dir. Tarsem Singh
R, 107 min.
Now showing at area theaters
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
dir. Luis Bu&241;uel
PG, 105 min.
Opening Friday at Belcourt Theatre
Are there adjectives as abused as “poetic” and “dreamlike”? Good poetry is solid and concrete, and dreams contain enough of the real to bedevil and bedazzle our sleeping selves. Yet “poetic” is used to describe the worst kind of inexact, touchy-feely greeting-card sap. And “dreamlike” usually gets stuck to something gauzy and vapid, as if every time we closed our eyes we saw Heart videos.
My dreams don’t involve feathery clouds or billowing curtains, but that’s not to say they don’t have fantastic imagery. A vivid one involved an apartment whose floor was a shallow pool and skillet-shaped snakes that scuttled along its sandy bottom. But dreams almost always take off from some plausible real-life situation. That one started with me forgetting a friend’s birthday, a real enough situation to lull me into playing along. What made the dream so vivid was the way it drew me in, step by step, along a weave of logic that segued almost imperceptibly from the prosaic intodare I say it?the poetic.
What triggered this memory was the contrast between two movies I saw over the weekend: the gimmicky thriller The Cell and the reissue of Luis Bu&241;uel’s 1972 comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Both movies concern, at some level, the world of dreams and their relationship to real life. But oddly enough, the one that doesn’t rely on “dreamlike” imagery captures better the sensation of dreaming.
The life of the mind is crucial tobut not evident inThe Cell, an MTV eye-pounding disguised as a horror movie. It stars Jennifer Lopez as a therapist who does experimental research with schizophrenic kids. To unlock their troubled psyches, she zaps herself into the kids’ Roger Dean-issue mindscapeswhich comes in handy, since serial killer Vincent D’Onofrio slipped into a coma before he could tell FBI agent Vince Vaughn where he’d stashed his latest victim-to-be. As the girl sits in a cell full of rising water, Lopez dives into the killer’s mind to find the girl’s location.
There’s no point in addressing the moral and artistic bankruptcy of making yet another serial-killer movie. The hope is that the director, music-video whiz Tarsem Singh, will just ditch this nonsense in the first reel, allowing us to get lost in the spooky-slithery recesses of D’Onofrio’s twisted mind. No dice. First, the movie takes forever to get inside his brain, and once there the filmmakers keep cutting away to the world outside. Second, the dream stuff is pretty underwhelming, at least if you’ve seen a Marilyn Manson video. D’Onofrio’s mind consists of about four basic sets stalked by a hulking sadist sultan. It also comes with an inner-child apparition who guides the heroes whenever they lose their way. It’s harder to get lost at Kroger.
Why would D’Onofrio’s wounded inner child appear within his own mind as a three-dimensional little boy? Why would his thoughts have walls, stairs, chambers? Lapses like these ruin the only thing good about the premise: getting lost in a world that seems real but isn’t. Unfortunately, the movie assumes that making this the mind of a serial killer will explain everything away.
To have your mind blown properly, try the youngest movie arounda nearly 30-year-old wonder directed by a man in his 70s. By the time he made the hilarious The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1972, the great Spanish director Luis Bu&241;uel had long left behind the punky surrealism of his early Un chien andalou. What replaced it, in his glorious late period, was serene but hardly less surprising. If anything, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie seems even wilder for being so outwardly reserved. Three well-to-do couples attempt to go to dinner: That’s the plot. The basic thrust is that they never succeed. Each attempt triggers some bizarre new setback, and the movie essentially starts over.
Bu&241;uel stages ghost stories, and dreams, and dreams within dreams, and he leads us into them with a poker face. The movie is a prank on human beings who assume they have control over destiny, and Bu&241;uel uses his characters’ reliance on civilized ritual and his audience’s comfort with storytelling to string them both along. Following this movie’s narrative thread, though, is like following a burning fuse to a stick of dynamite. The outcomes are consistently startling, and Bu&241;uel’s camera never telegraphs the shock.
You’d think The Discreet Charm’s stealthy absurdity would pale next to The Cell’s gaudy Vegas-in-hell dream imagery. Yet it’s The Cell’s empty visual tropes that seem dated on arrival. Bu&241;uel’s film retains its surprise and mystery because it segues so deftly from a “real” world into a dream state, and in so doing, it begs us to consider how they interact in our own lives. The other night, I went into a Middle Eastern restaurant and found this tableau: a couple eating quietly, mood music on the stereo, and a TV in the corner blaring the grisly fry-the-prisoner scene from The Green Mile. As the waiter served the couple, the woman looked at the screen and said, “Is that man dead yet?” Even on the ride home, I wasn’t sure whether I’d dreamt the whole scene. Somewhere, Luis Bu&241;uel smiles.
Four kings, four aces
It’s been over 20 years since the theatrical release of Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, but the following experiment still works: Get a big screen and a group of diverse people, then dim the lights and run the movie. As Pryor jumps all over the stage, discoursing freely about hunting, sports, sex, race, funerals, and childhood, laughter fills the roompained, gasping laughter; cleansing laughter. Pryor’s focused energy, his pantomime skills, his casual use of profanity, and his willingness to go deep into the darkest moments of his life for the sake of comedy...well, it’s just liberating. There are people who still think that Pryor was all about drug humor, race-baiting, and dirty talk. They’re missing out. Pryor wasn’t just pop-a-stitch funny; he made adult comedy into a mature art form.
The new performance film The Original Kings of Comedy features four modern maestros of raunchy comedySteve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Macand though none of the comics individually is up to Pryor’s level, collectively they have a similarly eruptive effect. They cover much of the same ground that African American stand-ups have trod since before Pryor’s day; there are jokes about family members, music, church, sex acts, and lots of material on the race-specific behavior of whites and blacks. But what emerges from all the Afrocentric jokes is not how different we are, but how alike.
Spike Lee “directed” The Original Kings of Comedy, which is to say that he orchestrated the video cameras that sweep through the audience, roam backstage, and circle mechanically around the stage. But Lee’s contribution to the film’s success shouldn’t be discounted. Before appointing himself as the standard-bearer for heavy sociopolitical cinema, Lee was a filmmaker with a flair for comedy. His early films had frequent and hilarious comic asidesincluding Do the Right Thing, with its hysterical Robin Harris “corner monologues.” Here, Lee not only selects the best two hours of a show almost twice that length, he also cuts the whole thing together so that it has the appropriate escalation of laughs and brief lulls for breath-catching.
The film was shot during the Charlotte stop on the Kings of Comedy toura tour that has quietly become the most successful comedy tour of all time, by buzzing into smaller cities with large African American populations and charging a pittance for tickets in large, quickly sold-out arenas. Charlotte plays a role in the jokes of the Kings, from Steve Harvey’s brutal rip of Rae Carruth (“How’s a brother from Carolina gonna hide out in Nashville?”) to Bernie Mac’s insistence that all the country folk in the crowd can identify with his family troubles.
In fact, if there’s a wall that Kings of Comedy hits, it’s that too many of the performers rely on routines that overlap with their tour mates. But the show overcomes the repetition due to the distinctiveness of each comedian and the fact that the bill builds in quality. Ringleader Harvey does a brief early set, then returns between each performer to do a few more bits, which get funnier each time. Hughley follows with sharp but not especially groundbreaking material about sex and relationships, and Cedric the Entertainer brings on some dry wit and electric physicality. Then the show closes with the bug-eyed, word-slurring Bernie Mac, whose rambling stories get so personal that at times he seems almost to be talking to himself. That Mac’s asides to no one are still funny is a testament to how comedy can strike a nerve when it’s coming from a performer willing to reveal himself. Chris Rock has said that Bernie Mac is the one comedian that he wouldn’t want to follow onstageand when Rock said it, it wasn’t quite a compliment. He more or less said that Mac scares him a little.
No, neither Mac nor his partners have quite the edge of Pryor. But these four guys do have polish and energy, and they’ve distinguished themselves from most of their Def Comedy Jam brethren, who seem to think that vulgarity and sex talk (even divorced from personality) is inherently funny. They’ve also made a movie that’s more packed with laughs than any other explicit comedy making the rounds this summer. The Original Kings of Comedy is every bit as raunchy as Scary Movie or Me, Myself and Irene, but this is not “adult” humor in the way that a teenager saying “boner” is “adult.” It takes some real living to tell these stories, and it takes some real living to appreciate them. And when you laugh at them...damn, does it ever feel good.
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