Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh
chris_walsh

Andy, did you hear about this one?

Andy Kaufman's been on my mind. I missed him his first time through pop culture; I probably didn't even hear of him at all when he was still alive. It was probably Peter David invoking Kaufman in his early Nineties "What an Idea..." column that put him on my radar. Add R.E.M.'s wonderful "Man on the Moon," which became a comfort song for me -- I just feel better when I hear it -- and I started being intrigued by the guy.

I'm also intrigued by the ideas of both life as performance art and messing with people.

I rarely do it, mind you, but I have my moments. I'm probably more concerned with people liking me than Kaufman was, is one big thing that keeps me from performing more like he did, but I appreciate his sense of the absurd. He could be maddening, and often what he did didn't wind up being funny, but I admire his effort to be a meta-comic: doing comedy about comedy, about why comedy works.

I think the film Man on the Moon was only hit-and-miss in trying to convey that. I more admire the writers' earlier biopics Ed Wood (for which I have a soft spot) and The People Vs. Larry Flynt (which successfully conveys a lot of the interesting politics that swirled around Larry Flynt, who of course has been a more prominent public figure than Wood). It had to be a daunting challenge, wrapping up Kaufman's life into a film...

...and I love that the writers found a way to acknowledge that in the very first scene.

While the total film is, I think, just OK (with an amazing Jim Carrey performance, yes I said amazing, that elevates it), I've always felt the opening was brilliant. Black screen, held silently and for longer than usual, finally interrupted by Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman walking on -- in sepia tones, of all things, not color or black-and-white -- and standing uncomfortably and staring at us. Mutual discomfort, it feels like. He then (in his Foreign Man accent) introduces us to his movie, looks more uncomfortable, and then slips into a rant: the film lies, it shifts around his life and has things happen in the wrong order because it works better dramatically when it's in the wrong order, but clearly he chafes at it. He then brightens slightly and tells us he fought back against the filmmakers, taking back the movie and "cutting out all the bal-o-ney. So now it's much shorter. In fact, this is the end." And he walks over to a 45-rpm record player, starts playing slushy orchestral music on it, and rolls the cast credits. (There's not enough music for the length of the credits, either, so he restarts the music twice.) And he adds "That's it. It's over. Goodbye," and walks off camera. Black and silence, again. For longer than usual, again. Until he walks back on screen, looks at us, smiles, and says (in his more typical voice) "You're still here. Good. Sorry about that; I just had to get rid of the people who weren't going to understand me." He introduces the film properly at that point.

I think that's rich.

Of course, one of the big parts of the mystique of Andy Kaufman is the belief that his 1984 death was faked, for -- ta daa! -- dramatic purposes. It seemed to many people to be almost too conveniently timed. (Peter David had fun with that, as you can see in the link above. And I still remember and smile at the theory about the Magic Eyes posters, Peter!) The filmmakers felt compelled to address that, and I think that results in the film going on for exactly one scene too long. (If you've seen the film, you know the scene I'm talking about.) I would've loved for the film to end this way: with Andy's funeral, which is the film's second-to-last scene, where the mourners are watching a film of Andy Kaufman, and that film (like the first scene) is sepia-toned, as he leads the mourners in a sing-along, smiles, and then says "Thank you. Goodbye," and walks off screen. Black and silence again. And then, instead of the "Exactly One Year Later" scene, hold on that black until R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon" fades up and the end credits begin.

I like the arc of that: the film opening with a scene that messes with you, and (like the end of that first scene) closing with a genuine moment. A mess-with-you hello, and a sincere goodbye.

*salutes the memory of Andy Kaufman*

Sincerely,
chris_walsh
Tags: creme de la chris
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