Thursday, November 19, 2015

Theory Thursday: "The King of Comedy" is Scorsese's Most Important Film

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: November 17 is Martin Scorsese's birthday.
Theory: The King of Comedy is Martin Scorsese's most important film.

There is no denying the cultural impact that director Martin Scorsese has bestowed upon film culture. Ever since his breakout film Mean Streets, he has been managing to find new ways to wax his cinematic style into the theme that unites all of his films: "No man is without sin." It may seem hard to notice, especially with his focus on gangsters and sleazy salesman, but the 1973 film best embodies everything that he would do more slyly with Harvey Keitel's character being attached to the church and the criminal underworld. There's guilt and he escapes through prayer. In some cases, Scorsese's protagonists don't get redemption. If they do, it ends up somewhere along the lines of GoodFellas, with something unpleasant and despicable allowing a certain freedom. It's this edgy mindset that draws us to the director time and again. It's also why even four decades later, he's one of the most exciting names out there. Just look at his peers from the 1970's, such as Woody Allen and Steven Spielbeg; arguably the two most proficient of the graduating class. Where Scorsese's 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street earned deserved controversy, Spielberg and Allen's filmography has "matured" even as they have become more assured of their craft. 

Scorsese seems to balance it all in unexpected ways. It's not bad, considering that he once was considering being a priest. Though to look at his contributions is to see a body of work with one of the most envious Top 10 personal bests. There's a reason that it was a big deal when he won Best Director for The Departed - which as great as it was, was humorously bashed for not being his actual best film. Still, it's hard to get a consensus on what his actual best is, especially as he continually evolves and explores new facets of the human condition. Do you go with the artistic photography of Raging Bull? The stylized and quippy world of GoodFellas? The nihilism of Taxi Driver? The glitz of The Aviator? That's not even scratching the surface of what he's achieved. While all four of these would be appropriate contenders, I think that there's one that is continually overlooked. It's a film that actually feels more prescient to the culture at its release and now. I'm talking about the underrated gem of The King of Comedy.

To die hard Scorsese fans, you'll likely know this title. For everyone else, I'll provide a quick recap. Hacky comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) attempts to get on the variety show, hosted by Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Over the course of the film, we discover how disturbed and determined Pupkin is. He not only has an audience built into his home, he has laugh tracks to compliment his mediocre routines. It's hard to deny that he has passion; often sitting in the waiting room of Langford's office for hours on end just to drop off a tape with his best routines. There's a sense that he's never been in front of an audience before. He's too insecure as an individual. Things spiral out of control when Pupkin doesn't get his way - leading to the kidnapping of Langford. While it shares the same ambiguous dream ending of Taxi Driver, it takes it to disturbing heights as he performs on Langford's show, ending his routine of bad jokes with the sentiment "It's better to be a king for a day than a schmuck for a lifetime."It embodies his spirit to be a star at any cost - choosing for the immediate success over hard work.

I know that it is easy to lobby a lot of praise on Scorsese's other films. They're all varying degrees of entertaining and ambitious camerawork. There's no denying the iconography of something like Raging Bull or GoodFellas. However, I think that all of them lack any real deeper meaning beyond a pessimistic view of a shattered dream. It's Scorsese's bread and butter to put down his characters. However, I think that what he did with The King of Comedy was take the torture of his characters and unleash them into the real world. Pupkin is a nightmare the likes of which haven't often been seen. More than Travis Bickel or Jake La Motta, you're likely to run into a Pupkin. In fact, he is the more explicit version of Peter Finch's character in Network. Pupkin will do anything for fame. He just doesn't always handle rejection in the best ways possible.

I am not entirely sure why Pupkin hasn't gotten the same respect of other Scorsese characters. Maybe it's because he's a lone force, pushing himself overbearingly on anyone that will give him a chance. Again, it's De Niro providing a great performance. He gives the character a sense of false modesty with a smile that reads as both overjoyed and desperate. Meanwhile, Langford is one of the great stunt castings of any Scorsese film. Legendary comedian Jerry Lewis plays the icon who doesn't understand this strange and perturbed man. What's best is that even if Lewis is known for playing annoying types, he is the rational voice - a straight man outside of his theater set for his show. What's most impressive is that Lewis shifts his nervous energy from a comedic sensibility to a more dramatic one. It's bizarre that this stunt didn't work in getting Lewis an Oscar (for which he has yet to receive one). Even if it's brilliant casting within the film, it's also the type of gimmick that lands almost everyone else a nomination.

On top of everything, it's just the perfect black comedy. As much as GoodFellas or The Wolf of Wall Street get lobbied as the director's great mixtures of drama and comedy. While these are true, there's something more exciting and intimidating about his approach here. It could just be that it's one of his few films to target the field that he actually has made a career out of: film and TV. At the time, he was focused more on seedy individuals, often aimless and without purpose. With a character desperately trying to get into the world of fame, there's a relativity that allows the story to feel more grounded in Scorsese as a person - of whom makes a cameo as a crew member on the TV show. Add in the subversion of Lewis' performance, the kidnapping reflects a misshapen mind, as Langford's tied to a chair with random strands of tape. It's scary because of the danger, but funnier that Pupkin thinks that this will pan out. It's obsession of the darkest mind brought to life not only by making a drama with 'comedy' in the title, but by making the comedic characters dramatically complex within their own form of comedy.

Finally, I will provide my definitive reasoning for why this is Scorsese's most important film: the subject matter. As disturbing and uncomfortable as it may get, the subject still rings true to modern audiences. While people are likely to herald Network and The Truman Show of being most predictive of the 21st century, I think that there's something to including The King of Comedy, which actually came out over 30 years ago despite feeling strangely more relevant now (even the desire to make an appearance on late night variety shows). There's no denying that Pupkin is a little disturbed and probably unable to grasp failure, even if that's all he really is. He's the obnoxious force that became famous just by nudging someone's shoulder until they got tired of it. He's violent and doesn't understand the ramifications of working towards a legacy. His desire is to be king for a night. Otherwise, he's a schmuck for a lifetime.

The 15 minutes of fame rule is nothing new. Andy Warhol penned the concept in 1968. With the rise of reality TV and competitive talent shows, there's a chance that Pupkin would stand a chance to be seen by that wide audience he desires. It's also easier because more questionable behavior has become suitable in the process. For what it's worth, Pupkin is just a man with a dream and no rational way to fulfill it. MTV and the reality TV boom has given rise to this notion, where shows purposely ratchet up tension in order to make people seem more repulsive than they are. They are no longer the schmucks who never got a shot. They are the kings for a day, even if it's for something as embarrassing as punching a woman or arguing over petty nonsense. Maybe the Langford kidnapping isn't as common, but the obsession and desires are still rampant to a nauseating degree. Reality TV is Pupkin.

There's a reason that the frame that we see before the opening credits happen is Pupkin pressing his head onto Langford's window as his assistant (Sandra Bernhard) pushes him away. Out of a massive crowd, he has found his way within fame. Now that he knows that he can grasp Langford, even if just for a handshake, he is one step closer to having that satisfaction to escape his overbearing loneliness and feeling of rejection. Maybe audiences at the time found this to be just a dark comedy where unpleasant things happened. However, it feels very personal to Scorsese, who likely had to deal with casting calls full of psychopaths who just wanted to be in a Scorsese movie. It's a behind the scenes media tale that is unapologetic and full of deeper commentary. It's strange that in the decades following, one of his only other movie-themed movie was Hugo: arguably his tamest and least pessimistic film to date. While The Aviator is a biography of a man who started in movies, it evolves into the story of a megalomaniac. Movies was just a starting point, and thus feels a little irrelevant in comparing these three films.

I know that you can argue for a dozen films as being Scorsese's best. I personally rank Taxi Driver as my favorite. It's a great, if unrealized by general audiences, commentary on the treatment of war veterans post-Vietnam War. He miserably drives through a rundown New York, looking for a better life. However, I do think that if pressured, I would definitely put The King of Comedy as runner up. It's not just a film that is darkly comic in the way that his other films are praised for. It's one of the only times he felt the need to make a message beyond "Bad people are bad." As good as GoodFellas or The Aviator are, I still feel like nothing comes close to the magic of having to deal with Rupert Pupkin. He is unbearable in the way that Scorsese characters aren't often enough. He's our P.O.V. into this world, and it's one that is both shocking and sad. It's also the one closest to our contemporary culture - and one that I think we need to just accept as being as good, if not better, than those that we've already hailed as the high points of cinema. Even if he has to hold one of the movies hostage, Pupkin deserves a spot on that list.

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