Ten minutes into a local promotional screening of The Aristocrats a few weeks ago there was nervous laughter echoing around the theater, quickly followed by squeals and gasps, and then a few walkouts.
Produced by comics Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (the taller, talking half of Penn & Teller), The Aristocrats is essentially a document of more than 100 comedians of different types and levels of fame telling variations on the same joke. Jillette has said - warned, really - that the film contains no violence or nudity but does contain "unspeakable obscenity." And if you think that's an exaggeration, trust that it isn't. I've seen people walk out of movies before - from boredom or outrage - but never in response to language.
The title of the film is also the title - and punchline - of the joke each comedian tells, an old vaudeville set-up about a family act being pitched to a talent agent. Between premise and punchline, the joke is a blank slate meant to be filled with the vilest content (scatological, transgressive, whatever) the teller can imagine. Because the content is too blue for most audiences, the joke is most often told backstage among comedians, a "secret handshake" between pros.
The argument being made by The Aristocrats is that the blank slate and the improvisation required to fill it make the joke akin to jazz. It's a basic melody that anybody can riff on. Watching so many comedians spin their variations on the same set-up is, the film suggests, an ideal way to demonstrate the jazzlike virtuosity and individual expression of stand-up comedy.
The problem with this assertion is that most variations on the joke aren't funny, just shocking. And the shock factor detracts from the ostensible point of the project: The audience is too taken aback by the what that's being said to notice the how, to notice the personal nuance each comedian brings to the telling. The content obscures the artistry.
What The Aristocrats - the film and the titular joke itself - seems to really be about, though none of the film's participants directly acknowledge it (George Carlin comes close), is overcoming the self-censorship impulse. It's this negation of self-censorship that drives the best and most important stand-up comics, from Carlin to Richard Pryor to Chris Rock. The willingness to say anything at any time to anyone, to violate any verbal taboo, is often more important than the simple act of doing so. And this explains why "The Aristocrats" (the joke) is largely a backstage exchange. It's the equivalent of a singer doing vocal exercises to keep his or her performances sharp.
Unless you're into prurience or transgression for its own sake, the joke itself soon ceases to be interesting, but there are still variations and elements tangential to the premise that satisfy: Relatively unknown comic Wendy Liebman gently inverts the joke, while Kevin Pollak tells it in the form of a Christopher Walken impression. There's the pure spectacle of the dirtiest language coming from the most unlikely sources: a very pregnant Judy Gold, the Smothers Brothers, or ostensibly wholesome Full House/America's Funniest Home Videos star Bob Saget.
The discussion of the joke - its parameters and politics - is often more interesting than its telling: that there seem to be different rules for women comedians; that it isn't quite the same shibboleth among black comics. (As Rock explains, black comedians never dreamed of mainstream success, so they just told their dirtiest stuff on stage.) And there's a very funny discussion of alternative punchlines: The Sophisticates, The Royalty, The Republicans.
But other pleasures are more incidental. The Aristocrats offers an irresistible tour of a clubby comic subculture, one that admits not only stand-up practioners from the well-known to the unknown but also writers, magicians, jugglers, and mimes, the staff of The Onion and the animated cast of South Park. Where these participants are filmed is almost as interesting as why they care. Shot over the course of two years on consumer-quality video cameras, The Aristocrats documents these comics wherever they can be corralled: homes, offices, backstage dressing rooms, empty sets, cafes, even - in the case of Robin Williams - the beach.
There's a fascinating documentary in here somewhere, but "The Aristocrats" gets in the way. The film is meant to be an exhibit of the musical notion "it's the singer, not the song." But in this case, the song too often obscures the singer.
- Chris Herrington
In following his doomed attempt to adapt Don Quixote to the big screen, the documentary Lost in La Mancha proved there may be no figure more quixotic than Terry Gilliam himself.
The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam's latest feature, confirms him as a director who has lost control of an overeager imagination. The film features Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, respectively, who make a business of eliminating monsters and ghosts at the behest of spooked villagers. Jacob truly believes in the folk tales, while Wilhelm sees them as a way to fleece the populace. The movie careens through the Brothers Grimm catalog, occasionally pulling out interesting visuals but failing to maintain any sense of coherency.
Part of the issue is Gilliam's obsession with mise-en-scène. A look at Gilliam's other films reveals that plot is often secondary to spectacle.
Gilliam got his start as a cartoonist for Monty Python, coming to define their zany style of animation. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is either the best or worst film Gilliam has made so far, is similar to The Brothers Grimm - an over-the-top amalgamation of fairy tales and wondrous set pieces in which the narrative feels mostly like an excuse.
The Brothers Grimm, like many Gilliam films, is dedicated to protecting the imagination and resisting the specters of the Enlightenment. In this film, the theme takes the form of nationalist conflicts between the rational French and the superstitious Germans. The film begins by acknowledging the danger of this conflict. A young Jacob is sent to get medicine for his sister. Instead, he returns with magic beans and his sister perishes, a mistake the older Wilhelm will never forget.
Gilliam does not seem interested, however, in heeding his own warning. The film is keen on presenting a series of fascinating and refreshingly dark snippets from the Grimm catalog. The film does have some memorable moments, such as when a demon horse swallows a young child whole. The enchanted forest is wonderfully done, with trees that creep and shift.
Yet the film also has major continuity errors, which are jarring to the viewer. At one point a young girl is kidnapped by the evil forces in the woods, then is somehow present in the village the next day, when she is kidnapped a second time.
The three main characters, the brothers Grimm and their shared love interest, a sexy German woods-woman played by Lena Headey, are all interesting and well played. The supporting cast, however, which includes an Italian torture expert and a stuffy French general, never really find their place in the story. The malevolent Italian, Cavaldi, is especially frustrating, spewing stilted jokes and whining, as I imagine Gilliam would, for a chance to play with his exquisitely intricate torture machines.
The film, while dark, might appeal to children. Gilliam's flights of fancy have always had a childish bent, and the plot difficulties that bother an adult probably wouldn't distract a younger viewer from the eye-candy. It is frustrating to see this film, knowing that if Gilliam could only rein himself in he might be able to make a work that is simultaneously imaginative and dense but also coherent. - Ben Popper