Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bitter Jester: Richard Belzer on Munch, Seinfeld, And The Stage Manners of Rupert Pupkin

Not so long ago, someone was trying to sell Richard Belzer’s 1961 high school yearbook on eBay. The bidding was not intense, but the listing was oddly revealing about the school days of the American actor. "The Belz did NOT play football, basketball or baseball," it said. "He DIDN’T wrestle or swim. In fact, it looked like he didn’t do ANYTHING."
To those who are familiar with Belzer’s most famous television role, Detective John Munch - a character which began life in Homicide: Life on the Street, but which also appeared in four other series, including The X-Files and Law and Order; Special Victims Unit, this description may seen familiar. Munch is one of the treasured characters of American TV; a lugubrious soul whose name is pronounced to rhyme with "punch", but which is designed to evoke the artist who painted The Scream.
As a character, Munch is not far-removed from the actor who plays him, and who is also a renowned stand-up comedian. "It’s a character who would be very close to what I would be if I were a cop," says Belzer. "He’s distant, and he’s opinionated, and he was radical when he was younger, and he doesn’t trust authority. He reads a lot, he’s always got a dark joke about some grim situation."
Belzer was due to perform at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but was forced out by filming commitments. He appeared in spirit, however. The film Bitter Jester, which he executive produced, was screened, and its director/star, Maija DiGiorgio, hosted a top-line bill in a show called Not Richard Belzer.
The movie documents the travails of a female stand-up on the American comedy circuit. Belzer’s contribution was to introduce DiGiorgio to a number of celebrated comedians and club owners. The result, says Belzer, reveals the misogyny of the comedy world. "It’s interesting to see what people will say on camera to indict themselves, in terms of their insensitivity to women’s plight."
Another thing which emerges in Bitter Jester is the antipathy felt by young comics towards superstar comedians, such as Jerry Seinfeld (whose documentary, Comedian, also featured in the film festival). Seinfeld’s film, Belzer says, "is the multi-millionaire’s take on it, and Maija’s is the struggling, broke female put-upon comic’s take. They should show on the same bill because they’re so antithetical, and yet they’re about the same business."
Belzer has his own view about the type of people who become comedians.
"I’ve always been allergic to the stereotype of the neurotic comedian who had a tough childhood and always has to be ‘on’. There are certainly guys like that. And there are guys who have come from poor backgrounds, but that’s a cliché from vaudeville, and this is two generations later. There’s a lot of middle class people who had very normal childhoods and became very good comedians.
"When you see someone like Jerry who doesn’t appear to have the clichéd angst and a neuroses and dark side that a lot of comedians are supposed to have, and then you see Maija who’s in psychoanalysis and has this crazy boyfriend, and then you see all these characters around her and around him, there’s a bunch of divergent personalities.
"There’s a young comic in Jerry’s movie, who is the most repellent, unlikeable person you could possibly imagine. But, for whatever reason, the people who made that film chose to put him in there. My suspicion is that he’s so obnoxious and off-putting that you say, ‘Oh, Jerry’s a great guy’, by comparison."
Belzer’s journey into stand-up was almost accidental. He began as an actor in an experimental troupe called Channel One, which operated in a basement theatre in Manhattan. "This was, literally and figuratively, underground television. We put three television monitors up in the theatre. We did commercial parodies and movie parodies and original pieces on video. Then we showed them in this theatre. It was quite innovative, because no-one had ever paid to see television before."
On the strength of Channel One, Belzer and Co were given the money to make Groove Tube, a precursor to the likes of Saturday Night Live. While making this, Belzer was persuaded to try stand-up, opening for a friend of a friend, who was a singer. "I went on almost as a dare. That was, I think, July 10, 1971. In a club called the Escape Hatch in Cranford, New Jersey, that was underground, literally. It was a basement club. I just fell in to it."
In an act based on characters and impressions, he did a black newscaster, Rod Steiger as a weatherman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Bob Dylan. He graduated to a slot as the MC of the club Catch a Rising Star, introducing 20 or 30 acts over five hours. "In between I had to say something, so my style evolved through improvisation and ad-libbing, by talking to the audience, by bringing up a newspaper, by talking about what had happened that day. It forced me to be fresh all the time. I might start talking to somebody in the audience or pick up a woman’s purse and rifle through it for 10 minutes. You’d be surprised what I found."
Belzer also made a tangential contribution to stand-up history when Robert De Niro shadowed him during his preparation for King of Comedy.
"De Niro came to the clubs and hung out backstage, and we talked a lot about what stand-up comedy is." In one of their conversations, Belzer and De Niro compared stand-up to boxing. "You’re alone, and you wanna knock ’em out. You want to kill the audience. Punchline, all that stuff."
DeNiro’s character, Rupert Pupkin, was, says Belzer, "a brilliant, unique hybrid of a particular type of person." A real-life example of this type can be seen, Belzer says, in the Seinfeld movie. "The younger guy. This obnoxious monster."
As well as his comedy, Belzer is a student of conspiracy theories, many of which he chronicles in his book, UFOs, JFK and Elvis. "A lot of the stuff I’ve learned over the years, if you want to discuss it with people, their eyes glaze over, so you have to couch it in comedic terms. But I’m fascinated by things that you don’t have to make up, like real information."
There is evidence, he says, of higher civilisations, if not aliens. "Clearly there were incredibly advanced intelligences on this planet in antiquity. Whether they come from other planets or not, I don’t know, but there’s enough evidence now of archaeological sites, artefacts and histories that are called myths: like the Sumerian tablets that have been translated over the last 30 or 40 years. So I’m open to the idea that we aren’t the only thing going on."
Elvis fans who buy his book may be disappointed, however. "The reason I put that in, is because George Bush, when asked if there was a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination, said, ‘Oh yeah, and Elvis is still alive’. It’s a way of the American mainstream marginalising the idea that Kennedy was killed by more than one person, or that there might be UFOs, or that our government somehow might hide something from us."
When he isn’t filming, Belzer lives in the South West of France, in a house purchased with the aid of a settlement he received when Hulk Hogan attacked him on a chat show. From there, he watches American politics with a growing sense of dread.
"I was a newspaper reporter in the 1960s, and I’ve been through Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, and I am really distressed, embarrassed, worried and terrified that these right wing ideologues have commandeered the government and set up their own secret service and their own way of starting wars, and their own way of cutting back on the environment, and crushing the poor. It’s my worst nightmare. If I didn’t have a house in France I’d be insane now.
"Plus Bush wasn’t really elected - the Supreme Court gave him the job. America’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And the government is playing up this terror thing and just arbitrarily calling alerts whenever it suits their needs. It’s very Orwellian. We’re really living in an Orwellian period where peace means war and love is hate."
A sentiment with which Munch would struggle to disagree.
Alastair McKay
(Published in The Scotsman, 9 August, 2003)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Nostradamus, Hallucinations of Hitler and Bin Laden, And The Future Of The Documentary

The documentary film was defined by John Grierson in the 1930s as “the creative treatment of actuality”. What, we may wonder, would have made of Discovery UK’s Nostradamus, which stars Oliver Dimsdale as the mystic seer, and Kerry Fox as Catherine De Medici?
The film – Discovery UK’s first foray onto the peculiar terrain of the big-budget factual drama – is a peculiarity on a factual channel. But this hybrid genre – half fact, half-fiction - has blossomed in recent years: the Discovery/BBC collaboration Supervolcano added the manners of the disaster movie to the doomiest scientific speculations, while The Flight That Fought Back reconstructed the struggle between passengers and 9/11 hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93.
Perhaps due to the paucity of television footage from 16th century France, Nostradamus goes further. The ageless Dimsdale is the charismatic figure who insinuated his way into political influence when one of his coded messages predicted the death of the king. The actor’s psychedelic hallucinations also include flashes of Hitler and Osama bin Laden.
As treatments of actuality go, it is surely creative. But is it true? The film’s writer John Milne (a writer of The Bill and Silent Witness), says it was not easy to stick to the facts, “because if you ask ten people about Nostradamus, you get 11 different opinions. Also, he attracts a lot of lunatics. But there are no flat-out lies.”
Discovery UK’s Channel Director Jill Offman argues that the changing style of factual programming is designed to appeal to younger viewers, “and they are particularly resistant to anything that feels like they might have learned it at school.” The cliché about viewers with itchy trigger fingers on the remote is true, she says. “One of the reasons you try to make things engaging is to keep them. Even if we’re doing a traditional documentary, narrative is the driver. Maybe that sounds obvious, but hooking and keeping an audience with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a level of suspense – classic storytelling – isn’t something that you find throughout the documentary world. We ask ourselves every five minutes: ‘Are they still with us?’”
Nostradamus was made by Mentorn, the company responsible for The Government Inspector, Hamburg Cell (about the 9/11 plotters), and the David Blunkett spoof, A Very Social Secretary. (A future Mentorn production will examine the post-retirement life of Tony Blair, which may require a crystal ball along with its artistic licence.)
“Although driven by real events, they are complete dramas,” says Mentorn producer Hal Vogel. “There is no documentary in there. But that allows you to get at the story in a way that none of the documentaries did. The Government Inspector was the definitive account of what happened to David Kelly. With the Hamburg Cell, that was the first time 9/11 was looked at from a different point of view. And the Blunkett film had its particular take on the whole thing. But it was entirely based on fact.” While Nostradamus boasts that it is “based on actual events”, Vogel admits: “We’ve taken certain license with the fact that the predictions have a degree of validity. That might be questionable.”
So is the traditional documentary under threat from its more titillating cousin, the factual drama? Offman thinks not, if only because the latter are prohibitively expensive. “We’re just looking for ways to deliver really important information because the old ways weren’t working.” But Discovery will continue to target viewers untroubled by Panorama. Forthcoming documentaries include an examination of vampires, and The Real Roswell, on UFOs and military experiments. The channel also offers Zero Hour, in which recent history is rendered in the style of 24. Offman calls it “history for those to whom the death of Kurt Cobain was a seminal moment.”
That may sound chilling, even for some who fought in the grunge wars, but the smudging of fact, fiction and entertainment isn’t necessarily a disaster. Vogel claims factual dramas can be more revealing than documentaries, “because they are about bringing these characters to life, and documentary can’t do that.”
Nor is it new. The executive producer of Nostradamus, David Aukin, says the form can be traced back to the films of Peter Watkins (who restaged Culloden using newsreel techniques in 1964) and Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s documentary-style Wednesday Play from 1966. Aukin also suggests that factual drama may be especially suited to a world in which we are bombarded by media. “There’s so much overkill in terms of the information we’re given, but we still don’t understand it any better. Maybe through dramatisation one helps people to get behind it and understand better.”
At last week’s BAFTA TV awards, The Government Inspector was voted Best Single Drama, and Mark Rylance best actor for his portrayal of Dr Kelly, but some resistance remains. These dramas are invariably accompanied by debates about how factual they are. This is unfair, says Aukin, as the usual legal strictures apply. “We can’t just make false allegations.”
Vogel concurs. “I was amazed with The Government Inspector: why was everybody so keen to discuss the merits and failings of dramatising fact, but no one actually wanted to discuss what was going on in the lead-up to the war - the question that the film was supposed to raise?”
Alastair McKay