King of Comedy
Directed by Martin Scorsese
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So. Apparently there’s this Joker film that lots of people are making a fuss over. I don’t know if I’m going to be bothered to go and see – I mean the thought of Joaquin Phoenix as a crazy violent isolated loner with mental problems just makes me think of You Were Never Really Here and – ohmygosh – that film was terrible.
What’s interesting tho is that in all the pre-film hype and build-up trying to convince us all that this is the film to see to make our lives complete there’s two films that keep getting name-dropped: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Partly I guess this is because of the Scorsese connection. I think he was attached as a producer at one point? And from the Joker trailer I’ve seen it looks like the only thing missing is a Joe Pesci cameo and tips on how to make the perfect pasta… And of course if you’re making a movie about a crazy violent isolated loner with mental problems then Taxi Driver is basically the one to beat (does Robert DeNiro “you talking to me?” face).
But having not seen Joker I’ve gotta say: The King of Comedy is a strange pick. Like I get that it’s also a Scorsese film and the title is basically a joker alias yeah and I understand that there’s a bit that takes place on a talk show with Robert DeNiro doing his thing and they’ve literally made the joker a comedian right? so yes of course of course of course. But I wonder if all the parallels are just superficial ones as opposed to doing anything more interesting… Because well yeah The King of Comedy is – well – a bit of a strange film which I guess is why I love it so much and why I hope it’d be a good film for the Film Club although I am half-expecting that I’m going to be the only one that really wants to talk about it… Everyone else I think is probably going to be a bit more…. “erm – I don’t think it’s really that funny?”
A few salient facts then: It was released all the way back in 1983 and was a bit of turkey – grossing only $2.5 million against its $19 million budget and was basically viewed as a bit of a misstep for both Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese who up until then could basically do no wrong… (they were kinda like the Marvel Cinematic Universe of their day you know?). The general reaction at the time was basically: “Neither funny enough to be an effective black comedy nor scary enough to capitalise on its thriller/horror elements.” (Wait? Didn’t I say the same thing about Jennifer’s Body?). It’s a story about a guy called Rupert Pupkin and every time I see that name written down I can hear him say it in my head and yeah it’s quietly brilliant in all sorts of ways and basically pioneered the idea of cringe comedy a full decade before both the advent of The Larry Sanders Show and The Office (is it just a coincidence that The Larry Sanders Show also takes place on a talk show? Hmmmm. I think not).
Basically – it’s one of those films that basically gets more and more love each and every year that passes because although it’s strange and weird and not really what anyone ever knew that they wanted – it basically opened up a whole new way of telling a story / making you laugh. Not because of how something is funny – but because of how awful it is (you remember that picture of the assassin wearing a T-Shirt that said “LOL” I kinda feel like she’s the patron saint of this movie and yeah also maybe my entire life…).
>And well yeah I kinda feel like it sits on lots of interesting intersections of different movie things: Joker, Scorsese, DeNiro, Tragedy, Celebrity, What Makes You Laugh plus as an added extra: Sandra Bernhard and Jerry Lewis too… (who interestingly also made a film about clowns…).
The rest I’ll leave to you.
What do you think?
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To the extent that King of Comedy is about a borderline psychotic man overcoming the frustration of the world not delivering on what he believes is his due, it isn’t that different from other Scorsese films. It’s a Scorsese hero that recurs throughout his work (encompassing late works like The Aviator and Wolf of Wall Street), characterised by a deranged ambition. It’s a comment not only on the harm that toxic masculinity wreaks, but more widely on how the ideal of American success can warp people’s perceptions to the point where they do crazy things. It’s also a warning that American society is almost designed to reward such lunacy anyway. There’s a tension in Scorsese between darkly satirising the damage such men leave in their wake, and reveling in the possibilities they create.
King of Comedy slides right into that template. It even has a similar structure to Taxi Driver, in that most of the film is a slightly meandering exploration of a deeply disturbed individual, before building to a spectacular climax at the end, in this case comedic rather than violent. The final part of the film is sublimely funny, and credit here particularly belongs to Sandra Bernhard in a beautifully bizarre date with Jerry Lewis – which contains multitudes about the strange romantic rituals and fantasies that percolate through American society. There is a little bit to trudge through in order to get there, but the journey is worth it.
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To judge Martin Scorsese at the height of his powers is to compare his epic Italian gangster masterpiece to the other epic Italian gangster masterpiece. The Godfather brings a sort of operatic fairytale about the machinations of the rich and powerful, Vito Corleone occasionally got his hands dirty but he is mainly a chess master, always one step ahead, and his son Michael a ruthless calculating tactician. Goodfellas takes place at street level and wise guys Henry, Jimmy and Tommy, are no genius but not are they stupid. They are like hyenas, dealing with the problems we have every day like burying a body of trying to flush several kilos of coke down the toilet, all the time fighting their way to the surface.
Taxi driver’s grimy feel and neon haze does the same job, offsetting the delusion of a character who thinks he has a righteous destiny while all the time showing him in the gutter, and Scorsese leading the audience with him every step of the way. There is a neat comparison between Robert Deniro’s rescue of Jodie Foster in a cramped New York tenement feels messy and absurd, maybe not realistic but plausible, with Robert Deniro’s assured, efficient almost James Bond-like assassination of Don Fanucci in a cramped New York tenement.
By filling in the quotidian details of his character’s lives Scorsese makes the worlds in his films feel larger. Sure, the Godfather’s day is filled with intense meetings and life or death decisions, but for Scorsese’s dangerous gangsters is just as much about sneaking through the back of restaurants, driving taxi’s, and dealing with the ramifications of daily brutality and humiliation. His characters never quite grasp the golden ticket of being “made” or in the case of Travis Bickle, achieving some sort of meaning in his life.
Rupert Pupkin is the champion for this worldview, proclaiming he would rather be king for a day, than a schmuk his whole life. Henry Hill standing on his lawn at the end of Goodfellas knows exactly what he’s talking about. And so of course Rupert Pupkin idolises Jerry Lewis the same way as the wise guys idolise the Mafia dons. And Jerry Lewis’ performance is perfect as both a hero who walks down the road with people shouting his name, legions of fans, staff and limo, while at the same time looking kind of horrible, sweaty and hassled.
Scorsese’s trick of pulling focus away from the most important character to the street-level pretenders shows that while Jerry Lewis is a rich hero Pupkin is no proletarian Everyman. He is by any definition a villain: a vein, self-centred narcissist, so incapable of empathy that when people tell him to fuck off he just can’t understand what they mean. He doesn’t pull himself up by his bootstraps, or succeed on merit, but kidnaps, threatens and blackmails his way onto television and has no remorse for his actions, no interest in anyone else, except maybe proving everyone they were wrong to doubt him. Initially you think King of Comedy is cringe because you worry he will be found out, humiliated and ashamed, you have to see him get repeatedly knocked down for the first 2/3 of the movie to understand that he has no conscience, no humility, and no shame. He finally walks on TV and he’s perfect for it, you see how he becomes a legend, not through being special but simply by having an inhuman lack of self-doubt, because he knows what Travis Bickle and the Wise Guys know: that there is no virtue in being good, and that the only thing which is objectively bad is to be like all the other suckers out there.
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I just want to follow up on this line from Ilia a bit:
“There is a little bit to trudge through in order to get there, but the journey is worth it.”
Basically I want to sing the praises of the trudge (whilst at the same time warning of it’s dangers).
First up I’ll like to admit that Ilia is completely right. The King of Comedy does not wow from the start. In fact it’s the type of thing that if you flicked on to it randomly on TV or queued it up on Netflix wouldn’t really give you much indication that it was worth your time. The whole thing is filmed in this flat kinda television and Rupert Pupkin is kinda boring. When he gets into the limo with Jerry at the start or sits there in the reception again and again and again there aren’t really that many fireworks. I mean compared to Heath Ledger doing his Joker thing where he’s absolutely magnetic in every single scene he’s in – Rupert Pupkin just kinda seems like a normal dude. Yeah he wants to be famous – but doesn’t everyone want to be famous? I don’t know where I first picked this up from but I’ve found it very useful in recent years to ask: “why this story?” in terms of trying to understand how things work and what agenda they’re trying to push – but in the case of the first half of the King of Comedy you could mean it more to say: why am I even bothering to watch this? Isn’t there a new Marvel movie out that I could be watching instead?
Of course for those of you who’ve stuck with it will know – the whole film kinda shifts into this beautiful higher gear when you get that shot of the gun. And suddenly you’re like: oh wow. There’s stakes!
Of course if you remade the movie now (be quiet Joaquin Phoenix) you’d front load everything so that the audience knew exactly how seriously to take things. Hell – a gun would probably be the very first thing you see. Then Robert De Niro would look sheepishly towards the camera and the voiceover would go: “Yep. That’s me. I guess you’re wondering how I got into this mess…”
But as much as I can appreciate that approach I feel like it misses out a lot of what makes a trudge so special and how in fact – a bit of a boring bit at the start can make your whole movie pop like a crazy firework.
Like – I don’t know if I’m alone in this but isn’t the problem with most movies nowadays is that they have the opposite problem in terms of their overall shape? In that they start strong with a big bombastic opening that grabs your attention and then – as things move along they just get worse and worse and worse? I literally cannot count the times I’ve been watching a film in the cinema and thinking to myself “oh wow – this is the best thing ever!” and then sssshhhhhhhhhh the whole movie starts to deflate like a badly tied balloon. I mean everyone knows how fucking amazing the first half of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is right? And everyone knows how crappy it gets once Tim Robbins shows up (damn you Tim Robbins).
Like maybe it’s possible to make a movie that’s pure thrills from beginning to end but in order to have any kinda vested interest with the characters you see on screen you need to have a sense of who they are – and that shit takes time you know? It’s like you need to set up the board and dress the set before you start setting it on fire (or whatever). And well yeah – the bit in King of Comedy when the gun comes out just kinda elevates everything in such an exciting way that I can totally forgive the slow meandering journey it took to get there.
Of course the problem comes with films that are nothing but trudge. I made the mistake of watching High Life this weekend and as much fun as it is to see Robert Pattinson hugging a baby and Juliette Binoche doing erm crazy things inside a box I was basically sitting there waiting for the trudge to end and the bass to drop all the way up until the film ended.
In a word I was: disappointed.
But maybe it’s a lost art. Nowadays films are either all about grabbing you by the lapels right from the start or aimlessly spinning around in space with very few able to find that delicate balance between the two – to give a bit of trudge and then a payout to make it all worth it. I mean – didn’t that used to the way that movies were made? The only two recent examples I can even think of are Get Out which is obviously a masterpiece and LOL Avengers: Endgame where – come on – the bit where everyone was sitting around and moping and feeling sad was totally the best part.
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It feels remiss not to give credit to Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard because man they are incredible in this film. It feels too obvious to praise acting but his creation of both the horrible and sympathetic Pupkin carries the entire film. There’s a scene Pupkin is asked about where he gets his material from and says that he just takes the horrible things that have happened to him and makes jokes about them. This foreshadows his final routine, where he does exactly that, giving a funny but also disturbing account of childhood abuse. His lack of fear suddenly makes sense, why should he be scared of the police or of reprisal when he’s been beaten and yelled at his entire life.
A different performer might have tried to let the audience into the secret, to show off the hidden depths – a wink so show he’s a good guy really just misunderstood. And a different director might have let the camera dwell on their face for a couple more seconds so you could see Pupkin’s inner life. But Scorsese and De Niro trust the material, and say “believe in the character, look at what he is doing, this is who he is. It’s not a shell, or a performance, his character isn’t developing, this is Rupert Pupkin whether you like it or not.
This faith is borne out in the fantasy scenes, because In his dreams Rupert Pupkin isn’t a different person, and in his reality he is the sort of guy who gives a girl his own autograph, and asks her to accompany him to a non-existent celebrity party. He’s also very consistent – he loves Rita his whole life, whether she’s a prom queen, working in a bar, when he’s planning their wedding or she’s rejected him. Maybe he likes her for weird narcissistic reasons, and is barely interested in who she actually is, but that’s the best he can do.
But of course his real soulmate is Sandra Bernhard. As Ilia says, such is her presence in this movie that it feels plausible that you could run the whole film again from her perspective. And her whole performance, which paints in a complex fandom culture, gets Pupkin into the car in the very first scene and you just know the kidnapping plan was her idea. I saw Akira Battle Angel last week and every character had waaay too much back story, but it was all inconsequential and whatever their damage none of them lived it in the way Sandra Bernhard does in King of Comedy.
The kidnap scene almost steals the movie. As Jerry Lewis stares at her tied up and deadpan, giving her nothing, she just creates a hurricane of crazy. Throwing the glass away is done with perfect coming timing but the joke is her terrifying lack of internal behavioural checkpoints. Even the audience can’t tell if she’ll suddenly flip and turn on Jerry Lewis, but also it’s completely plausible that her delusions are her undoing. In his write up of the Shining Joel asked how can you have crazy carpet, and you can ask how does Bernhard makes wearing a cocktail dress so deranged. It’s hardly genius to cast Robert De Niro as your lead actor, but Bernhard represents inspired casting, running around the movie like a walking Chekhov’s gun.
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On the frontloading of modern cinema – I wonder if it’s analogous to the frontloading of much modern pop music, where hits are designed to make an impact within the first 30 seconds in order to avoid the listener skipping to something more ear-wormy. It’s not just dynamics that go out the window but traditional song structure as well – with verses as short as possible and lots and lots of choruses and hooks one after the other.
People blame streaming for this, but perhaps is more that the infinite availability of things makes each individual unit not quite disposable, but much more ruthless in trying to reach an audience. (So it’s not so much Spotify’s fault as the internet as a whole). The competition is much much fiercer when there’s a lifetime of things to listen to, and songwriters have geared themselves towards making things that stand out from the crowd. The irony is that all this activity has made the listening landscape feel flattened out – everything kind of sounds generic by virtue of the same audience-pleasing, trend-chasing incentives.
Video streaming services don’t quite have the infinite options that music streaming services do, but the platforms are designed to hook you in quick in the same kind of way. That said, ‘skipping’ partway into a film isn’t exactly as easy as skipping a track on a playlist (not least when you’re in the cinema). Films have more of a sunk cost than music does, despite the quantity available. So the influence may be more indirect – as consumers in general we’re used to getting to information and emotion more and more quickly, and waiting an hour to get to the punchlines is too much to ask for in our accelerationist times.
Perhaps the only option is to try and sustain the momentum of your opening audience-baiting gambit, but that requires the kind of continual ingenuity that’s a tough ask. Interestingly, by the time Marvel made Endgame they had such a captive audience that they could take a risk with the slow stuff at the top, but even that doesn’t last for very long (there’s too much to content within the film to get through). Perhaps dynamics will only be possible in movie franchises or the serial storytelling of television. And films in future will be receptacles for the kind of spectacle that’s difficult to recreate on the small screen (and that people are willing to pay £15-£20 a go for).
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Ok. I’m going to do it. I know it’s totally obvious and predictable and whatever. But screw you ok?
Speaking of Endgame and Marvel let’s pick up on Martin Scorsese’s comments about the entertainment monstrosity that has come to dominate the cultural landscape that briefly lit up my corner of the internet last week.
Just in case you missed it – here’s what he said:
“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” Scorsese said. “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
>Ouch. Sick burn. Saucer of milk for Mr Scorsese please. etc.
Ok. So let me take up the mantle of Internet Guy and explain where exactly it is that everyone is going wrong so that there can be peace in the valley again… Because well yeah I’ve seen lots of bone-headed replies to this. Most of which don’t really take into account of what I think Marty is trying to say. Robert Downey Jr. replied with “It’s his opinion. I mean, well, it plays in theatres… It’ll be like saying Howard Stern isn’t radio.” and Sam Jackson was all: ““I mean that’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either… Everybody’s got an opinion, so I mean it’s okay. Ain’t going to stop nobody from making movies.” And yeah that noise you can hear is the sound of my brain slowly catching on fire…
First up. Opening up to something that someone just said by saying “yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man” only works if your surname is Lebowski. And second off: it’s a bit strange saying that “well actually films are films and I know that Marvel films are films because they’re films that you show in the cinema like they’re films” when Scorsese actually (like a good philosopher) defines his terms and says that he thinks that cinema is “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” which wow yeah – is a whole can of interesting – no?
And like yeah obviously everyone got sad when all those people got turned into ashes and dust at the end of the best movie of 2018 (“Mr. Stark? I don’t feel so good….”) and also yes I honestly think that if he saw it that Scorsese would appreciate that scene in the car in Spider-Man: Homecoming because it was actually pretty good you know and was an emotional, psychological experience more than just some people getting sad and something something father issues (altho actually it still kinda was something something father issues but you know whatever).
But hey: compare any Marvel movie with King of Comedy and at the risk of sounding like a douche and all the rest of it: there is a significant difference in terms of the alchemy which is being worked here. And at the risk of sounding like a total Scorsese fanboy one of these is giving me a complex emotional and psychological experience and the other has a fun little Stan Lee cameo.
(If anyone had any balls they’d totally give the next Stan Lee cameo to Martin Scorsese instead lol).
And at the risk of turning this into a hot take I must admit that there’s the way that all these Marvel fans have responded on mass kinda reminds me of Rupert Pumpkin (“actually… it’s Pupkin”). That same kinda entitled and oblivious narcissism. Because yeah you know – I watch Marvel films like every other schmuck and there’s a part of me that enjoys them and even tho I’m mostly against the idea of hierarchies (mostly when it comes to humans lol) I think there’s an actual real benefit to saying that: actually this work of art is better than that work of art. And yeah ok people can be wrong and yes people can be elitist and pompous and all of these other bad things – but fuck it: even if you disagree with the results (and hell yes disagree with the results) it’s still a conversation worth having because well otherwise you’re going to end up in a world where everyone thinks that lowest common denominator mainstream entertainment is about human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to other human beings and frankly that’s when I start to get a little scared.
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I understand one of the reasons for choosing this movie was to coincide with the release of the Joker. So last night I put on my purple jacket and green waistcoat to see it. Initially all the “controversy” put me off, not because I was worried about teh incelz but because it felt like the cheap confected moral outrage marketing of the Grand Theft Auto games. I see now that having been fooled (again) the commentariat have decided that regardless the film is bad (actually) because Gary Glitter might get some royalties in what will definitely be an isolated incident of a paedophile profiting from Hollywood [looks to camera]. But eventually a gang of left-wing online influencers changed my mind.
It’s high praise for this film that it rises above the very online discourse through a combination of outstanding production and Joaquin Phoenix largely refusing to indulge in scenery chewing *loud* acting. Taking the elements I highlighted for King of Comedy this film is almost the opposite. Where Pupkin is a character so consistent he’s almost a waxwork , so Phoenix’s Joker gestates throughout the movie so that his final transition continues the slow escalation that has been building for the previous 90 minutes. That being said, it’s not clear whether it’s the performance or the mythical power of the character but when he does show up, there is a rush of “aww yeah, someone gonna get and asskicking” The film delivers the Sopranos’ money back guarantee that when it happens you are very much ready for a brutal psychopath to dish out violent retribution.
As I said the production is flawless, and where King of Comedy deliberately feels like it’s made of cardboard Joker recreates the New York-but-meaner feel of Se7en. And the sound design is very serious, not just the soundtrack but the string section whose work on this movie should be given 50% of the profits. The brooding menace means they create throughout means that any slightly weird bits get waved through because you can chalk it all up to the rapid descent into madness.
This is the main difference between King of Comedy and Joker. Rupert Pupkin doesn’t think he is mad, he does everything for reasons that seem completely logical to him and he is completely uncompromising. Arthur Fleck is well aware that he is mentally ill, and it’s the compromises and constant apologies for who is which drives him over the edge. Whereas Pupkin hints at his damage through his comedy, Fleck is given a rich tapestry of reasons for reaching breaking point and this is why perhaps the film doesn’t feel as clever as King of Comedy and feels slightly more emotionally manipulative. But to the extent it was clearly pressing my buttons, it was successful enough so that the final “reveal” where the character who is clearly the Joker becomes the Joker it rivals the King of Comedy reveal where Rupert Pupkin’s fantasies become reality.
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