Norm MacDonald

Did I miss something?  After Norm MacDonald’s death this week, I kept reading about what a great comedian he was.  I had never liked him much but I wanted to be fair:  I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him.  Maybe I missed something.

Here’s one of his jokes.  He tells us that during a medical examination of Arnold Schwarzenegger because of a faulty heart valve some of the doctors were concerned because they became turned on during a routine examination.

That’s it.  That’s the punch line.  The audience, on SNL (which is live) didn’t laugh much either.

He also joked about a custody battle between a mother and her ex-husband who was transgender.  It was witless, crude, and dismissive.  It was the kind of joke back-slapping conservative males made and enjoyed at the time.  [Well, well: I now read that Macdonald was a Christian.  It’s possible to be politically progressive and Christian, but clearly Macdonald was your standard, off-the-shelf conservative hypocrite, mocking feminists, poor people, and gays, perhaps with slightly more subtlety than Dennis Miller, while nursing a gambling addiction.]

Again, in front of a picture of Bill and Hilary Clinton: “here’s a picture of the first bitch”.  No joke– just calling Hilary Clinton a bitch.  In another segment, he calls her a liar.  Again, no joke– just calling her a liar.   On an episode of “The View” he accused Bill Clinton of being a murderer.

A lot of Beatles paraphernalia was up for sale, including a “rare” photo of George Harrison not looking haggard.  Huh.

Two homeless people got married at a homeless shelter.  If you want to buy them a gift, they are “registered” at a recycling center.   Huh again.

I’m told his “off the cuff” comments on carrot-top were hilarious.  I’ve watched the clip.  I’m open-minded: maybe there is some reference there that is hilarious, and I missed it.

Same with a cooking demonstration on Conan O’Brien’s show with Gordon Ramsay.  We’re supposed to find his inept inability to follow instructions– like a drunk, really– hilarious.  The biggest laugh was his use of an obscenity, which the audience laughs at because they know it will be beep out.  It was all lame, tedious, witless, and boring.  Conan must have loved him– that lame segment should never have seen the editing suite.

Paul McCartney is going to host an online chat.  Already, 2.5 million calls have come in from people hoping to chat.  But 2 million of them are from Ringo.  That one is not even a little funny.

How about this: Donald Trump decided to divorce Marla Maples because she violated the pre-nuptial agreement by turning 30.  Sophomoric.

Washington D.C. mayor is not interested in polls, or anything that isn’t crack.  Again, very sophomoric.

A joke, in bad taste, about Reagan being allowed to still think he owns the ranch he sold to the U.S. government after the purchase.  Maybe Norm didn’t know Reagan had Alzheimer’s.

He mocks women for their looks.   He mocks Ellen DeGeneres for wanting to have a baby, because she and her partner are both women.  Yeah, they are.  Did someone miss something here?  This might have been funny had it not already occurred to every single person in the audience.

More women would vote if you could bake your vote.  I’m not making that one up– yes, he thought that was funny.  Yes, he read it on Weekend Update.  No, the audience didn’t find it funny either.

When a joke failed– which was often– he would ramble on aimlessly about how that one didn’t work, which is not even funny once, or make a banal comment like “what a world we live in” as if he discovered something that was not already obvious to everyone.  Or, fatally, he would try to explain why the joke was actually funny even though the audience didn’t laugh.  That’s not a secret: Macdonald’s approach to comedy was to do jokes he thought was funny even if the audience didn’t.  Like Red Skeleton.  He and some others thought it was a virtue.  I think it’s an attempt to explain why someone who checks him out because you said he was great might be disappointed: because you don’t get it, see?  He doesn’t care if you don’t think he’s funny.  Really?

After joking about Rikki Lake having to get rid of a dog because it was aggressive with her young child– by eating it– he compounds the lukewarm audience reception with “she ate a whole dog”, which torpedoes the wit factor of any joke.

Those are neither the least nor most funny of a bunch.  A joke about Richard Gere and a gerbil is worse than tasteless.

A lot of his humor is based on the “everyday man” school of comedy, which holds that anything sophisticated or complex should be mocked because if I don’t understand it, it can’t be true or valid.  Gay marriage.  Transgender surgery.  George Harrison frowning in a picture.  And why can’t I make fun of obese talk show hosts?  Well, you can– but making jokes about their obesity really isn’t all that funny anyway.  Calling Bill Clinton a murderer with a tone of  “everybody knows it, right?” isn’t even witty.  If there’s a joke about someone involved in the Clinton scandals– and there are lots– tell it.  But Macdonald didn’t have that kind of Carlinesque skill.

Macdonald did not graduate high school and he has the tone of someone who loves to get digs in on those people who think they are smarter than you simply because they are smarter than you and got educated and understanding something about finance and trade and economics and medicine and music and history– those snobs.

He defended Louis C.K. after he was blacklisted for some relatively mild allegations of inappropriate behavior– a position I agree with.  But he also defended Roseanne Barr  after she made several tasteless, racist tweets.

Well, gosh, so did Donald Trump.

Jokes about Oprah Winfrey’s husband writing a book on how to be a success (Macdonald quips, “marry Oprah Winfrey”), are okay.   A genuine joke: congratulations, Norm Macdonald.  Use this one as a model for humour.  And ironic insight.  A smart perception.  A revelatory twist.  Go for it.

That’s it for Norm Macdonald.  Some okay jokes.  Someone who must have been quite likeable in person– he has lots of defenders, including Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien.  That doesn’t make him funny.

 

 

Digestible Disney

In the original legend of “Robin Hood” the bad guys were greedy aristocrats; in Disney’s version, they are tax-collectors. In the book “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, Frollo is an arch-deacon, not Disney’s magistrate. And in real life, Rasputin was a monk; in Disney’s Anastasia, he weirdly becomes a warlock instead.

Disney loves making stories easier to digest.

Hollywood Aristocracy

Dakota Johnson is the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson.

Melanie Griffith is the daughter of Tippi Hedren.

The jobs in Hollywood movies are too good to be available to any sort of riff-raff or some talented nobody without any relatives in the industry.  No, it is only right that the children of established stars should inherit the privilege of glamour and wealth and fame.

Now what would the children of celebrity Hollywood stars be doing with their lives?  Some job that has measurable performance parameters with a demanding skill set?  Or a job you get because your father or mother knows somebody in the industry and the talents in this industry are judged according to manifestly subjective standards that anyone can, as a favor, manipulate into your favor?

Take Dakota Johnson.  As she grows up, she sees her parents leading the wonderful lives of movie stars, celebrities, privileged by fame and exposure.  She wants to be an actress too, of course.  Does she have special gifts?  Is she exceptionally talented?  Does she work incredibly hard to refine her craft?  Or does she get opportunities that others do not get, and a few acting classes, and some cosmetic surgery, and then the privileged access to casting directors and producers?

Here’s a trashy site that gives you a glimpse of just how privileged actors have become.  It is my view that most of these films will be artistically diminished by serving the vanities of the actors rather than the imperatives of the artistic vision, of the writer and director.  But the die is cast when they seek funding: if Leonardo Di Caprio agrees to be in your film, you have guaranteed yourself millions of dollars for the production.

Without him, you will be forced to actually make a good film and hope for critical recognition and a small profit.

Children are inheriting their parent’s Hollywood Privilege

Handheld Jerky Phony Video

“It’s about popular music. It’s about being in a rock band, over the course of time. And it’s also a direct conversation between me and my fans, at a level that I think they’ve come to expect over the years.”

It has reached the point where every time a video I am watching goes into funky, raw, “authentic” hand-held video mode, I nearly puke.

The latest, unfortunately, are the videos for Bruce Springsteen’s newest album.  As if the video is not a bad enough sign, here’s one that’s even worse: the subject is music.  Yes, Bruce Springsteen is putting out an album about how music is important.  How his fans expect this “conversation”.

I loved Springsteen back in the 1870’s when he released his first albums.  All right– 1980’s, actually.  “Born to Run” remains a classic.  I was also always a Dylan fan so, naturally, I was drawn to Springsteen because he had great lyrics and his band really rocked.  Nobody ever argued that Dylan was a great singer, and neither was Springsteen, but at least he could screech with more enthusiasm.

Years go by.  I find myself admiring  Dylan’s singing more and more, at least until the 1990’s, and Springsteen’s–even on his first albums– less and less.

And now, “Letter to You”, and the limitations of Springsteen’s voice are laid bare.  And, perhaps, the limitations of his music.  Without the cars, the working class angst, the oppressive union jobs, the girls named Sandy or Terry– what’s left for Springsteen?  Is his mind expansive enough to move into deeper territory, more intriguing perspectives, more subtle inflections?

The videos are awful.  First cheap trick: black and white.  Second cheap trick: hand-held jerky camera movements, as if some documentary crew just managed to sneak into the studio.  Third cheap trick: shots of the wife.  It may sound harsh, but I always picture the wife needling the husband into putting her into the video.  I should be there.  I’m your wife.  I sang backup in the band back in the 80’s.  Fourth bad sign:  drone footage of an unidentifiable man walking through snow-covered fields, without a single close-up or establishing shot to let us in on whether that’s actually Springsteen thinking profound thoughts or a stand-in.

Mank

Not sure why so many critics seem to love “Mank”. Maybe they didn’t do their homework: the central thesis of “Mank”– that Herman Mankiewicz didn’t get enough credit for “Citizen Kane” — has been thoroughly debunked. And it’s kind of beside the point anyway. So what if Mankiewicz wrote some or most of the dialogue? Welles produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in “Citizen Kane”, and did all these things beautifully and brilliantly. 

“Mank” doesn’t want to admit that Welles was the real genius.  And he has been correctly regarded as such ever since “Citizen Kane” was released.

Fleabag Season 1 Episode 4

There was a scene in “Fleabag” episode 4 that kind of stunned me.   Fleabag is at a “silent retreat” with her sister Claire, an unwelcomed gift from their dad.  Next door is a men’s retreat in which a leader hilariously tries to train men to not call women sluts or mock them when they receive promotions.  She sees Bank Manager there– someone she had previously flirted with while negotiating a loan for her cafe.  She strikes up a conversation with him, over smokes, and he tells her that he has been forced to attend the workshop as a consequence of some inappropriate behavior at work.  He touched a woman’s breast, twice.

Fleabag immediately offers him her breast to touch.  He frowns and says, “I’m trying to quit”.

I immediately tried to image a similar scene in a CBC comedy, or on an American Network.  I don’t think it’s possible.  I think there would have been shrieking and threats of violence and boycotts and a new hashtag and resignations all around.

I thought of Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, Korea, who committed suicide after a secretary went public with accusations of sexual harassment.  His offense seems to have consisted of repeatedly hitting on her.  He sent her pictures of himself in his underwear.  He pressed his body against her while taking selfies.  He kissed a bruise on her leg.

“I felt defenseless and weak before the immense power,” the woman said in a statement released through her lawyer at a news conference on Monday. “I wanted to shout at him in a safe court of law, telling him to stop it. I wanted to cry out how much he has hurt me.”

It is politically incorrect to think:  for this, he felt his only choice was to commit suicide?  Was the secretary not able to warn him that she would go to the police if he continued the harassing behavior?  We are not told if she did, but the prevailing wisdom among activists is that she shouldn’t have to.

The secretary is not apologetic.  In fact, she is angry that people feel bad about Park Won-soon– who was a sterling advocate for progressive women’s issues his entire career– and not sufficiently considerate of her feelings.

I was disappointed.  I thought she might say something like, “the way he treated me was wrong but I am horrified that an otherwise admirable person felt driven to this terrible act.”

I thought Fleabag’s reaction to the Bank Manager was admirable.  It was “what’s the big deal?”.    It was the act of a truly liberated woman, self-confident, independent, and wildly immune to the “system” that we are led to believe oppresses women.  She would have told Park Won-soon to fuck off and that would probably have been the end of it.

But then… later, Fleabag tried to convince Claire to take a job in Finland that she was reluctant to take because she would be away from her husband, Martin.  Fleabag told Claire that Martin had tried to kiss her, which was true.    Martin denied it and claimed Fleabag had tried to kiss him.  We learn later that Claire always did believe Fleabag but chose to stay with Martin for reasons of her own.

Unlike her interaction with Mr. Bank Manager, this was disappointingly conventional and hypocritical of Fleabag who has herself seduced married or attached men.

We know that Fleabag herself is not innocent of hitting on other peoples’ partners.

“Fleabag” is an outstanding series– you should see it.  It is fabulously original and witty and sometimes transcendent, as when the priest delivers the homily at Fleabag’s father’s wedding, and when Fleabag’s father tells her that he likes Claire.

 

Meet Me in Princess Land

This was one of the first films in her career that gave her the opportunity to be the attractive leading lady. Vincente Minnelli was assigned to direct, and he requested that make-up artist Dorothy Ponedel be assigned to Garland. Ponedel refined her appearance in several ways, including extending and reshaping her eyebrows, changing her hairline, modifying her lip line and removing her nose discs and dental caps. She appreciated the results so much that Ponedel was written into her contract for all her remaining pictures at MGM.  From Wiki

I recently watched “Judy”, the “biopic”, starring Renee Zellweger as the very, very tragic Judy Garland, and fully expected to dislike it.  All the annoying elements of the celebrity biopic are there: the sudden fame, the heights of achievement, the stardom, the celebrity pitfalls, the addictions, the disasters, the recovery.  These films invariably excuse the subject’s poor judgments and weak character as the results of abuse or exploitation.  They invariably feature a triumphant comeback moment or two.  They invariably lie to you.  They invariably invite you to admire the very thing that ruined them: the manipulation of the audience by the entertainment industry which sells you a contrived image, a fake personality, an escape fantasy that no one can possibly live up to.  Judy Garland was both a product and a consequence of that manipulation.

One could very easily have imagined Zellweger turning to the camera at one point and asking the implicated audience, “are you enjoying this?”

Mickey Rooney insists that MGM never forced diet pills, amphetamines, barbiturates or any other substances on Judy, and that her downfall was entirely the result of her weak character, or her own choices, so there is a grain of salt to be absorbed in this story.  (But then again, I’m not sure Rooney is a reliable source.)  “Judy” correctly zeros in on the mom, who could have put a stop to it at anytime but, well, one must fulfill one’s dreams.  A telling scene– which surprised me a little (because it was there, not because it happened) was Mayer putting it to Garland: don’t you want to be famous?  The implication is that Garland was at least partly complicit in her own predicament.  And that’s why Zellweger’s portrayal of Garland is more reserved and less self-pitying than the usual biopic (see “Rocket Man” for a pityful example).

Ignore the blather about her beauty: she never was beautiful, in the way the Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor– actresses her age– were beautiful.  “Judy” wants you to believe she really was beautiful, but had no confidence in her beauty.  Or is “Judy” just dramatizing how the people around her tried to persuade her to work: you look beautiful, you’re going to be great.

“Judy” takes a light touch to Garland’s own claims that Mayer touched her “inappropriately”: there is one sequence in which he touches her “heart” while telling her that that is where she sings from, and he leans in close in some scenes, but it is clear that director Goold didn’t want to go there.

She was fired from MGM in 1949 because she simply failed to show up for filming.  Some websites perpetuate the myth: poor Judy!  She had lots of good reasons to not show up.  She was addicted to barbiturates, for one thing.  She was in the middle of a divorce.  She was depressed.  But it is precisely the traditional Hollywood indulgence of excesses by celebrity stars that prevents actors like Judy Garland from taking responsibilities for their issues and addressing them.

Like Elvis, Garland died sitting on the toilet.  Like Elvis, we didn’t hear about that detail until years later when someone close to the celebrity finally offered that one final eloquent and telling detail.

 

 

How to Ruin a Great Story

Miss Saigon has received criticism for what some have perceived as its racist or sexist overtones, including protests regarding its portrayal of Asians and women in general.[34] Originally, Pryce and Burns, white actors playing Eurasian/Asian characters, wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream to make themselves look more Asian,[35] which outraged some who drew comparisons to a “minstrel show”.[36]

Yes, it’s hard to argue with the idea that using makeup and prostheses to make an actor look more like an Asian character is unnecessary and insulting.  There are Asian actors.  Why not use one?  If you needed in a dog in a scene, would you cast a cat?  A hamster?

Well, only if the hamster badly wanted to star in this show as a dog.  Because the hamster wanted the challenge.  The hamster wants to be famous and adored by the public.

See “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for a notorious example (Mickey Rooney).  If a black actor were to play Hamlet (as many have), would we want to make him look Danish?  Why not?  how come you don’t see black comedians or politicians in whiteface?  Ever?

In the London production of Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga originally starred as Kim, with Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer. When the production transferred from London to New York City, the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) refused to allow Pryce, a white actor, to recreate the role of the Eurasian pimp in America. As Alan Eisenberg, executive secretary of Actors’ Equity explained, “The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community. The casting choice is especially disturbing when the casting of an Asian actor, in the role, would be an important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.”[36] This ruling led to criticism from many, including the British Equity, citing violations of the principles of artistic integrity and freedom. Producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show, despite massive advance ticket sales.[37]

Ah– the collision of two liberal principles!  No. 1, respect ethnicity enough to use actors belonging to that ethnicity.  No. 2, respect “artistic integrity and freedom”.

Though there had been a large, well-publicised international search among Asian actresses to play Kim, there had been no equivalent search for Asian actors to play the major Asian male roles—specifically, those of the Engineer (Pryce) and Thuy (Keith Burns). However, others pointed out that since the Engineer’s character was Eurasian (French-Vietnamese), they argued that Pryce was being discriminated against on the basis that he was Caucasian.  [Wow!!] Also, Pryce was considered by many in Britain to have “star status,” a clause that allows a well-known foreign actor to recreate a role on Broadway without an American casting call.[36] After pressure from Mackintosh, the general public, and many of its own members, Actors’ Equity was forced to reverse its decision. Pryce starred alongside Salonga and Willy Falk (as Chris) when the show opened on Broadway.[38][39][40]  From Wikipedia

And here we get the pretzel: Jonathan Pryce is being discriminated against because he is a Caucasian!  Would anyone pose this argument against someone re-making “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and replacing Mickey Rooney with an actual Japanese actor?   But that would be discriminating against annoying, short, white actors!

All this over an actor playing the role of a pimp.

Now, will no one object to a Eurasian actor being cast in the role of a pimp?  What an insult!  We are all outraged!  Everyone?

 

This is Equality?

In her new movie, 50-year-old Jennifer Lopez plays a stripper.

I knew before I even saw any reviews or previews that Jennifer Lopez is not going to strip in this movie.  Like Natalie Wood and Demi Moore and Jennifer Aniston, who have all played strippers in movies, she will embrace the peculiarly feminine trope of screaming “look at me!  I’m SO naughty!” without actually doing anything all that naughty.   She will somehow convey that she didn’t really want to play the role but just had to.  That somehow, this film about persuading men to give you money to take off your clothes, is really about female empowerment.

She will not do this film unless the director ensures that when she does her pole dance, the audience simply goes wild.  We don’t– it’s a rather pedestrian pole dance, and, fit as she is, Lopez is still 50– but the audience in the film are directed to go while and shower the stage with money.  And we are supposed to believe that this is a kind of gutsy performance, the result of dedication and discipline and months of training.

She will fully expect, and the entertainment press will fully deliver, reviews that rave about her astonishing beauty.  Who would even think she was 50 years old?  And some reviewers will give her extra points for playing a character they think the audience thinks is dark or conflicted or interesting on some level that eludes me.

And a certain type of reviewer will fall in line by proclaiming that the 50-year-old will stun 20-year-olds into awed silence at her overwhelming deliciousness, while simultaneously shutting men up with her liberated, empowering, feistiness and bravado and blah blah blah.

Speaking for the entranced multitudes:

Nowhere is this truer than with the 50-year-old Lopez, who makes a magnificent entrance in “Hustlers” with an athletic, graceful and erotic dance number, and never lets go from there. Once again, she proves what an instinctive, spontaneous actress she is, infusing Ramona with her own Bronx-born street smarts, and carrying herself with the feline regality she’s acquired over a nearly 30-year career as one of the entertainment industry’s most gifted triple threats. In this raunchy, gloriously liberated revenge fantasy, Lopez rules with seductive, triumphant authority. Not only do we climb into her fur, we’ll happily follow her anywhere.   Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post

Have you seen any other Jennifer Lopez films?  She may have “feline regality” but she is far too busy being a star to be convincing in any of her roles.  And what is “feline regality” anyway, if not a code word for celebrity privilege and entitlement?   But we are given a clue about the reviewer’s perspective: she infuses “Ramona with her own Bronx-born street smarts”.  Is that code for the idea that she doesn’t really create a character– she just plays herself?

We understand why Hollywood religiously adheres to the titillation code: Wood, and Moore, and Aniston, and Lopez can play strippers and deceive you into thinking they are almost naked on screen (they never are) so you can enjoy the perversity of watching a naked woman, while reassuring yourself that you are a decent, morally upright human being because they are never actually naked.  You get to live in an envelope of widely accepted hypocrisy.

It is of a piece with Seth Rogan comedies: you get to talk dirty and make stupid jokes about bodily functions and then tack on some kind of sentimental moral lesson so that audiences can feel good about enjoying the smut.

In interviews, Lopez plays it for what it’s worth:

This is the first time you see my character. It’s sexy, it’s dangerous,” Lopez explained of her character’s introduction during the video diary.  From 

Source.

I am just stunning!  And empowering!  And stunning!  I display my empowerment by stripping for men (and then robbing them).  And stunning!  The distasteful part of it is that the film will show other characters in the film reacting as if they have waited their entire lives to watch a 50-year-old rich celebrity strip.  This is the arrangement: Lopez will draw a guaranteed constituency to pay to see the film (who revel in her celebrity status) and therefore has to power to essentially give herself a role more suited to a 25-year-old.  As I noted, the celebrity press will play along with this, even suggesting she should get an Oscar.

She continued: “There’s something liberating and empowering about it, but you’re really out there, physically, emotionally and psychologically.”  From Here.

That makes me morally superior to Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.

In some way or another.

 

 

Trapped

SNL often opens with a skit parodying the Trump White House, with Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump and Kate Mckinnon playing Rudolph Guiliani (or, lately, Lindsay Graham).  Various other members of the company play Trump’s family or Putin or members of Trump’s inner circle.  Robert De Niro played Robert Mueller a few times.  Matthew Broderick recently played Mike Pompeo, without distinction.    It all hasn’t been really funny for a long time.

I suspect they are trapped with Alec Baldwin because there are personal relationships involved and it would be quite a snub to suddenly produce a different actor to play Trump even though Baldwin is a vulgar impersonator, all fat lips and sneer, and doesn’t really capture the essential delusion of Donald Trump, in which he sees himself as a bold, decisive, intellectually dominating leader, and the reality: a pompous, clue-less blow-hard.  There would be a lot of comment if they dropped Baldwin.  Baldwin would be embarrassed.  Lorne Michaels would look mean.

Baldwin is all broad strokes and no nuance.  He doesn’t even get the blow-hard part right– he conveys a Trump constantly second-guessing himself, filled with self-doubt and insecurities, and too aware of his failures.  He may well be fundamentally insecure, but that’s not evident in the real Trump, and it’s not funny to see it in the parody.   (If there is a basis for that element in reality, it’s the moment Trump honestly thought he was “screwed”, and told aides so, at the start of the Mueller investigation.)

Trump doesn’t know he’s an idiot.

He’s probably actually closer to the character Stephen Colbert used to play.