Look Who's Talking

If anyone in the audience believes that God made your body, and your body is dirty, the fault lies with the manufacturer." That's vintage Lenny Bruce, and while you can get an idea of how smart he was by reading his routines, you have to have seen him perform to appreciate his cosmic comic timing.

The timing was all the more extraordinary because he seemed to make up his routines on the spot (and often, that's exactly what he did). You could see these half-formed ideas and associations churning out of the dark recesses of his mind. He stumbled and mumbled, until, in a flash, the meaning of what he was saying became clear to him, and like the burlesque comic he was, he pivoted full-frontal and jammed the punchline home. The effect, like the material itself, was massively contradictory. Bruce was never so vulnerable as when he was most hostile, never so wary as when he was most reckless, never so heartbreaking as when he was most hilarious. His act was liberating because it found and exposed side-splitting humor in the ambivalences and disjunctions of mind, body, and emotions--and because he never hesitated to speak truth to power. Bruce's main targets were organized religion, racism, and sexual hypocrisy. It was probably his attack on the Catholic Church that made him a target of the Right.

Robert B. Weide's Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth comes as close as a 94-minute biopic can to resurrecting its subject (at least, as a performer). Weide has got his hands on amazing footage: Bruce's 1964 appearance on the Steve Allen Show that was censored by the network and supposedly lost for 30 years; a TV gig with Nat Hentoff where Bruce, stoned on bennies, falls to the floor and bashes away at the piano with his feet; a fragment from an unfinished biker movie directed by Bruce in the '50s which looks like Kenneth Anger gone hetero; and news footage of Bruce's corpse, sprawled naked and face down in a doorway of his dilapidated Hollywood Hills home. (The LAPD allowed photographers an hour to shoot Bruce's body before they took it away to the morgue.) Weide also assembled a great cache of stills, and the film has Bruce's rhythms so right that when he plays tapes of Bruce's voice over the photos, it's almost as if you're seeing him in motion.

Lenny Bruce, circa 1957: speaking truth to power with cosmic comic timing
The Lenny Bruce Estate
Lenny Bruce, circa 1957: speaking truth to power with cosmic comic timing

Details

Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth
Directed by Robert B. Weide
At Film Forum
Through November 3

The Cruise
Directed by Bennett Miller

An Artisan Entertainment release
Opens October 23

Outer and Inner Space
Directed by Andy Warhol
At the Whitney Museum
Through November 29

The story is pieced together chronologically by talking heads, among them Bruce's devoted mother, Sally Marr; his ex-wife Honey and their daughter; Hentoff, who compares the way Bruce transformed comedy to what Charlie Parker and Coltrane did to jazz; Martin Garbus, who assisted Ephraim London in defending Bruce when he was tried for obscenity in New York in 1964; and Richard H. Kuh, then lackey of New York D.A. Frank Hogan, who prosecuted the case. Kuh won. Although the conviction was reversed on appeal (18 months after Bruce's death), it destroyed Bruce as a performer (he never worked a big club again) and as a person (he spent the last two years of his life doing drugs and writing appeals, obsessed with the fact that he had never had a fair trial, and that not only he, but the Constitution of the United States, in which he profoundly believed, had been violated).

Weide gets the big stuff right, and he's also attuned to the echoes. Robert De Niro, who played "God's lonely man" in Taxi Driver, does the voice-over narration, and as you listen to him, you realize how much he owed his "Are you talking to me?" moves and timing to Bruce (whose signature song was "All Alone," a little ditty he wrote himself). Weide's choice of music is inspired: Rodgers and Hart's bereft "It Never Entered My Mind" becomes the theme of Bruce's final downward spiral, mixing at the end with "Three Satie Spoons," the early-'60s avant-garde art-world anthem, and then breaking out into The Clash's cover of "I Fought the Law" for the closing credits.

Twelve years in the making, Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth could not be released at a more opportune moment. I can't begin to enumerate the parallels between the persecution of Bruce and right-wing hysteria around Clinton, but it's worth noting that Kuh, still nattering on about standards of decency and 12-letter words, is a minor-league Starr, and that the press, with few exceptions, cheered Bruce's persecutors on, as if their own constitutional rights were not at stake.

 

Perhaps I wouldn't have despised Bennett Miller's The Cruise so much had I not seen it two days after Lenny Bruce. Its subject, Timothy "Speed" Levitch--monologuist and guide to New York City, who makes double-decker buses his performance-art venues and their tourist-passengers his captive audience--seems to fancy himself a mix of Abbie Hoffman and Bruce, but he lacks their intelligence and courage, not to mention their brilliant manipulation of language. Levitch--whose principal targets are his mother (when his rant turned gynecological, I nearly left the theater) and fans of Manhattan's "grid pattern"--is one of those irritating people who believe that words can mean anything they want them to mean at the moment they spring to their lips.

Shot in digital-8 video and transferred to 35mm, The Cruise looks like black-and-white newsprint photos in motion. Miller seems to have worked hard to make the image look clean and professional, which, given his subject, seems exactly the wrong choice. The Cruise is being hailed as a harbinger of a future in which indie film will be liberated by low-cost technology. If this is where we're going, I want off the bus.

A portrait of Edie Sedgwick, Outer and Inner Space is Warhol's first double-screen film and also his first piece to use video. It's also the piece that makes the strongest link between his serial painted portraits (like the Jackies and the Marilyns) and his film portraits. Using a prototype home-video recorder lent to him by Norelco, Warhol shot two half-hour tapes of Sedgwick, who, in both of them, is shown in close-up, her profile filling the left side of the screen, conversing with someone outside of camera range. With her hair slicked back and her head tilted upwards, she looks a bit like the Jean Seberg Joan of Arc, and it's serious torture that is about to be inflicted on her. Warhol proceeded to shoot two 33-minute films in which Sedgwick is positioned in front of the monitor on which her own image is playing. When the film is projected double-screen, we see four talking heads of equal size; the effect is that Sedgwick is whispering in her own ear. Since Warhol was not very careful in his sound recording, it's a struggle to make out what any of the Edies are saying. You begin to feel as if you're at a seance, and the mediums raising Sedgwick from the dead are video and film. Next to the ghostly Edies on the monitor, the filmed Edies look animated and three-dimensional.

As in Beauty #2, the other great Warhol film of Sedgwick, the dramatic tension is a result of Warhol attempting to shatter Sedgwick's fragile psyche (and her upper-class social veneer) by splintering her attention and using her wounded narcissism against her. Sedgwick has to listen to her own voice chattering on while she makes polite conversation with someone who's behind the camera. Once or twice, she breaks the rules and turns to confront herself on the video, but mostly she tries to be a good actress and do what her director tells her to do. The film has become an ingenious memento mori of them both.

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