Comedia 2: Documentaries and Shorts
This year’s Comedia film series, accompanying the legendary Just For Laughs festival here in Montreal, was somewhat hard to get a handle on. It occupied a slightly unusual place in the summer festival scene due to the unexpected cancellation of this year’s Fantasia film festival. I expected the result of this cancellation to be packed Comedia shows every night, especially with the inclusion of certain films that would have been otherwise destined for Fantasia, such as How’s Your News?, Troma’s All the Love you Cannes, Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, and the Zombie meets martial arts epic Versus. While the Miike and Troma films did bring people out, attendance for most of the other shows was somewhat dismal. This suggests to me that Fantasia people are not just looking for any old festival to hit during July, and that they’re content to remain in their dungeons and cyber-tunnels far from the glory of broad daylight without the legendary festival’s presence to lure them above ground.
I believe that part of the problem with attracting consistent crowds to Comedia is the nature of comedy film itself. The genre is so broad that it can’t possibly offer a consistent vision that can appeal to a particular (and loyal) group of people. So, each individual film has to fend for itself without falling under the banner of something as recognized and trusted as Fantasia. Mind you, Just for Laughs is no small-time event either. I imagine, however, that its emphasis on live comedy casts a long shadow over the film series. Nevertheless, Comedia had some interesting things to offer, some of the best of which came in the form of the documentaries and short films that will be the subject of this review.
The highlight of the festival was, hands down, How’s Your News? - The Feature. I don’t even really feel comfortable discussing it within the context of Comedia or any other festival or categorization scheme. It has come seemingly out of nowhere, and cannot really be compared with anything else except its own predecessor, the How’s Your News? short film from a few years back. The How’s Your News? phenomenon is, for lack of a better word, unique. Not to say that it doesn’t have cousins in the world of film, or enter into a whole host of discourses surrounding documentary filmmaking. But we’ll get to all that in a moment. Regardless of its unavoidable existence within the world of the documentary, the film itself is an experience unlike any I have had before, and I would challenge anyone to tell me differently with respect to their own experience.
How’s Your News? began as a video workshop run by director Arthur Bradford at Camp Jabberwocky, a summer camp for people with physical and mental disabilities. The video workshop involved various campers interviewing themselves on camera about whatever came to mind. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who at the time were South Park creators to be, got their hands on the tapes and enjoyed them thoroughly. After some time had passed and they had begun to cash in on the fame of their animated series, Parker and Stone threw some money Bradford’s way to create a short film based on the How’s Your News? premise. So, Bradford rounded up a few of the most outgoing campers and took them to the streets of New York City to conduct “Man on the Street” style interviews with random passers by. Initially, this 40 minute short seemed destined to remain unseen. However, with the help of programmer Mitch Davis, Montreal’s Fantasia became the first festival (and one of only a handful) to screen the film. Screenings or no screenings, though, the tape left enough of an impression on Parker and Stone that, after getting a couple other producers on board, they rounded up enough money to fund the cross-country trip that is documented in the How’s Your News? feature.
The film begins with a brief introduction to the five members of the How’s Your News? road team, consisting of: Ronnie Simonsen, a 43 year-old with Cerebral Palsy and a penchant for 1970s soap operas; Susan Harrington, a legally blind 35 year old with an undisclosed mental disability who also has an amazing singing voice and an extremely professional on-camera presence; Robert Bird, a 46 year old with Down’s Syndrome and a speech impediment wherein he can utter only a few distinct sounds but seems to understand everything that is said to him; Sean Costello, a 34 year old with Down’s Syndrome and an amazing gift for understatement; and Larry Perry, a 58 year old with severe spastic Cerebral Palsy confining him to a wheelchair and making it impossible for him to speak, though not precluding his joy for life or rampant sense of humour.
After these introductions, they set out from New Hampshire on their trip across America, final destination: California. I first saw the film at a press screening with two other people in the audience: my friend Randy, and some other guy. I don’t think the other guy enjoyed it very much, or perhaps it was just that Randy and I were laughing too hard to notice. In any case, having not seen the short film, we were totally unprepared for what unfolded on the screen. The result was raucous outbursts of uncontrollable laughter that often carried on long after the instigator event had passed, tears streaming down our faces as we struggled to comprehend the situation. Here were the five aforementioned How’s Your News? reporters accosting unsuspecting victims on the streets of America with their unabashed and highly extroverted approach to life, and most people just didn’t know how to respond. And therein lies a large part of the film’s humour: it’s a freak show alright, but the freaks are the good citizens of the US of A, many of whom are too wrapped up in their own lives to think a little bit outside of the box and consider the world from a slightly different perspective. How would I have reacted in their place? Not much better I’m sure, and I think that raising this kind of self-awareness in the viewer is part of what makes How’s Your News? so magical
While verbal description cannot possibly do justice to the kinds of encounters captured in this film, I will try to explain a couple of the finer happenings. Ronnie Simonsen has some of the choicest moments with his insistence on asking people about their favourite TV soaps, and if they have ever heard of his idol (and spiritual brother) Chad Everett from Medical Centre. Frequently, upon hearing that his interviewees knew nothing of Mr. Everett, he would just dismiss them altogether and go in search of more compatible subjects. At the end of the film, upon reaching California, Ronnie went in search of Everett’s Hollywood Square. He had to ask a few people if they knew where it was. Nobody knew who Everett was, much less the whereabouts of his square. In one hilarious turn, after answering “Who’s that?” to Ronnie’s query, the interviewee offered him a pass to a taping of the Martin Short Show, to which Ronnie fired back: “Oh yeah? Who’s that?” Ronnie finally found the square, promptly got down on his knees and gave it a big kiss.
As if this event in Ronnie’s life wasn’t enough of a dream come true, we learned after the screening that he received a call from Chad Everett himself after the latter had seen How’s Your News? The filmmakers had the foresight to tape this event, and we were treated to a four-minute version of the conversation. Ronnie was besides himself with excitement as Chad praised the film and thanked Ronnie for his unconditional love and support. It was an amazing moment.
Susan Harrington was the most professional of the bunch, opening and closing each of her segments with an official “This is Susan Harrington reporting for How’s Your News?” Although many will tell you that her singing Aretha Fanklin’s “Respect” in a make-your-own-video booth in California was the highlight of the show, for me her finest moment came while pressing various mechanics for updates on the fixing of the How’s Your News? van. After several deflections, as might be expected from mechanic types, she finally stopped bugging people, except to tell them she was sorry for disturbing them, over and over while they were hoisting an engine block into the back of a truck. Imagine the scene: Susan pointing her microphone at the mechanic’s back, repeating “Excuse me sir, I didn’t mean to disturb you before. I’m sorry. Sir? Excuse me, I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Meanwhile, in mid-lift he turns to the camera to smile politely and say “No problem, no problem.” Susan’s little way at getting back at them for not giving her a straight answer? Perhaps… Susan’s singing is amazing though, and we were again privileged to have a special post-show presentation of some newly written songs performed by Susan and Ronnie in the flesh. Yet another amazing moment.
Robert Bird was probably my favourite of the bunch, his lack of intelligible speech making for some of the more awkward interactions. He took it all in stride though, regardless of how people reacted to him. Generally his interviewees made some kind of effort at understanding, with the exception of the lamb and deer he tried to elicit comments from at an alligator farm. One such interviewee is a raving preacher putting the good word forth from a street bench. Robert approaches the man, equipped with his special eyeglass camera so as not to give away the fact that the interaction is being taped. He utters several variations on his favourite string of syllables, which might read something like “ah boo yai, ah boo, ah boo yai.” The preacher politely asks him his name and if he has been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ. Robert promptly nods his head, to hilarious effect when we see the eyeglass-cam point of view, the whole scene nodding up and down along with his head. Satisfied that he doesn’t need to preach to the converted, the preacher wishes Robert a good day and continues on with his hollering, directed out towards the eager ears of the near-empty streets.
Robert’s best response, however, comes from an old-timer in a country-music bar in Nashville. Accompanied by the visible camera and microphone this time, the man listens intently to Bobby’s “ah boo yai” and then carefully and deliberately states his own name, place of birth, and suggests that “what you gotta do now is put this on the TV so the world can see this old-time country music bar and maybe it can be saved.” Rather than just looking blank and wondering what the hell is going on like so many other of Robert’s interviewees, this man responded to him by assuming the nature of his question based on the presence of the camera and microphone. Most interviews start by asking the subject to be identified, a documentary convention that the man must have been aware of and which he used to mediate his communication with a person he can’t actually understand.
On the subject of miscommunication, another mesmerizing moment comes when Sean Costello approaches a somewhat disgruntled Native American man. Sean starts things off with a simple “How do you do?” The man, however, heard something about “Voodoo? No voodoo here. None of that funny business. I put my trust in the creator. He takes care of me, and if someone do me wrong, he gonna take care of them and their families. I don’t need no Voodoo.” After a long pause, the taken aback Costello tries to broach the subject of the creator by asking “Well, how did he die?” The man’s answer: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” And thus ends this fluid interaction.
There is a danger with this kind of material that it be accused of being exploitative, especially with Parker and Stone involved. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. First of all, it is important to note that Parker and Stone had no involvement in the content of the film. They simply liked the idea from the beginning, and funded an expansion of it. They even offered to have their names removed from the credits so as not to have the film prejudged based on popular knowledge of South Park’s less than reverent treatment of sensitive material. Director Bradford wouldn’t hear of it, however, since he so greatly appreciated their help. Unfortunately, after speaking with various people about the film, it became clear to me that there are some assumptions about the film’s intent based on Parker and Stone’s involvement, and even the belief that it is their film. On a theoretical level, I like the idea of a documentary film presenting itself in an ambiguous fashion, keeping the viewer on their toes about how to approach it. In this case, however, I think that such ambiguity doesn’t do justice to the filmmakers and stars, since they so lovingly crafted the film around their own sensibilities, love of life, and senses of humour. There are times when I wondered if it was indeed okay to laugh, since it was often at the sheer hilarity of the way the reporters put themselves forth. I laughed anyway since the room was almost empty at the time. However, upon seeing it again in the company of the director and stars Ronnie and Susan, I was gratified to hear them say that it is okay to laugh, and that the How’s Your News? team understands the humour of the work and encourages people to let themselves find it as funny as they want to.
In our politically correct society it can be hard to think of people with mental disabilities as being funny without feeling as though we have strayed into the dubious realm of “retard humour.” The seriousness placed around the subject of mental disability is also a product of the way the topic has been dealt with in documentary film over the years. The lighter side of such disability is rarely addressed, and we are used to seeing representations like Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967) or King’s Warrendale (1967) that either describe deplorable conditions in mental institutions or else espouse new techniques for handling the mentally challenged. It’s not hard to find some humour in Warrendale, mind you, such as the profane outbursts of one of the children. However, by and large, such films are not meant to be funny. I don’t think we do anyone any favours, though, by choosing to turn a blind eye to the lighter sides of disability. In fact, it can only help to stigmatize the disabled even further when we treat them as though there is no humour or passion or love in their lives, and focus only on the struggle and horrors of an existence that doesn’t jive with the way society has been structured and the resultant institutionalization that occurs. Bradford is aware that his intent was not to show the hardships of the journey, but to focus on the good times. He knew this approach would be criticized, but feels that it takes a refreshing stance on a subject rarely treated in this manner.
How’s Your News? breaks the stereotypes of the horrors of mental disability wide open and says it is okay to enjoy the mayhem and frivolity that stems from watching these five reporters take on America through the lenses of their own, very real and very human, experience. As Annie Sprinkle has so succinctly suggested, Western society is more comfortable with misery, sadness and hardship. If you kill a bunch of people in a war, you get a monument. But where are the monuments for people who have spread joy and love throughout the world? . I am reminded also of a line from a stand-up comedy routine I heard one time: “You can stand on the corner and cry all day and nobody will bother you. Stand there and laugh for a half hour and they’ll take you away.” This is, of course, one of the reasons we have comedy films in the first place: to give us a nice dark place we can hide out and feel okay about laughing, without anyone really seeing us do it. How’s Your News? cashes in on this aspect of society while confronting it as well. Many feel unsure about laughing at this film even in the darkness of the theatre, and as such is akin to the realm of black comedy where we never know if we should be laughing or not.
The Belgian mockumentary masterpiece Man Bites Dog (1993) comes to mind here, a film that sets out to explore the boundary lines between good and bad taste in humour through the exploration of extreme violence perpetrated by a serial-killer who might has well be a stand-up comedian for the constant spew of hilarity that he issues forth while going about his business. Man Bites Dog plays with the interaction between viewer and film by using the conventions of the reflexive documentary and its inherent questioning of the relationships between filmmakers and subject. How’s Your News? has this same effect until the viewer learns that the relationship and intentions of the filmmakers are very pure, and this is what makes it okay to enjoy the comic adventures they undertake. However, without hearing it from the director and stars within the festival environment, the potential for misunderstanding the film’s perspective is fairly high. That didn’t stop me from busting a gut on my first viewing though. What does that say about me? I think it says that the film’s essence is very pure, well-meaning, and well-achieved. I felt all along that this was not Freaks or Even Dwarves Started Small, but rather a very special look at human nature from the perspectives of a group of people from whom we can all learn a lot. The film does exactly what it is supposed to.
On the other side of the coin, Troma Films’ All the Love You Cannes, a documentary on their trip to the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, was a total freak show where the laughing was mostly at the poor saps making spectacles of themselves. Lloyd Kaufman, the creator of the Toxic Avenger and president of Troma inc., always manages to keep a professional edge on his craziness and sense of humour. Not so for his co-horts, the most obnoxious of which was certainly director of marketing and production Doug Bradley. Over the course of the Cannes festival, Bradley had managed to: get himself banned from the hotel twice for creating messy nuisances involving splatterings of blood on the hotel property; get punched in the face by Scott McKinley, another Troma team member (whose bag Bradley later pissed in – on camera); arouse the anger and insults of an innocent French citizen who then tried to throw him in a fountain; further exercise his urinating talents by pissing on a homeless guy that snuck into their hotel room to take a shower. Largely due to Bradley’s exploits, the Troma team did not secure a room at their usual Carleton hotel for festival’s 2002 edition. However, they did generate lots of publicity for themselves, which seems to be the point. At no time did Kaufman or anyone else (except Scott) appear to be disturbed by Bradley’s behaviour.
Bradley was in attendance at the festival screening I saw, and I have to say it was pretty weird. Over the course of the film, funny as it may have been, I grew to dislike Bradley very much. Now, faced with his presence in the flesh, I had come up against the other side of my experience with the presence of the How’s Your News? gang. Indeed, this was not a fictional characterization Bradley was portraying; by all accounts, the way he appeared in the film is how he is in real life, despite his disclaimer after the show that “I’m not an alcoholic in real life, I only play one on TV.” However, the weirdness of him actually being in the room after his display in the film didn’t stop me from running up to win a Toxic Avenger DVD from none other than Fantasia’s own Daniel, donning once again the Toxie mask as he did last year for the screening of Citizen Toxie (see Fantasia 2001: Post 9/11 Report). All I had to do was answer a skill-testing question, which Daniel kindly put forth as “name one Troma film title.” Not that difficult, seeing as how Toxie himself was wearing the Citizen Toxie T-shirt. Bradley, who was standing nearby, was not happy with the ease of the question, and might not have let me keep the DVD if I hadn’t scuttled off very quickly after grabbing it from Daniel. Kaufman also seemed upset about this, stating that “he’s never been so embarrassed” and that they should call it quits for the giveaway session. He was very nice, though, when I asked him to sign the DVD in the lobby after the show. He even had his own Sharpie.
When thinking about How’s Your News? and All the Love You Cannes, I am struck by how they both rely on odd interactions between the filmmakers and the public that encounters them. People didn’t know how to react to either the Troma team or the How’s Your News? team. Another bevy of odd interactions came in the form of Plaster Caster, a documentary about the work of Cynthia Plaster Caster, renown for her plaster castings of famous rock star genitals. Cynthia re-visits some of her earlier subjects, and the dynamic between her and the illustrious donors is often strained. Given the sensitive nature of their relationship, this is no surprise. Over the course of the film it becomes evident that it is not so easy to get an accurate casting of a completely erect member, due to the clinical nature of the procedure and, as one subject put it, the unexpected coldness of the plaster mixture into which one’s member must be inserted. Hence, many of her immortals were not captured at their fullest, and so they must live with these less-than-ideal representations of themselves for all time. In fact, the casts will outlive them all. A humbling prospect to be sure.
The film is built up around the narrative flow of three major events which act as climaxes for the viewer. These are: the revelation of Cynthia’s prized artifact – the bronzed member of Jimi Hendrix; the capturing of a full casting session on camera; and the exhibition of her work at the Threadwax gallery space in New York. The latter of these is the real structuring event of the film, as we watch Cynthia go through the various trials and tribulations of preparing for the exhibition, including having replicas made of all her casts so as not to endanger the originals by carting them to New York. It is a little before the final exhibition that Hendrix’s member is revealed, when she visits her safe deposit box to gather it up for replication. It is the generator of much buzz at the exhibition itself, of course. As the final preparations are made, we are also treated to a re-enactment of the Hendrix casting session. After much discussion of the casting process, Danny Doll Rod and Cynthia visit the hotel room where it all went down and we finally get to see how it is done. The re-enactment is aided by Hendrix band-mate Noel Redding who remembers the evening, and who, we learn, was the real object of Cynthia’s affections the night that she cast Hendrix.
The film is an interesting look at what seems now to be a natural outcropping of the art of being a groupie. It is also a tantalizing little nostalgia trip to the glory days of rock, along with a tour of some of today’s descendents of the era. Stories of such interesting icons as Frank Zappa (who didn’t want to get cast but who funded some of Cynthia’s early work) and Gene Simmons (who wanted to get cast but was too narcissistic about it to capture Cynthia’s interest) are peppered throughout the film. And, in a loving gesture, the film’s final dedication is to Frank and Jimi, a fitting testimony to the importance of these two individuals to the world of penile immortalization and beyond.
Within the four separate short film programs there were only a few that captured my interest, though many were well crafted. Two notable entries involved the subject of what might happen if a man were to turn into a woman, or vice versa. The first is Geraldine, an animated short from France’s Artur de Pins. One morning, Gerald wakes up a woman, and so it begins. Geraldine, as she is now known, goes through various stages, beginning with a total freak out. She calls her girlfriend to explain what happened, and she agrees to meet her in the park. While waiting in the park, Geraldine gets smacked in the head by a soccer ball, and is immediately rushed by many young male soccer players desiring to pay her much attention. Not yet used to this kind of attention, Geraldine asserts her masculine side by joining in the game and ferociously kicking the ball through a window- pane. When hollered at, he flips the window owner the bird. Not very feminine behaviour. However, after meeting with her girlfriend, Geraldine slowly learns the distinctive arts of: seductive dressing, compulsive shopping, nightclub dancing, office politics, breaking through the glass ceiling, roaming the countryside on a motorcycle, and finally getting married in order to settle into her new life. But alas, on the altar she turns back into a man.
The second gender-bending short was this year’s audience-prize winner for best short film, Soowitch, from Quebecois director Jean-François Rivard. Here a couple awake from their one-night stand only to find that they have switched bodies. As in Geraldine, panic is the first reaction. However, the woman-turned-man becomes curious about his new shell, and starts asking all kinds of questions about it. The man-turned-woman, on the other hand, does not take the situation as lightly. She finally agrees to provide the man with some oral stimulation, upon which the man exclaims “It’s like your whole body wants to force its way out through that tiny little hole!!” When he then suggests that they go all the way, she draws the line. We learn that she is afraid of finding out what a female orgasm is like, because if they return to their normal bodies then he’ll never be able to enjoy the male orgasm again, knowing how good women have it. The man, however, assures her that, while different, the male orgasm is just as hot.
This manner of verbal exchange between the two carries on until the woman realizes that her parents are on their way over, and that she must convince the man to stick around to pretend to be her since she no longer has the male body that her parents will recognize. After some discussion about this, the man’s head spontaneously explodes, leaving her forever trapped in the female body with no hope of return. The final scene shows her pregnant and enjoying the male perspective on the female experience, the best of both worlds.
Both Geraldine and Soowitch seem to perpetuate, perhaps inadvertently, the stereotype that men make the best women. This concept has been explored most fully in the arena of the drag queen, where men are free to adopt all the performative qualities of the female body while not having to deal with any of the realities of being a woman. On the other hand, women can never fully adopt the role of the man in society, because the female body does not lend itself as well to socially recognized traits of masculinity. In Geraldine, after a brief period of adjustment, the transsexual goes on to be the best woman she can possibly be, conquering the dating scene and rising the corporate ladder straight to the board of directors before she decides to get married on her own terms. This is a kind of ideal scenario for the stereotypical “modern woman,” and it was achieved by a woman fueled by the testosterone of the man trapped inside her body. In Soowitch, while it is the woman who most readily adapted to being trapped inside a man’s body, she ultimately can’t handle the stress and the rampant curiosity and thus literally explodes. The man then goes on to live a fruitful life within the woman’s body, again suggesting that men make the best women. I find it interesting that these two films both seem to arrive at similar conclusions about gender-bending, yet am not surprised given the long way we have yet to go in truly equalizing social expectations from both sexes. One of the main issues to be addressed, I believe, is that men and women should not be expected to be the same thing, thus making equality a very subjective and slippery goal. Through the sex switching in these films, the differences between men and women are not celebrated. Rather it is one sex that conquers the other, homogenizing the two in the process.
The concept of shifting perspectives was also the subject of two other shorts. Robert Slane’s A Fine Line Between Cute and Creepy posits two identical scenarios where a man meets a woman in a restaurant, then tracks down her address and begins to leave her notes, send her flowers, and finally serenade her from the garden. One of the two women finds this behaviour to be cute, while the other finds it to be creepy. The idea is very good, but the film itself didn’t do much for me. Perhaps someone else in the audience saw it differently…
Julian Kheel’s Exceed, on the other hand, I found to be quite entertaining. Taking as its premise the shooting of a commercial for a mystery product known as Exceed, the ad changes direction every time a new producer or other financial interest comes on board. The result is several different versions of the ad, each targeting a different audience, and ends up being an interesting study of the various competing perspectives that can be used to sell the same product. The final version of the ad becomes so distilled that it is reduced to a series of split second images culled from each version of the ad, followed by a minimalist white on black logo for the product. We then cut to a university film classroom where the ad has been shown, and commented upon by the professor as being a paragon of postmodern filmmaking. Hilarious.
The funniest short film of them all, though, was Jeffrey Hands’ Fireplace: The Trailer. Designed as mock trailer for a special edition DVD, the film puts its finger right on the button of so much of today’s fervor over the half-assed special features used to sell these new-fangled discs. Not that many of the features included on some discs aren’t amazing, but just as many are basically no more than bells and whistles. Fireplace critiques these bells and whistles to the extreme by starting with a film that is, in and of itself, ridiculous: a Christmas-style single shot of a fireplace to warm the hearths of those who have placed their television sets in front of the long non-functional hearths of so many of today’s converted apartment units. What special features could such a “film” boast?
To begin with, deleted scenes of the fire roaring away, complete with inferior workprint quality and timecode running at the bottom of the screen. Next, behind-the- scenes footage of the lighting of the fire in the fireplace, complete with director McV (of Charlie’s Angels fame) hollering obscenities when the match won’t light. In an interview with McV (another special feature of the disc), the director explains that he wanted to stay true to the title of the film by sticking to the shot of the fireplace itself, while not sacrificing the essence of the title’s meaning: warmth. The special edition also boasts a too-hot-for-fireplace “you can’t see this on TV” section, featuring shots of the fireplace that pan to a picture of a topless woman standing on a beach, and then back to the fireplace again. Finally, the crowning glory of the disc, audio-commentary by the legendary Peter Bogdanovich. In the excerpt presented, Bogdanovich is heard explaining some one of the secrets of Fireplace: “He had to dig a hole in the floor to get the camera precisely at that low angle. I remember I asked him why he needed to have the camera so low. He said, simply, because it looked better that way. I guess you can’t argue with that. It just looked better that way.”
Fireplace: The Trailer aptly parodies the slightly out-of-hand nature of the special features promotion that goes on these days. Don’t get me wrong, I love DVDs and I love special features. But if I see one more disc boasting “collector’s booklet included” on the back only to find a single leaf with the chapter listings inside, or hear another commentary track where the producer says “yah, that shot turned out good” over and over between epic runs of complete silence, I’m going to scream.
1 – Annie Sprinkle interviewed in Lucky People Center International – Erik Pauser, Johan Söderberg – Sweden, 1998.