Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Can We Talk?

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) 
Two recent documentaries about famously narcissistic raconteurs who use their own life stories for subject matter.  Both involve themes about aging and feature dramatic turns that revolve around suicide. Each is funny and tragic, but the approach each films take to tell their stories couldn't be more different.

I might have passed on the Rivers doc because she's become such a joke these days. Once famous for her cutting edge material as an outspoken female comic, she's now more well known for cutting herself as a plastic surgery junkie, inane award-season Red Carpet fashion commentator, and for hawking her trashy jewelry on QVC. But this film was repeatedly mentioned last year on various comedy-centric podcasts (like NNF) commending it for providing an inside glimpse into the world of a working stand-up comedienne. This movie, and Rivers herself, is also very funny.
Mostly while watching I wondered how could she do this to herself. Never a particularly pretty woman (she says so herself: "No man ever called me beautiful"), after the tragic suicide of her husband/business partner, Rivers scrambled to make herself more relevant, choosing to focus on her physical appearance as a twisted path towards acceptance. Now, years later, she looks like a monster (though oddly "pretty" from afar - maybe how she and her ideal audience see her?). This is the tragedy of her story for me: she has literally "lost sight of herself." Sad too that the only contemporary female comic present in the doc is Kathy Griffin (who I do not like) Where are the other gals who followed her path? No Chelsea Handler (ugh!) or Sarah Silverman? Even Rita Rudner is more popular in Vegas, right? What about others like Judy Gold, Jackie Kashian, Jen Kirkman, Laura Kightlinger, Laurie Kilmartin, Paula Poundstone, etc.? 
The doc is very well made but strangely myopic, as if (as we see in numerous scenes throughout), Rivers has no sense of her place in the real world, and is obsessed with being seen, even when she, and the audience, don't care to watch. I wish this had focused more on the actual content of her comedy rather than her struggle to remain famous. Instead it portrays a deluded woman surrounded by people who want to keep her that way. It's telling that despite a few jokes in her routines about "anal sex" and "fucking her staff," nowhere is any current male partner shown or alluded to. That's fine, but who exactly was all this surgery supposed to make her attractive to? She doesn't even seem to like herself.

The most interesting point about Spalding Gray I discovered has how his look developed during his well-documented journey of self-discovery. His various haircuts and facial hair (including unkempt nose-hair near the end of his life) are on full view here in this "Best Of" clip reel "directed" by Steven Soderbergh. He did not shoot much (if any) of it but his gentle guiding hand helped create this portrait of the self-obsessed actor/poet, with only Spalding himself providing the narration. This is mostly a story about how an artist gradually finds his voice, masters it, then begins to let go as life develops in new directions. 

The NYC experimental performance art scene (The Wooster Group, etc.) is alluded to many times (one of the many thanks in the credits is to a Barbara Kopple who I could swear was a teacher of mine at Cooper Union in the late 1980's). It's pretentious preciousness is all here, diffused by time, faded in glory. For me, the sound of Spalding's New England-bred aristocratic privilege becomes grating after a time. But the brilliant thing this film does, as Spalding himself did, and Soderbergh wisely shows us, is to break down
HIs final years after a "tragic" auto accident, after he left his longtime partner to start a family with a new woman, and to retire from touring his popular monologues, are brutal. He is obviously a man defeated, made especially poignant after him claiming these last few years had been the best of his life. Throughout his career he had addressed the themes of "suicide" and "the sea" explicitly, and without even saying as much, Soderbergh shows us how this man finally succumbed to his obsessions, perhaps coming to peace. 
There is a famous THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode that features a story told by Gray's widow about a bird that is heartbreakingly profound, in only the way only Ira Glass & Co. can do. Wished it has here in this movie, but get why it's not. Still, it's odd that the two loves of his life, Renée Shafransky and Kathie Russo are never seen/heard to tell their sides of the story.
There is an earlier clip in the film with Spalding interviewing a lady at one of his shows where she says that suicide was like like stealing; robbing those left behind of the person you were and the role you played in their lives. For all the trauma Gray dealt with re. his own mother's death it seems to me that leaving his three children and his wife was not only cowardly but the most selfish act he could have perpetrated.
From a psychoanalytic standpoint, Gray seemed too well-versed in the practice, and was never able to escape it: he had become immune to the cure.
Rivers seems like she never attempted it; in contrast to a typical New York jewess of her generation, she used her "id" to fuel her comedy. She could have benefitted from analysis years ago but she's too far gone now. Plastic surgery became her therapy of choice.

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