A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1982)

Is there anything scarier than Robert De Niro's smile? It's what makes his bad guys, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) or Max Cady in Cape Fear (Scorsese, 1991), so unnerving, and it's what keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout The King of Comedy. Rupert Pupkin isn't up to anything so murderous as Travis or Max, but who knows what restrains him from becoming like them? As a satire on the nature of celebrity in our times, Paul D. Zimmerman's screenplay doesn't break any new ground. But what keeps the movie from slumping into predictability are the high-wire, live-wire performances of De Niro and Sandra Bernhard as the obsessive fans and the marvelously restrained one of Jerry Lewis as late night talk-show host Jerry Langford, the object of their adulation. And, of course, Scorsese's ability to keep us guessing about what we're actually seeing: Is this scene taking place in real life, or is it a product of Rupert's deranged imagination? That extends to the movie's ending, in which Rupert, having kidnapped Langford and engineered a debut on network television, is released from prison and becomes a celebrity himself. Are we to take this as the film's comment on fame, like the phenomenon of Howard Beale in Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) and any number of people (many of them named Kardashian) who have become famous for mysterious reasons? (Incidentally, the odd thing about Rupert's standup routine is not that it's bad, but that it's exactly the sort of thing that one might have sat through while watching a late night show in 1982.) I prefer to think that we are still in Rupert's head at film's end -- it seems less formulaic that way. I don't know of a movie that stays more unbalanced and itchy from scene to scene.

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