Sunday, August 14, 2005

Movies: The Aristocrats (2005)/Pink Flamingos (1972)

In which the author decides to test his personal standards and is startled to discover that he does indeed have some.

I’ve wanted to see THE ARISTOCRATS since Comedy Central aired the heavily-edited Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, at which Gilbert Gottfried launched into a joke legendary amongst comedians. It couldn’t be cleaned up for broadcast, so the network simply cut it out. But it was still obvious that the atmosphere in the room had changed. Gottfried’s televised set was nothing memorable, yet the crowd was ready to bow down to him.

Actually, ‘The Aristocrats’ isn’t a joke so much as an excuse to let the id run amok. You’ve got a simple set-up and a shaggy-dog punch line. In between, fill the space with the foulest notions the imagination can provide.

It is no doubt a reflection on my poor character that I found the movie hilarious.

We hear versions of the joke from old-school comics like Chuck McCann and Larry Storch as well as younger performers like Sarah Silverman, who essentially deconstructs it – and still kills. Stand-up and SIMPSONS writer Dana Gould cites an epic rendition that included “white slavery and a zeppelin race.”

The joke also functions as something of a Rorschach test; which comedians lard on the scatological detail, and which ones focus on violence? Who adds a personal spin to the lame closer? And no recent sight in film is as perversely thrilling as watching Bob Saget kiss the family-friendly portion of his career goodbye by offering the filthiest take in the movie.

By coincidence, I caught John Waters’ seminal cult film PINK FLAMINGOS this weekend for the first time. Part of my make-up work in midnight movies class. FLAMINGOS, I realized, is a cinematic rendering of ‘The Aristocrats.’ Every form of moral turpitude is on display: bestiality, incest, bloodshed, all of it played for laughs. Worse, it’s dished out by hippies, and in Maryland woods so desolate that I kept expecting the cast to stumble onto those poor kids from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

Parts of the film are deeply funny. But other parts ... I may be outing myself as a square here, but some of them I couldn’t even watch. Here I am thinking of myself as an unflappable man of the world, only to hide my eyes like the quivering Catholic schoolboy I once was. And not just because there’s a difference between hearing skillful descriptions of various depravities and seeing those acts enthusiastically performed.

Waters is a dazzling raconteur – why he doesn’t have his own talk show is beyond me – but let’s be honest: he’s never been much of a filmmaker. (I think even he’d back me up on that.) FLAMINGOS, from early in his career, shows an utter lack of artistry that makes some of the images unpalatable. Plus, they’re part of a story that has even less of a structure than the simplest joke. There’s no sense of release that’s provided by a punch line, even one of the worst in the annals of humor.

ARISTOCRATS producer Penn Jillette may be right when he says that in art, it’s always “the singer, not the song.” But it helps when that singer can carry the tune.