05 July 2011

Guido, Lenny, Alvy and Charlie: Four Characters, Four Films More Than Four Thoughts

I was on line at the pharmacy today re-filling the buckets of medications I have to take in order not to see polka dot hippopotami dancing on my walls. I patronize a small locally owned establishment that compensates in with charm for what it lacks in supplies on hand. Today there was a woman in front of me just about having a hissy fit because her prescription wasn't ready. She'd been waiting for seconds on end but to her they were eons. It seemed that the pharmacists had to wait for approval from the insurance company before coughing up her drugs, so to speak. The way I heard them explain it made perfect sense to me. But she was in a state of mind that I've found myself dwelling in. It's the one were your position seems perfectly logical and irrefutable and any delay in getting your goods and or services is an affront.  Angry lady stomped off somewhere to make an angry cell phone call which in all likelihood would not have done a wit to improve her lot. As we all know patience is a virtue and when my turn came and had nearly went I was thanked for mine. That's rather odd considering that generally speaking I am about as patient as a hungry mutt listening to the can opener whirr. But I happened not to be in a hurry and my pills were ready and anyway that "lady" in front of me had set an example of how not to behave.

All of this in some way perhaps serves as a preface for a discussion of the four film characters I've hung out with the past few days. Except perhaps that their imperfections were infinitely more entertaining than the aforementioned customer. They are a film director, a piano player and a couple of comics. One is fully intended to depict a real human being who once walked this Earth, two others represent the movie's directors and indeed one is played by the director. The other is entirely a work of fiction, so far as I know. They are all in superior films, three of which are among my favorites of all time. None of this quartet of gentlemen are perfect. Perfection being exceedingly boring and nothing either to cause laughter or insights.

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a great film director. Women adore him,  enough to keep several guys content. He has it all and it ain't enough. He's not so much the main character of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) as he is the film itself. To what degree his character and his struggles mirror those of Fellini I cannot say. Oh hell yes I can: to a certain degree.

The film itself comes under the masterpiece category. It's one of those movies that has a mind of its own -- a brilliant mind -- and goes where it pleases, how it pleases. Fellini was like that. Guido is a man who has it all and doesn't seem to want any of it. Well, maybe he does, you see he can't quite make up his damn mind. Duller minds would want to grab him by the neck and scream sense into his ear. At least try to cajole him into making the picture he's working on. But he's not happy, except that he is. He's a wonderfully tortured soul who knows how to have a good time (principally with the ladies) while "suffering." That's my kind of angst sufferer. Plus the guy fantasizes about a harem comprised of the women in life. That's entertainment!

Lenny Bruce was a real honest to goodness guy and it's a dirty rotten shame that so few people recognize his name. He broke boundaries, knocked down barriers and blazed trails. In part through the public use of profanity but mainly because he was a comedian who spoke his mind. Lenny Bruce got laughs while riffing on current events and decrying social injustices. He was George Carlin before George Carlin was and Carlin would have been the first to tell you that. Bob Fosse directed the bio pic Lenny (1974) with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. (Watch the film then consider the fact that Hoffman didn't win the Best Actor Oscar and it'll tell you all you need to know about the validity of the Academy Awards.) Lenny Bruce was only 40 when he died. His impact on American society was a huge part of the Sixties Cultural Revolution. Dig it.
Like Allen Ginsberg before him he faced obscenity charges for using forbidden words in public. Unlike Ginsberg, he had a series of legal battles and was not routinely winning them at the time of his death. Ahh yes, his death. Heroin. The list of great artists who have been struck down in their prime, or for that matter before it, because of drugs or booze or both is sadly quite long. Lenny Bruce among them.

I'd not seen the film in a long time and was struck (figuratively and right across the mouth) at how powerfully and accurately it tells Bruce's story. Kudos to the late Bob Fosse and to the thankfully still present Mr. Hoffman. We do not see Lenny Bruce as a larger than life figure (whatever the hell that means) but as a comic who courageously decides to tell the truth. He broke the tradition of comedians who went for easy, comfortable laughs. He evoked laughter by touching upon some of the elemental truths of human nature and the nature of American hypocrisy. That this can be done is taken for granted in a time when The Daily Show and Colbert Report combine hilarity with truth telling. Bruce helped make it happen. If only he had stayed away from the junk....

Some movies never get old. You never tire of them. They always make you laugh. For this they are the embodiment of the word "classic." Case in point Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977). Allen is essentially playing himself, which is to say the character of Alvy Singer is wise and witty, with an emphasis on the latter. Alvy is smitten with the title character (Diane Keaton in an Oscar winning performance) and who wouldn't be? This is a modern love story that cheerfully avoids romance cliches. Alvy is the anti-romantic lead. A bumbling, fumbling, paranoid, jealous, narcissistic boyfriend. Let's add the two p's: pithy and pathos. Pith and pathotic? He's twice married and like Allen himself it seems he'll never find the perfect woman for him. His imperfections are too numerous and help to bring out the worst in the women he woos. Being too smart for your own good, being too self aware for your good, being too introspective for your own good, those are qualities that I can relate to. Me, I blindly stumbled into a relationship with the love of my life. Alvy, as the movie ends, not so lucky.

It's a debatable point, but Allen may have been his most Alleneseque as Alvy Singer. Some would argue that playing yourself is cheap and easy. Some are wrong. Doing your usual schtick is no great chore but presenting it within the framework of a narrative, albeit a comic one, is no mean feat. Alvy is adorable in part because he is not only riddled with flaws but is the first to acknowledge more than half of them. Utterly charming.

There was a period in film when the silent, stoic type of hero was all the rage. Men of few words who guarded their thoughts and feelings closely and buried their personal histories deeply. For an example see Charlie Kohler nee Edouard Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) in Francois Truffaut's second great film (and my favorite) Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Charlie is the titular pianist.

He plies his trade in a modest little Parisian establishment where he is the headliner. But he has a past in which greater fame under a different name were enjoyed. But in discovering the price of his sudden fame a tragedy occurs and Charlie escapes into anonymity. He is flushed out by love and a sibling who operates well below the law. Charlie is not to blame for sad circumstances that befall him. In fact he proves clever, passionate and oft times agreeable, belying his own often wooden exterior. But how innocent are any of us in the fates that befall us? A different path here or there, a stronger plea or evocation, the slightest change in demeanor, can alter circumstances.

Perhaps the guarded and reserved would enjoy more fortuitous circumstances if more often willing to force the action. Still, Charlie has his music and there is always the hope of a new love.

1 comment:

sophomorecritic said...

I appreciate how artfully you made this entry, and especialyl likd learning about Lenny. Bob Fossee's specialty was unconventional musicals, so I as wondering what Fossee bought to the table.

I never thought the Guido character was fascinating in 8 1/2 and that was the film's main weakness