a freakin’ kind. Plus: two additional Deceased Artistes, whose own beloved brands of “incredibly strange” talent make them perfect complements to Steckler.
888.) Vintage: It’s been about seven months now since it happened, but my interest in film buff topics never diminishes, and so this week’s show is a visual counterpart to my blog entry about the “death” of the arthouse distributor New Yorker Films (located here: http://mediafunhouse.blogspot.com/2009/02/new-yorker-films-unspools-its-last.html). I offer some background and commentary at the outset, but then we plunge headfirst into two lengthier, masterful French films that New Yorker represented, did release on VHS, but buried when DVD became the medium of choice. The first is The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache’s 1973 portrait of a verbose young man and his two lovers, as incarnated by two terrific actresses and the wonderfully energetic Jean-Pierre Leaud. Eustache’s epic-lengthed b&w talkfest is a supreme achievement that sums up the malaise of the early Seventies like few other French features. I decided to pair Eustache’s film with one of the best-known works by one of his mentors, the wildly underrated Jacques Rivette. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) was indeed his “greatest hit” on these shores, but it hasn’t been seen much in the last few decades thanks to the fact that it is indeed a longer film that viewers “sink into,” and the fact that it had a high-priced VHS release and never showed up subsequently on disc. New Yorker was indeed a valuable and extremely important link in the chain of film fandom as a theatrical distributor in the Sixties and Seventies, but as a video label it was not exactly a buff’s best friend….
889.) Part one of my interview with innovative and influential British comic visionary Chris Morris. In this part of our chat, we discuss his feature debut as a filmmaker, Four Lions, from a number of perspectives and also touch on his radically brilliant radio and TV comedy. Topics include the darkly comic tone of Four Lions (the questions is not whether the screw-up terrorist characters will die, it’s more who among them will die and when), the film’s documentary tone, Morris’s research into real-life terrorist screw-ups, and the characters’ use of different media to spread their confused message. We close out with two questions linking the film with his past work, the first concerning his extraordinary ability to craft characters who speak nonsense with certitude, and his wonderful “vox pop” (man in the street) interviews done for radio and TV, in which he involved average English citizens (and later famous politicians and pundits) in discussions about ridiculous fictitious scourges.
890.) My particular joy in doing “Consumer Guide” episodes is not only noting the existence of great new DVD releases, but also being able to show snippets of footage from titles that run the gamut of Funhouse fascinations. In this show, I offer four reviews, each representing a different kind of release. The first is a purely musical offering, the live concert DVD An Evening with Frank Zappa during which… The Torture Never Stops. That is followed by the newest film from actress-turned-filmmaker Marina De Van (a former Funhouse interview subject), which finds writer Sophie Marceau being mysteriously transformed into her “other self,” (played by the equally sexy Monica Belluci); De Van’s scenario adds one other small problem: Marceau’s hubby, kids, and surroundings are also transforming by slow degrees…. Next up is the “lost” vintage TV musical “Evening Primrose,” written by James Goldman from a story by John Collier with original songs by this guy named Sondheim; the plot is pure Twilight Zone (never a bad thing) and the star is Anthony Perkins (always a good thing). We close out with the supplement-filled Criterion release of Lars von Trier’s magisterially disturbing Antichrist; the supplements detail von Trier’s crippling depression before and during the shoot, and provide the opinions of both lead actors (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) , as well as interesting glimpses into how von Trier crafted his hypnotic images, intended as a tribute to his hero, Andrei Tarkovsky.
891.) The second and final part of my interview with British humorist and filmmaker Chris Morris incorporates a number of items dear to my heart in the Funhouse: dark humor, British comedy, the magical medium of radio, a tribute to comedy giants (in this case, Morris’s two influences, the mighty Viv Stanshall and Peter Cook), and a discussion of the vagaries of new media, including the fact that entire bodies of work can be found thereupon. Included in the show is a Funhouse first: audio clips featured as prominently as the video, since Morris did some visionary work on radio, and Stanshall and Cook are best represented in this context by their audio recordings. Along the way we also touch on the “fake news” phenomenon — Morris and Armando Iannucci having done the concept to a fine, surreal turn on British TV two years before The Daily Show appeared in the U.S., and an example of how talking with a brilliant individual can sometimes be like a chess match.
892.) The death of the most commercial filmmaker in the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol, led me to look back at his body of work to discover some absolute masterworks and uneven wonderments. This first Deceased Artiste tribute to this very singular (and sometimes singularly weird) body of work focuses on his first four films, made from 1958-60. The films are extremely dark in tone compared to the other New Wave debut features (even Rivette’s) and each one of them is a skillful blend of excellent acting, cruel dialogue, and a bleak outlook on human behavior. I also discuss the important influence of screenwriter Paul Gégauff on Chabrol. Gégauff was a womanizing, fascistic gent who had a turbulent private life and wrote some terrifically compelling films for Chabrol and other filmmakers. Chabrol’s masterwork from this period, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), has a “Gégauffian” tone, as a quartet of shopgirls discover little joys and major sorrow in Paris; the film bombed at the box office upon its release, but is now recognized as one of Chabrol’s strongest statements on man’s inhumanity to (wo)man.
893.) Close off your Christmas Day with an unconventional holiday celebration, and some brilliant and occasionally blasphemous standup in the latest Consumer Guide episode. In this case I’m reviewing titles released by Go Faster Stripe, an indie Welsh DVD company that records the shows of various “alternative” British standups who are Edinburgh Fringe vets and who have fast become Funhouse favorites (say that three times fast). First up is Simon Munnery, whose portmanteau disc Hello finds him moving from conventional standup to character comedy (with a sidestep into some wonderfully odd crucifixion puppetry) and then to his strong suit (a very rare thing in this day in age) the fabrication of very memorable epigram-jokes. Next we turn back to Stewart Lee, whose superb show ’90s Comedian includes his most audacious routine about a drunk night’s encounter with Christ. I close out with Robin Ince’s annual celebration of a “rationalist” Yuletide, called Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. The show has been put on in London for the past three years, and blends the best “alternative” standups with musicians and scientists. My review highlights include Lee’s former partner, the imaginatively blasphemous comic Richard Herring, and that atheist icon named Dawkins. For your post-holiday perusal, I guarantee amusement, enlightenment, and at least one tacky kitsch item purchased in Atlantic City.
894.) Vintage: You have to catch the legends while they’re in town, and so I was very pleased to talk recently with filmmaker Ken Russell, who was in NYC directing his first play, the psycho-thriller Mindgame. I got to spend a good amount of time with him and covered a number of topics. In this first part of our conversation, we discuss his reasons for taking on the play, as well as the female audience reaction to its scenes of torture and menace. From madness on stage we turn to madness on screen, and talk about the terrific biopics that Russell made for the BBC back in the Sixties, and then brought — with an even more vivid imagination and bigger budgets — to movie screens in the Seventies. We close this part of our talk with a mention of the late, great Oliver Reed, who starred in six of Russell’s films.
895.) Vintage: Part two of my career-spanning interview with director Ken Russell centers in on the period in which he achieved his first international renown, right before his biggest box-office hit, Tommy. Russell’s reputation as an over-the-top filmmaker ignores his three lower-key (but still feverishly intense) adaptations of the work of D.H. Lawrence, a writer he considers quintessentially English. The other focus of this episode is Russell’s absolute masterpiece about religious, political, and sexual hypocrisy, The Devils (1971), which to this day has remained heavily censored in prints available in America, as well as never having had a DVD release of any kind. Mr. Russell closes out with a childhood memory of what Fritz Lang’s pictures meant to him during wartime.
896.) In celebration of the recent 80th birthday of Funhouse deity “Uncle Jean,” aka Jean-Luc Godard, I am very proud to present the U.S. television premieres of two of his short video essays and scenes from two other brilliant video pieces. The pieces range in date from 1993 to 2002, with the biggest discovery — in terms of Funhouse “conceptual continuity” — being JLG’s “sampling” of a Serge Gainsbourg song in one of his videos (with an appropriately dense visual overlay as it plays). The shorts that will be seen in their entirety are the very short-short Je Vous Salue Sarajevo, which analyzes a photo of the conflict over there, and De l’origine du XXIeme siècle. The latter is a beautiful creation: a summation of the 20th century in a mere 15 minutes that spotlights the tragedies and horror of the century, counterpointed with gorgeous sequences from classic films (including a Jerry Lewis citation, utilized for its “chromatic” aspect). The end is a terrific metaphor for the century, taken from Ophuls’ Le Plaisir. Godard continues to be arguably the most significant filmmaker alive, and these shorts are evidence of how great his work has been in his “senior” period.
897.) Vintage: An interview with the French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch, on the occasion of the NYC opening of his film Paris. Klapisch has specialized in the last few years in Altman-esque ensemble pieces, but he has also made a wonderful “small” character piece (When the Cat’s Away), an equally Altman-esque filmed play (Un Air de Famille), and even a sci-fi feature (Peut-etre, unreleased in the U.S.). I speak to M. Klapisch about his screenwriting, his work with noted actors (Juliette Binoche in Paris, Audrey Tautou in L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls), and the excellent work he’s done in conveying the environments his characters live in. His films are closer to Truffaut than Godard, with their chief joys being lyrical moments in which the characters “indulge” (parties, dreams, drugs, booze) and we get a sense of the cities they inhabit, from Paris to St. Petersburg.
898.) The best British sitcoms are the ones that follow the Fawlty Towers model and do six episodes and let the show rest for a year or two before the second season. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Armando Iannucci’s brilliant The Thick of It, which I’ll be featuring this week on the Funhouse. Iannuci’s sitcom offers stinging political satire that also works, like The Larry Sanders Show, as a beautifully detailed portrait of an office where backstabbing is a way of life. The show is made particularly memorable by its cursing, for which Iannucci employs a “cursing consultant,” and by the performance of Scotsman Peter Capaldi, who is ostensibly the show’s star but functions more like a brilliant scene-stealer, playing the part of an “enforcer” for the Prime Minster’s office. One bit of trivia I don’t mention on the show: Iannucci has signed with HBO to do an American political sitcom called Veep (to star Julia Louis-Dreyfus) supposedly based on Thick of It.
899.) Part two of my Deceased Artiste tribute to the late, great Claude Chabrol focuses on his misfires in the Sixties and Seventies. A number of the titles featured in this episode are not available on DVD in the U.S., but I’m happy to present them in the spirit of comprehensiveness. A few of these misfires (Les Godelureaux, L’Oeil du Malin) were actually great films that just had a dark, “unpleasant” tone and never acquired an audience, while others were “commercial” concepts (Bond-ish spy comedies), downright mistakes (the dubbed-in-every-country, sexist-comedy international coproduction High Heels starring Belmondo, Mia Farrow, and Laura Antontelli), or bizarre twists on familiar material (Sylvia Kristel in an existential but not sexually-oriented Alice in Wonderland update). When you discuss Chabrol’s work it’s important to emphasize his masterworks, but it’s also a lot of fun to probe his fascinating flops.
900.) David Bowie has had a pretty rich career in and out of music, and has made some pretty interesting choices as an actor. This week I present two such curious and ambitious choices, both having a connection to Weimar-era Germany. The first is the never-screened-in-the-U.S. television version of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1982), directed by Alan Clarke. Clarke tried to find a cinematic/televisual equivalent to Brecht’s “epic theater” style for the piece, and so uses split screens, on-screen titles, a profusion of wide shots, and, of course, stylized acting. Bowie stars as a sleazy but charismatic poet-musician who seduces women and ultimately kills his best friend, all while delivering Brecht’s original songs with only voice and banjo accompaniment. The second feature of the evening is Just a Gigolo (1979), directed by Blow-Up star David Hemmings. The film features Bowie as a WWI vet who takes on the titular profession when he can’t find another job. Hemmings emphasizes Bowie’s model looks in various moments in the film, but he also sets up a farcical tone (which later is broken by a dramatic ending — I ain’t saying the movie is flawless) in which Bowie is pursued by various females including the always daunting Ms. Kim Novak. Also making her final screen appearance in the film is the ultimate Weimar era dame, Miss Marlene Dietrich, who does actually sing in the film, for what was the very last time in public.
901.) Vintage: The Kuchar Brothers’ importance in the “underground” film scene of the Sixties cannot be underestimated. That’s why I’m proud to present this week part one of my interview with Mike Kuchar, the more visually inclined of the brothers, and the man who gave us the deranged mini-feature Sins of the Fleshapoids (more on that cult classic in part two!). In this installment of the interview, Mike discusses his latest “pictures,” which are elegantly stylized shorts shot on mini-DV and edited with a digital effects editing box (much as the Funhouse itself is). He reflects on the “underground” label, and also dispenses his philosophy of filmmaking. In addition, he supplies recollections of his youth in the Bronx, his love of Hollywood product (both A- and B-grade), and the use by he and his brother George of their voluminous collection of records to “score” their 8mm, super 8mm, and 16mm films.
902.) Vintage: The Kuchar-fest continues with the second and final part of my interview with Mike Kuchar. In this episode we focus on his work with his brother George on a series of wonderfully outlandish no-budget 8mm and super-8mm shorts, shot in the apartments (and streets, and on the roofs) of the Bronx. Mike reflects on the Kuchar Brothers’ relationship to their contemporaries (Jacobs, Warhol, Mekas), and the wonderfully kitschy humor they exhibited in their finest works. We move on to discuss Mike’s Sixties masterwork, the no-budget, robots-with-human-emotions 16mm cult classic Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), which is currently the only Kuchar film available on U.S. DVD (out of literally hundreds that the brothers have made). We close out with Mike’s thoughts on working as a cameraman for other “underground” and low-budget filmmakers, and the Kuchar “legacy.”
903.) Vintage: There’s no greater curse than receving the Oscar, and so this week I pay tribute to a filmmaker/comedian whose work I still love, but who has been pretty much forgotten here in the U.S. since his Academy Award win more than a decade ago. The gent in question is Roberto Benigni, who I see as the modern era’s only tangible link to the great American (and, natch, Italian) screen comedians of the Golden Era. First up is a short scene from the latest Benigni film, The Tiger and the Snow, which received a cursory theatrical release in the U.S. and which I discovered when it cropped up at odd times on the Sundance Channel. Next we turn to one of the best Benigni films that has remained unreleased in the U.S., his 1985 collaboration with a fellow controversial Italian TV comedian, the late Massimo Troisi. Functioning as a terrific comedy team, the two play dolts who land back in the late 15th century, where they decide to prevent the discovery of America by Columbus. This plot device may be the reason the film has been so underseen on these shores, but the pic is a terrific low key comedy that boasts one of my favorite titles *ever * in movie history (esp. for a comedy), Nothing Left to Do But Cry. We finish out with a film that is legally available here but no one knows it exists: the crazy, vulgar, Marxist comedy Berlinguer I Love You (1977), scripted by and starring Benigni. The film’s plot is unrecountable, but it does feature Roberto as a Mama’s Boy who is looking for political enlightenment, as well as a private place to masturbate to his scarecrow rendition of the leader of the Italian Communist Party (whom Benigni did actually support in real life). Top that, awful Saturday Night Live alumni….
904.) In part three of my Deceased Artiste tribute to Claude Chabrol, the most prolific and most uneven of the New Wave directors, I delve into what is considered his “golden age,” a period from 1968-’73 when he had made a series of smart and disturbing thrillers set among the haute bourgeoisie. We start off with the lesbian personality-theft pic Les Biches and move through what is called “the Helene cycle” — as there was always a female character named Helene, usually played by Chabrol’s then-wife, the marvelously sexy and talented Stephane Audran. The cycle concluded with the feverish, James M. Cain-ish, middle-aged l’amour fou tale Les Noces Rouge, but I offer a bonus in the form of scenes from Une Partie de Plaisir (1974). Partie is one of the strangest Chabrol films ever, a weird act of “catharsis” for its very colorful (and seemingly not very delicate avec les femmes) Paul Gégauff.
905.) It’s been nearly a year since softcore filmmaker Joseph W. Sarno died, but the Funhouse obeys no standard clocks or calendars. Thus, this week I’ll be presenting the first of two planned tributes to Joe, with clips from the first two “periods” of his work. I start out with his “suburban roulette” period, where he introduced two of the main tenets of his work: dark, compelling visuals and storylines that emphasized the characters’ angst over their sexual behavior (something that was quite uncommon in the sex film, then and now). This period was set in motion by Joe’s seminal Sin in the Suburbs (wherein a swinging sex club at the local motel brings to mind Kubrick’s much later dip into similar waters with Eyes Wide Shut) and ended when Joe started to make movies in Sweden. I explore these pics by focusing on his successful pair of Inga features, and for those viewers who’ve seen my past tributes to Joe’s work (and my late-’90s interview with the man), I will indeed be once again showcasing the terminally catchy “Inga” theme from the pre-ABBA Benny and Bjorn.
906.) Continuing the ongoing theme in the Funhouse of “great British comedy series you won’t be seeing on BBC-America,” I’m very pleased this week to present commentary on, and clips from, Armando Iannucci’s strange, very funny, and extremely nasty take on 21st-century culture, Time Trumpet. The show, which aired in 2006, “looks back” at the first decade of the century, from the vantage point of 2031. Iannucci and his team of “social pundits” discuss various pop-culture and political phenomena, all the while decimating the talking-head “we love such-and-such-a-decade” shows, deceitful politicians, talentless celebrities, and reality TV.
907.) The culture of the Sixties is a seemingly bottomless well that I love to return to time and again (indeed, “the gift that keeps on giving”). Thus, this week I present an episode featuring clips from, and commentary about, the mind-warping film called Futz! (1969). Directed by Tom O’Horgan (the Broadway director of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar), the film was based on a play presented at La MaMa about a young man of the country who loves and wants to marry his beloved pig. Although the movie probably disappointed those who came to see it for orgiastic nudity (that’s in there, but it ain’t onscreen for very long), the film still offers a cornucopia of Sixties wonderment, including early performances by the scintillatin’ Sally Kirkland and Coppola mainstay Frederic Forrest. The two most important contributors to the picture were cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who provided exquisite imagery and horror/fantasy genre specialist Joseph Stefano (best known for Psycho and The Outer Limits TV series). Why would a horror scripter be involved with an ecstatically weird of underground theater on film? Well, you’ll just have to watch out and find out.
908.) An offhanded reference by Funhouse guest Neil Innes led me to discover the subject of this week’s episode, English humorist Mark Steel. Steel is a very special kind of comedian who found his perfect vehicle in the TV series The Mark Steel Lectures (2003-2006). The show was not comprised of lectures, but rather historical biographies told with a blend of serious historical fact and smart, savage humor. Steel centered his sights on “people with a passion” and then argued about their relevance to the way we live today (or the way we should be living our lives). His mixture of old ideas and new interpretations is spotlighted in two episodes (Lord Byron, Karl Marx) from the Lectures, which I’m featuring — in condensed form, naturally — in this episode.
909.) One of the many joys of doing the Funhouse is not only introducing viewers to different artists and performers they might not have otherwise encountered, but also in tracing their careers and “digging deep” into their filmographies and TV output. This week we dig deep into the world of Serge Gainsbourg (who would’ve been 83 this past April 2nd) and discuss his third film as a filmmaker, and the only one in which he starred, Charlotte For Ever (1986). As the title indicates, the film revolves around one of Serge’s great loves, his daughter Charlotte. The two spend time locked in the hothouse environment of an apartment, debating whether Serge’s character “killed” Charlotte’s mom in an auto accident. Gainsbourg was surely inspired by Tennessee Williams in the creation of the film, but also is able to indulge his bibliophilic tendencies and his taste for young women. The film has never been widely available with English subtitles, so I’m happy to “premiere” scenes from it on American television.
910.) Easter is a time for blessed blasphemy on the Funhouse, and this year will be no different. Since the well of Christian kitsch is relatively dry this annum, I turn to an English stage show that was condemned by fundamentalist Xtians and was nearly the subject of a criminal charge of blasphemy (eventually struck down). The show is Jerry Springer: the Opera, a 2002 creation of the composer Richard Thomas (no, not “John-Boy Walton”) and Funhouse favorite Stewart Lee. While it starts out simply as an incisive, brutal Springer parody, the show takes a wide turn in the second act, when Springer descends to hell and is called upon to referee disputes between the Devil and Jesus, Adam and Eve, and Jesus and Mary. The parallel construction of the show — in which the actors who played rednecks, adulterers, and fetishists in the First Act play Biblical figures in the Second — stirs the pot quite well, and some quick, pointed jokes in the dialogue surely qualify the show as a work of “blasphemy” – intelligent, inventive blasphemy. Plus, Thomas’s songs are catchy as, er… hell.
911.) I do my best to present the very best in “unseen” entertainment week after week in the Funhouse, but one small thing has been left out in the past few months — and that’s the very worst! So tonight, I rectify that as I commemorate the passing of Hollywood’s “last star,” Elizabeth Taylor. Expanding upon my blog post about her “flamboyant flops,” I show clips from three of them and discuss her screen persona in the late Sixties and Seventies. We start out with the biggest cult hit among her misguided movies, Boom (1968). A collaboration between Tennessee Williams, Joseph Losey, and Taylor and Burton (not forgetting Michael Dunn) should have produced unforgettable fireworks, but instead the film is just blissfully tacky and esoteric. A later solo Liz picture, The Driver’s Seat (1974), is a whole other kinda kitsch that finds Taylor involved in all sorts of sex-related situations and giving yet another shrill performance. We close out with Peter Ustinov’s strange and uneven comedy Hammersmith is Out, a Faustian saga with Taylor and Burton that actually works pretty well in its first half when it’s a sarcastic comedy (which is all I’ll be dealing with on the show; check out the feeble allegorical drama in the second half on your own). All those tributes to the lady on network and cable TV, and yet no one showed these films….
912.) Political humor still exists in the U.S., but it is mostly toothless. Standup comedians aim for big bookings and thus don’t want to fire from the hip, and TV comedy shows need to satisfy their sponsors and/or their wildly cheering studio audiences, and so political humor over here doesn’t get very sophisticated. In England, however, there are a handful of supremely talented, “engaged” left-wing comedians, and one of the most interesting is Robert Newman. Newman was half of an immensely popular comedy team in the 1990s and since he split with his partner he has worked simultaneously as a novelist, a political activist, and a standup comedian. One of his finest accomplishments as a standup is the TV special History of Oil, which I’ll be showing scenes from this week. The program offers an illustrated lecture on the ways in which that crude substance has motivated American and British political policy throughout the last century. Newman is a charming performer who conveys a serious message with a wonderfully light touch, and Oil is the kind of show that I wish was produced for American TV. It’s certainly not going to show up on BBC-America, and thus I’m happy to premiere scenes from it on the Funhouse.
913.) We journey back to the Sixties once more this week, as I discuss and excerpt clips from the film Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam). Of course America is “far” from that war chronologically, but the lessons learned from that long debacle — by both the right and the left — are an intrinsic part of today’s governmental policy and news coverage. The film was a collective effort by a group of “New Wave” directors, assembled by Chris Marker. I’m offering clips from different parts of the film, but for the purposes of the Funhouse’s 28-minute time limit I’m focusing primarily on the sequences that can definitely be attributed to a specific filmmaker. Thus I will be spotlighting (who else?) Uncle Jean’s contribution, wherein Godard talks on-camera about his conflicted feelings about depicting, or even discussing Vietnam, in a film, and also William Klein’s chronicling of the reaction to the war on the streets of NYC. Some vintage views of parading peaceniks and angry, hate-filled war lovers alternate with Klein’s stylishly warped views of American advertisements. Given the discussions in the past few years (and days) about whether Americans should view the caskets of soldiers coming back from the U.S.’s ongoing Mid-East occupations, or photographs of atrocities inflicted on military prisoners — or the execution of terrorist leaders — the Vietnam war is not very far away at all.
914.) I am extremely pleased to provide the U.S. “premiere” of solid British comedies that ain’t never going to show up on the uncommonly hopeless BBC-America (really — the Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie? Really?). This week I introduce Funhouse viewers to the charming Graham Linehan (The IT Crowd) creation Black Books, a Britcom set in a small bookstore run by a very cranky and indulgent Irishman. I follow scenes from that show with clips from performance DVDs released by the show’s two stars. The costar, Bill Bailey, is a long-haired, sharp-witted observational comic with a surreal edge and great talent as a multi-instrumentalist; he is also so popular in the U.K. that he’s headlined at Wembley. The show’s star and co-creator, Dylan Moran, is a top-notch standup who treats familiar topics with a fresh eye and acid wit. I believe both of them should be known over here — Bailey’s trippy comedy and musical pastiches are great, and Moran definitely stands beside Stewart Lee in the Pantheon of poetically sarcastic current-day comedians.
915.) Few things are as admirable as a life well lived, and so this week I offer a Deceased Artiste tribute to the actress Annie Girardot, who started out as a sex kitten in the Fifties and wound up being a respected character actress from the Eighties through the Aughts. I’ll be focusing on the most colorful section of her career, when she essayed very odd characters for Funhouse favorite Marco Ferreri and also played middle-aged women caught up in the psychedelic worldwind that was the Sixties. There’ll be a bit of Mme. Girardot with “B.B.” and a bit of her acting for Il Grande Marco, but the feature presentation is most definitely Erotissimo, a super-psych comedy about a wife who wants to win back her husband’s affection and thus starts exploring the sexier side of pop culture. The film lifts entire chunks from the visual playbook of a certain Uncle Jean and its music sounds like the work of a certain Serge, so it was an absolute must for the Funhouse.
916.) I’m pleased to use the Funhouse as a vehicle to acquaint NYC TV viewers with the work of certain British humorists, and so this week I return to the marvelous Mark Steel Lectures, which provides biographical portraits of historical figures laced with fact, jokes, sarcasm, jarring metaphors, and (gasp) knowledge. Steel is the ideal teacher, a gent who revels in “people with a passion” and inspires viewers to view artists’, philosophers’, and scientists’ work from a contemporary perspective (and to check out their writings, as well as their biographies). Tonight’s episode features segments from the second season of the Lectures — be prepared to see the punk-classical nexus and a gent who provided a clear link between the American and French revolutions.
917.) You’d think that presenting the “best moments” of a recent-vintage standup comedy DVD would be simple, but that’s far from the case when the comedian in question is Stewart Lee. Lee is currently at the top of his form, and he delights in constructing routines that go on for a good 20-30 minutes and are fashioned like a house of cards — if any one element is removed, the whole thing tumbles to the ground. Thus, I carefully considered what I’d show to turn folks on to Lee’s disc If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, and decided, true to Lee’s mission, to present the DVD’s most “difficult” routine. The 33-minute set-piece in question (which I had to internally edit to preserve its rhythms, but also to fit our 28-minute mandate) is an odd reverie that starts out in one place, moves to another (physically), and then winds up with Lee turning from his trademark sarcasm and virtuoso deadpan to tackle something even more difficult (as he puts it): sincerity. The result is an savagely brilliant piece of material that may not be the best place to become acquainted with his work (for those who haven’t seen my previous episodes about him), but represents something new and fresh and thus very unusual in the world of comedy.
918.) At its best, late-night TV has always had a hallucinatory feel to it. You wake up the next morning (considerably improved) and wonder if you dreamt the program you watched the night before. Fortunately for us, recording devices exist, and so I happily present to you, to celebrate my turning “another year older and deeper in debt,” one of my favorite hallucinations from earlier in this year, the local talk/variety show All Night With Joey Reynolds. I’ve written two detailed blog posts about the show, but a video is worth a thousand words, and so this week I present some comments on, and excerpts from, All Night. The clips from this show should be viewed on a TV set, since it’s one thing to watch a program that’s a “runaway train” (as All Night was) on your computer, but it’s quite another thing to take the old-fashioned route and watch TV clips on your TV set! And they’ll be appearing in the late-evening hours… when you can convince yourself it’s all a hallucination….
919.) Vintage show: Inaugurating a new series of episodes about British standups and TV comedy series that have never been seen in America (and most likely never will be), this week I offer up a look at the work of Chris Morris, the brutally funny satirist who has written and starred in some of the best and most innovative series on British TV. First up is The Day Today, the 1994 fake news program that gave us the blithely ignorant Alan Partridge, as well as establishing Morris’ trademark style, which blends an incredible deadpan delivery with deft wordplay and a gift for surreal whimsy — and dark, dark humor. The second show I spotlight is Brass Eye, Morris’ series of in-depth news “specials” that concluded with a very controversial parody of frenzied, moralizing documentaries about the hunt for pedophiles (which aired in England years before To Catch a Predator debuted over here).
920.) This week I adjourn to the Consumer Guide department once more, as I tackle a trio of familiar subjects, spotlighted here because of recent DVD releases that I believe will be of major interest to the regular Funhouse viewer. First up is a “catch-up” title, one that has been out for a short while on disc, the documentary Two in the Wave. While I don’t believe, as the documentarian does, that the friendship between Truffaut and Godard was the linchpin of the entire French New Wave, this interesting docu contains beaucoup de rare newsreels, TV interviews, and movie clips. Next up I discuss two Fassbinder films that were released this month for the first time on DVD, the big-budget, English-language feature Despair and the incredibly great (and wonderfully titled) telefilm I Only Want You To Love Me. I turn from the sublime to… well, Skidoo (!) for the last review of the evening. I’ve spoken before about Otto Preminger’s bizarre, star-studded acid comedy (which bows on DVD next week), and I’m quite happy to be reviewing the first official release of the film in the U.S. (which also represents the first time it’s ever been seen letterboxed on home screens). Skidoo needs to be seen, and once it has been seen, it can never be forgotten….
921.) When we shot the host segments for this week’s show there was no indication that the superb British political sitcom The Thick of It would ever be shown again on American TV. After we shot the segments, BBC-America announced that they will be airing episodes from the series much later in the year, most likely as a tie-in to the American revamp of the show, the upcoming HBO series Veep. I’m still very proud to discuss the program and show short clips from its brilliantly scripted and wonderfully acted second and third seasons this week, since I am pretty certain that the American commercial channel on which it will appear will: skip the politically “dense” second season; edit the episodes for time (check out what they’re doing currently with their “Ministry of Humour” shows on Saturday nights); and edit for language. The series is, of course, the creation of the mastermind of UK TV comedy, Armando Iannucci, and features a stellar ensemble of performers led in every sense of the word by Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed and foul-tempered spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. Since Malcolm drops the “f-bomb” like most people use the word “the,” I am glad to offer up an episode that offers commentary on the program, as well as both a consideration and several examples of the fine art of cursing with a Scottish burr.
922.) Continuing our “summer of British comedy,” this week I close out a trio of shows about the terrific series, unseen in the U.S., The Mark Steel Lectures. Steel makes education entertaining with his irreverent presentations of historical fact, surprising bits of contextual information, and present-day comparisons. The theme for the Lectures was “people with a passion,” and for this episode, I’m presenting clips from three episodes from the show’s final season (in 2006). Spotlighted are one of the world’s biggest movie stars, the woman author who wrote the first sci-fi novel, and the revolutionary who unwittingly became a fashion icon.
923.) As I have journeyed through modern British comedy (of the brilliant variety) over the last year on the show, I intentionally left out one name until I could give the gent a proper tribute of his own. And so this week I salute the work of one of the busiest standups in the UK and a very active podcaster (deemed “the Podfather” by the British press), Richard Herring. Herring began as the partner of Stewart Lee — the stooge to Lee’s sarcastic straight man — and has since had a very busy career as a solo act, fashioning themed one-man shows as well as regular standup sets. First up are segments from his show Someone Likes Yoghurt, a performance that includes some top-notch blaspheming (Herring is a master blasphemer) and also some wonderfully self-referential bits that, to borrow Funhouse fave Marco Ferreri’s phrase, “construct themselves as they deconstruct themselves.” Next are scenes from his themed concept show Hitler Moustache, in which he tries to “reclaim the toothbrush moustache for comedy” in the name of Chaplin. I close out with a video of the live recording of his sketch comedy podcast As It Occurs to Me, which is a sheer absurdist delight.
924.) As I attempt to connect the dots between various British comedy performers, I come to an act that qualifies as arguably the best comedy team (and certainly the most original) in several years, the two gents known (collectively with their “supporting cast”) as The Mighty Boosh. Julian Barratt (familiar to Funhouse viewers from Chris Morris’ Nathan Barley) and Noel Fielding are massively successful over in England and have a solid but smaller cult over here; their success is well-warranted, as the deranged and wholly surreal “tripcom” they created out of their stage act features fantasy storylines, memorably cartoonlike characters, and classic comedy team-style crosstalk verbal routines. On this episode I run through the tenets of their humor, with short clips of their brilliantly silly banter, their wonderful musical-genre homage/parodies (all written by Barratt), and their finest invention, a type of synchronized-rap-cum-nursery-rhyme creation called a “crimp.” I promise you, the tunes and crimps will stay in your mind for some time after the program is over.
925.) Vintage: Following on the heels of my recent foray into the unknown work of the once-fashionable-but-now-sadly-forgotten-in-the-U.S. Roberto Benigni, this week I offer a look at two as-yet-unreleased films by the multitalented Takeshi Kitano. “Beat” Takeshi, as he is known to fans, was also a very fashionable figure on the arthouse circuit in the Nineties, but his last three films have gone undistributed in America. Kitano cuts an imposing figure as a performer, but is a mercurial filmmaker who is as likely to go for a deadpan joke as he to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings or offer a moment of brilliantly elided violence. His 2007 film Glory to the Filmmaker is his own 8 1/2, an odd meditation on what his next film should be, that includes parodies of several genres on its way to becoming an extremely bizarre sci-fi parable involving an eccentric mother and daughter duo. His last release to date as a filmmaker, Achilles and the Tortoise, is two art-world satires in one: the film begins as a touching study of a boy who loves to draw but doesn’t have much talent, and winds up a series of bizarre deadpan sequences about a painter, played by Kitano, who wants to find fame at any cost.
926.) The subject of tonight’s episode left this mortal coil some months ago, but we never tire of saluting the work of our favorite artists and entertainers, and so this week I present the second part of my Deceased Artiste tribute to NYC softcore filmmaker Joseph W. Sarno. In this episode, I start out with three comedies Joe made in NY in 1974, focusing on the “incredibly strange” schlemiel comedy A Touch of Genie. I next turn to the three pictures Joe made in Germany in that same year (which included Veil of Blood (aka Vampire Ecstasy, which we featured on the show several years ago). The emphasis here is on Bibi (aka Girl Meets Girl), an overwrought hot-pants drama in which an ambitious and greedy young lady seduces literally everyone in sight, acted out by (camp alert) a German cast who add a certain lilt to the line “zere’s somesing about a waterfall… somesing untamed…” And I finish off with Sarno’s final softcore films, a series of quiet and intense suburban melodramas in which the participants frequently switch partners and harbor simmering feelings — some of which are blatantly incestuous. I’m happy to close the show out with the scene that I think is perhaps the most emblematic of Sarno’s work, a tortured bit of erotica that taps into the guilt and angst that symbolizes this fine filmmaker’s best work in the sex genre.
927.) Vintage: The Sixties and early Seventies variety shows were all about the blending of the absolute best and the positive worst in American culture; they also saw the old colliding with the new, in a gloriously awkward fashion. I’m thus extremely pleased to review on this week’s Consumer Guide episode three relics from the era. The first, The Mama Cass Television Program, is a 1969 special that finds Cass dueting with some of her immaculately talented folk-rock friends, as well as sharing the stage (and yes, singing) with Buddy Hackett and Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (why? Because!). The second recent release is Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour, a 13-week wonder from 1970 that found the deadpan perennial presidential candidate welcoming various guests and participating in a number of fairly off-the-wall sketches. The final relic is by far the most extreme, the 1967-69 Jerry Lewis Show, edited so that only the comedy sketches are showcased. From Mama’s quiet, lovely melodies to Jerry’s knockabout farce is quite a steep drop, but that’s the kind of thing that the variety show was all about.
928.) The Consumer Guide department allows me to blend together different Funhouse fascinations as I wend my way through recent DVD releases. This week, I start out with an unusual box set, the three-disc release of the Seventies syndicated series Celebrity Bowling. The guests, clothing, and classic promotional endorsements carry the day in this collection, as does the odd pairing of celebs — where else would you see Roy Rogers face off against George Foreman, while both are paired with standup comedians? Next, I turn to the work of filmmaker Francois Ozon, whose Potiche reunites Deneuve and Depardieu, and presents for me an interesting “battle” between the tackiness of the Seventies and the melodramatic tropes of the Fifties. I close out with the wonderful Ernie Kovacs Collection, which offers both the most memorable Kovacs bits as well as the rarest kinescopes of his work that were archived by his wife, costar, and legacy keeper, the wildly underrated Edie Adams. I can say with confidence that the Funhouse is one of the only places you’ll see reviews of these releases on television (and most definitely the only place to review ’em all).
929.) The time has finally come when I have to address the end of the Jerry Lewis Telethon on the Funhouse. Curiously, this comes while Jerry is still alive and well, and so this year’s Labor Day Jerry tribute is a strange one, wherein I discuss what might have led to him being ousted from his post as National Chairman of the charity that he (without question) brought to public prominence. To commemorate the institution that was the Telethon (what exists in its place will contain none of the things that we have prized so dearly), I offer the “alpha” and the “omega,” scenes from the first telethon we have access to (chronologically the second Martin and Lewis-hosted ’thon to benefit MDA), from 1953, and the very last (I find it hard to even type that phrase) Jerry-hosted telethon, from 2010. You will be able to compare and contrast Jerry’s initial low-key approach with his later, in-your-face attitude, and can see the ad-libs that occurred when he hosted in tandem with the completely unflappable Dean, and those that emerged when he worked solo. The MDA might’ve decided they can do without the Jer, but the Funhouse most certainly cannot.
930.) Vintage: I’m proud to present the U.S. TV premiere of segments from the anthology film Chacun Son Cinema. Created in 2007 to pay tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, the film contains 3-5 minute segments by a host of world-famous directors, including several all-time Funhouse favorites. For whatever reason, the film has never found a distributor over here, but it really needs to be seen by American cinephiles, and so I am happy to present a group of the short films, which pay tribute to the experience of viewing a movie in a theater, with an audience and a projector at the back of the room. The entries in this episode were made by filmmakers hailing from a number of places, from Japan to France to Scandinavia. The most touching thing about the film is not just the variety of its content, but the filmmakers and performers that are highlighted as inspirational. And, like many anthology films, some of the entries may feel like they were tossed off, but others are beautifully crafted gems that are even better than some of the directors’ features.
931.) Three dissimilar but highly enjoyable new DVD releases are reviewed in the Consumer Guide department this week. First up is the British “new wave” musical drama Breaking Glass. The picture features the very familiar rise-and-fall of a pop star scenario, but with a social conscience and set to the strains of some bouncy synthopop from star-composer Hazel O’Connor. We next move backward in time to discuss The Complete Jean Vigo from Criterion, a collection that contains the complete works of the pioneer of poetic realism who died at the age of 29 after making only four films — one of which is masterpiece of youthful rebellion and another is indisputably one of the most romantic films of all time. I close out with a Sixties underground classic, David Holzman’s Diary, which follows a young man filming everything he does (foreshadowing nearly everything in the online world in the present day). Gorgeous NYC location footage alternates with some mind-bending pop culture “signposts.” You will enjoy this one…
932.) 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.
933.) Consumer Guide episodes are a joy to do because they allow me to revisit the work of some personal favorites, First up in this episode is The Buster Keaton Short Films Collection, which contains 19 shorts from Buster’s “golden era,” copious background information about the shorts, and some fascinating Keaton-related rarities from the era (1920-23) in which they were made. Next is the Criterion release of Kubrick’s sublime caper noir The Killing, one of the last truly seminal noir features. Among other items included in the release is Kubrick’s earlier Killer’s Kiss and a kick-ass interview with the inimitable Sterling Hayden, relaxing and being wildly honest and authentic in his California home in the Eighties. I close out with Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, a touching portrait of the singer-songwriter-activist whose music was (and is) sublime but whose life was tangled in a web of extreme emotions.
934.) Same as last week (due to a Playback screw-up in Access HQ).
935.) I’m always extremely happy to share with Funhouse viewers TV they won’t see anyplace else, so this week we take a ride — possibly for the last time? (we’ll have to see if it gets renewed) — in Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. For latecomers to the deadpan Mr. Lee, I offer commentary and background, and the clips this time out focus on Stewart’s wry (well, actually pretty vicious) take on “observational comedy” as it is practiced in the 21st century. Thus, a discussion of appliance-based humor is in order, as is some discussion of what “alternative” comedy in the Eighties wound up consisting of. The second highlighted topic is national identity — herein we find that Stewart is actually Scottish by heritage, and that he has discovered a hitherto hidden secret about British history with the aid of his friend, the genius comic-book writer, Mr. Alan Moore.
936.) Months after it went off the air, I’m still processing the wonderment that was the local late-night cable talk show All Night With Joey Reynolds. In order for me to fully deal with what I witnessed, I must (naturally enough) share it with you, and try to see if it was indeed a hallucination or was truly the most bizarrely structured gabfest in TV history. This week, as the second part of a projected three-part journey through the show’s unique moments, I offer up more of Joey’s oddly self-destructive meditations on pop culture in general and network television in particular. I also spotlight some unusual moments with his guests. Joey frequently boasted that the show was “unscripted,” and it truly was. The program showcased some immensely talented people doing what they did best, but it also contained an enormous amount of tangents, on-air flubs, and startling leaps in (il)logic. I still can’t believe it was ever on television, but it will be once more when I keep you “All Night with Joey Reynolds”….