Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bobcat Goldthwait: Making Movies About Things People Don't Want To Talk About

When Bobcat Goldthwait invaded comedy back in the early 1980s, no one had ever seen anything quite like him and didn't know what to make of him.  He would shout and shriek on stage, twitch and squirm, huff and puff and roll his wide, starin’ eyes like a man who’s taken an ill-advised cocktail of drugs that started kicking in about five minutes ago.  He was unpredictable, possibly dangerous, and very funny.  He’s always made me laugh as a stand-up comic and actor, but over the years, I’ve come to find him even more interesting as a filmmaker.

In 1991, Goldthwait wrote, directed and starred in Shakes the Clown, a coal-black comedy about a self-destructive clown accused of a murder he didn’t commit, set in a world where clowns never take off their makeup and spend their off hours in dark bars complaining into their booze.  It was met with a tidal wave of critical vitriol.  But I saw a lot to admire.  I liked the world Goldthwait had created and, while the movie doesn’t really hold together or go anywhere, it has some hilarious moments.  I thought Roger Ebert summed it up well when he wrote, “The movie plays like a series of scene outlines — ideas for how the movie should progress — that needed more writing and revision before the actors were called in.”  It didn’t work, but it had some tasty ingredients.  It was Goldthwait’s first movie and he was feeling his way along, trying to find his voice, and it was interesting enough for me to look forward to his next movie.  But I had to wait a while.

After the disastrous reception of Shakes the Clown, Goldthwait disappeared as a director for about a decade, although he continued acting and doing stand-up.  Then, as Bob Goldthwait, he began to show up as the director in the opening credits of TV shows like Crank Yankers and The Man Show.  He spent some years working in television, then in 2006, 15 years after his first, he came back with another feature film.
Sleeping Dogs Lie is about Amy, a young woman who, in the interest of full disclosure, is trying to muster the courage to tell John, the man she wants to marry, that she once blew her dog.  And it’s about what happens after she tells him.  In spite of the story's canine element, it’s not the kind of gross-out comedy you might expect from the costar of three Police Academy movies, either.  It’s a far better movie than Shakes the Clown in every way.  It’s thoughtful, even contemplative, and it doesn’t shy away from its more emotionally difficult ingredients — it is, ironically, a very honest movie.  It examines how we really feel about honesty.  We say it’s always the best policy, that a successful relationship requires absolute honesty, that honesty is a trait we greatly admire in people.  The only thing we don’t seem to like about honesty is having to face it.  Sleeping Dogs Lie also takes a look at our priorities and examines the difference between the things we identify as horrifying and unforgivable in others and the things we give a pass to and take in stride.  It’s about the stupid things we hold against each other and ourselves.
Sleeping Dogs Lie is a serious movie with something on its mind.  It’s also funny — it’s the only movie in which you’ll hear a woman say to her mother, “You wrestled another woman in your underwear while Elvis beat off?  And you didn’t even get laid?”  The business about the girl blowing her dog?  That’s Goldthwait’s way of luring you in with what you expect from him.  Then he dazzles you with some caustic observations about human beings and the things they do to each other and themselves.  I was impressed and pleasantly surprised.

Goldthwait’s next movie was 2009's World’s Greatest Dad.  Robin Williams plays Lance Clayton, a high school poetry teacher whose dreams of being a famous writer fade a little more with each rejection his submissions receive.  Nothing is going well for Lance.  The coworker he’s dating doesn’t want to get serious and doesn’t even want anyone to know they’re dating.  His son is a belligerent, morose boy with whom Lance can’t seem to connect.  His class is as unpopular with students as his manuscripts are with the publishers to whom he submits them.  And then Lance’s son dies.  That’s bad enough.  But he dies as a result of autoerotic asphyxiation.  In trying to cover up that fact, Lance inadvertently — and unethically — stumbles into the life he’s always wanted.  But can he live with the way he got it?
The World’s Greatest Dad was my favorite movie from 2009.  It was made with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.  It made me realize Goldthwait was doing in his movies what he’d always done in his stand-up comedy:  Making people uncomfortable by talking about things they don’t want to talk about, and then making them laugh about it.  And if there’s any doubt about that, you should take a look at his most recent movie, God Bless America

Frank has lost everything — his marriage, his job, his dignity and self respect.  And now his doctor tells him his life will be cut short by a brain tumor.  He discovers he’s lost something else:  his patience.  He’s lost patience with everything.  Unlike virtually everyone around him, he no longer finds the steady collapse of civilization entertaining or the bad behavior of people who are famous for no reason funny.  He’ll be dying soon.  What does he have to lose?  Frank decides to arm himself and start killing people who deserve to die.   Whether or not they deserve it is determined by their behavior.  And Frank’s mood.  Also, the mood of his unlikely accomplice Roxy, an adorable, perky, fresh-faced teenager who’s actually a smiling psychopath who enjoys all of this way too much.

No, it’s not terribly original.  Mickey and Mallory of Natural Born Killers spring immediately to mind.  But the similarities are only superficial, and as you watch God Bless America, you’ll find they’re quickly forgotten.  Instead of an over-the-top Woody Harrelson, you get Joel Murray playing Frank, a guy who needs no introduction, the guy whose life just didn’t work out; we all know at least one, and we recognize him right away, and not without sympathy.  He’s not necessarily a bad guy, as far as we can tell.  It’s just that, for whatever reasons, his life sucks right now.  Except Frank fantasizes about killing people he doesn’t like.  “I know it’s not normal to want to kill people,” he says.  “But I’m not normal anymore.”  Murray makes you forget he’s acting, or that he’s an actor.

Instead of the drawling craziness of Juliette Lewis, you’ve got Tara Lynne Barr as Roxy, who looks and sounds just like a girl who probably sold you Girl Scout Cookies a few years ago.  There’s an old fashioned wholesome sweetness to her, the kind of sweetness that would be right at home putting on a big show in the barn with Mickey Rooney and the gang.  But she’s not wholesome or sweet.  When she sees Frank take out his first victim, she thinks it’s the coolest thing she’s ever seen.

There’s none of the sadistic gloss you see on Oliver Stone’s movie, no booming soundtrack to distance your emotions from what you’re seeing, no slick camera work or flashy effects.  Goldthwait seems to value his stories and characters, because he presents them in a clean and simple way, with nothing to distract from them.  God Bless America is no exception.

When Frank channel surfs across television’s vast wasteland, we see the reality shows, the infomercials, the fear-mongering politicians and their talking heads, the screaming teenagers with their outraged sense of entitlement, the cruelty and stupidity and mindless violence and self-destruction and the endless chattering and babbling and maniacal cackling that accompany it all.  He sits in front of the television and every flick of the remote is like the lancing of another boil that gushes poison.  When you look at all the mind-numbing shit we absorb day after day, the stuff that bludgeons our consciousness during our every waking hour, it’s kind of surprising people don’t snap and act out violently more often.
God Bless America takes on a new immediacy in light of the recent events in Colorado and Wisconson.  With those massacres so fresh in the memory, some may want to hold off on watching this movie.  Wait a few months, or something.  There’s a scene that involves a shooting inside a movie theater that made me shudder.  I’m not objecting to it, just pointing it out.

Some of it is funny, some of it is horrifying, and that’s exactly the way Goldthwait wants it.  He’s talking about things we don’t want to talk about, showing us things we don’t necessarily want to see, then he’s making us laugh at those things even though we might feel guilty about it.  Most importantly, he's making us talk about those things  I can see the old 1980s Bobcat bouncing around, poking us in the ribs as he shrieks, “Made ya squirm!  WAAAHHH!”

After back-to-back mass shootings, I think we need to talk about things like this.  But every time it happens, we’re not allowed to discuss it because no matter what we say about it, someone accuses us of politicizing it.  So we have to remain silent and respectful and reflective ... until it happens again.  Sometimes only a couple of weeks later.

I like the fact that Goldthwait makes us talk about things we don’t want to talk about.  Stephen King once advised students to find out which books the adults didn’t want them to read, then read all of those books, because it’s likely there’s something in them they should know.  I think it’s the same with things we don’t want to talk about.  If something makes us so uncomfortable that we don’t want to talk about it, then we should probably talk about it.  If nothing else, it’s one step closer to not being uncomfortable with it anymore, and chances are good that whatever the problem is, talking about it will resolve it, or at least move things in that direction.

In God Bless America, Goldthwait offers no solutions.  But he does a great job of pointing out that mass shootings are not the problem.  They are one of many symptoms.  The other symptoms aren’t as shocking and don’t get much attention.  They don’t make the news, and they’ve become so normalized that we don’t’ even notice them anymore.  But they add up over time.

You might have a bumper sticker that reads “Remember 9/11" or “Support the Troops,” but how do you treat the clerk at the grocery store or the customer service rep on the phone?  You might disapprove of mass shootings, but how often do you call your child — or your spouse or lover or anyone else you care about — “stupid” or “useless” or “fat” or a million other casual comments that fall out of our mouths like gumballs out of a gumball machine, but can amount to emotional bullets?  We demand respect for our symbols and ideas and institutions and beliefs, but when it comes to the one-on-one stuff — all of us, myself included, everybody — we can sometimes leave a lot to be desired.

“Why have a civilization,” Frank asks, “if we’re no longer interested in being civilized?”

If mass shootings are one of the symptoms of the problem, what is the problem?  Goldthwait doesn’t answer that, either.  If you find someone who does confidently claim to know the answer to that question, proceed with caution and keep a tight grip on your wallet and your mind, because chances are good that person has something to sell you and is full of shit.  But one thing’s for sure — we will never solve problems we can’t talk about.  And that’s why we need artists like Bobcat Goldthwait, jesters who poke and prod us and keep bringing up the stuff we don’t want to talk about.

There’ve been others in the past — names like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks come to mind.  Most of them come out of comedy, because when talking about things people don’t want to talk about, it’s always a good idea to keep them laughing.  It’s also easier to swallow something bitter with a little sugar, just like Mary Poppins said.

As far as I know, though, Bobcat Goldthwait is the first to successfully meld the sensibilities of his abrasive stand-up comedy with movies that are intelligent, frank, funny, thought-provoking and even infuriating, and that absolutely refuse to soften themselves up for a bigger audience.  Goldthwait will not become a powerful movie mogul as long as he keeps making the movies he makes, because in order for his movies to achieve that kind of success, they would have to be something other than the movies he makes.  It’s a shame, too, because work like this should be generously rewarded.  Of course, if we lived in the kind of culture that rewarded quality work instead of cruelty, stupidity and bad behavior, Bobcat Goldthwait probably wouldn’t be making the movies he makes.

I guess it all works out in the end.