Why is Black Comedy Mostly Sad?

And why are writers and actors narcissistic and insecure? Well, in movies they are. I had a 2 movie weekend: “Listen Up Philip” and “Birdman”. Both are variations on the same riff. I liked “Listen Up Philip” better as a movie; it seemed more assured and complete than “Birdman”, although Michael Keaton and Edward Norton deliver great performances that are almost enough to carry the movie.

First about “Listen Up Philip”. Yes, it makes you think about Philip Roth and all his books about Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh (men) and younger writers too (David Foster Wallace). Philip the writer is arrogant and self-centered, but his idol and mentor Ike Zimmerman manages to be even more unbearable. Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce inhabit the ennui of the dissatisfied artist. Their actions isolate them from relationships, especially with the women in their lives (all of whom have substance and don’t engage in navel-gazing). Philip’s abandoned girlfriend Ashley takes up the middle part of the movie — recovering from Philip’s escape to the country. Elisabeth Moss makes Ashley absolutely real, no less of an artist than Philip without the asshole quality. “Listen Up Philip” drags a little, but it’s a forgivable slowness, almost understandable given the story. The closing credits are so good – fake book covers that could be real and are very funny. They soften the implication that Philip will end up very much like Ike. I loved the voice over – Eric Bogosian’s narrator reminded me of Truffaut’s narrators.

“Birdman” reminds me of “The Swimmer”. It has the same delusionary quality, with the protagonist going through a breakdown. Keaton is a very different actor than Burt Lancaster, so there is a different texture to the chase. But it’s no less bleak. Yes, there are funny lines and name dropping, but overall it’s sad as hell (Norton’s character is also broken). But as a movie, “Birdman” doesn’t quite work.

I was reading interviews with Keaton and then with Norton. Keaton is very smart, but in interviews he doesn’t quite deliver the kind of reflective analysis that Norton does.

Now a digression. I was watching hockey on Saturday for the first time in a long time. The good thing is that Bruins won. The bad thing is that hockey commentating is so slick now and hockey players are huge. I miss the crazy expressions that Danny Gallivan used (“visitation to the penalty box”). I miss small hockey players who could skate circles around others (Marcel Dionne, Pocket Rocket). They probably couldn’t make it in today’s league despite their skill and drive.

I have to snap out of that nostalgia thing. As Simone Signoret said: “Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be”.


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