Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Tapping In From Toronto

My first impressions are that Toronto is a great city, although perhaps a little more similar to other US cities than I had expected. There seems to be a very 'open' sense of security among residents in the area where I'm staying, and people seem happy (as long as the house is occupied), to just leave the front door ajar. I simply can't imagine this happening even in the calmest areas of suburban London, at least not without some degree of discomfort or paranoia.

It's very cosmopolitan, but the ethnic mix is very much divided into separate areas (Little Italy, Chinatown, the Portugese area). This certainly happens to some extent in London too, but for all its tensions and stresses, one senses that London's diversity is more successfully integrated. Many people cite this as one of the major plus points in our Olympic bid.

There's also a noticeable clash of architecture between traditional stone buildings and very modern, angular, concrete constructions. Nowhere is this more immediately visible than the University, where the main campus is decidedly old fashioned, and very much how you might expect a venerable educational institution to appear. The library buildings, however, are quite brutal in their design. I rather liked them - but I imagine that Prince Charles would not have approved. Of course, there's also the omnipresent CN Tower. We've yet to ascend it - but that seems like a tourist-y obligation that will no doubt be fulfilled before the trip is over. It's also interesting to note that this is yet another city where celebrity architect Daniel Liebeskind is leaving his mark, with the new glass extension to the Royal Ontario Museum. The museum itself seems somewhat depleted while the work is going on - and the extension looks remarkably similar to the new graduate centre at London Metropolitan University (also Liebeskind designed). I used to be a great admirer of Liebeskind's work - and his angular, highly original design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin (which I have sadly yet to see at first hand) seemed to speak volumes about 20th Century Jewish experience. More recently, however, although my knowledge of his actual techniques is certainly limited, there is the sense that he's been repeating the same idea. We'll have to wait and see what he makes of the new buildings in place of the former World Trade Centre in New York - undoubteldly his most high profile contract to date.

What better example of North American culture than the notorious Honest Ed's store. It's impossible to imagine anything like this springing up in London - a multi-purpose general store on a massive scale, developed by a philanthropic former theatrical impresario. No doubt Ed is a much loved figure in Toronto and at the ripe old age of 95, he's still going strong.

It's great, whilst staying with friends, to just savour living in the city, especially while the film festival is on (even though it looks unlikely that we'll brave the rush lines to secure any tickets - in another year, I'll buy myself a pass). Highlights so far have included going to see the Blue Jays play the Boston Red Sox at baseball - a very slow game indeed, lasting over four hours, but an experience to be savoured. We're going to the Rogers Centre Stadium again on Saturday afternoon, for what will hopefully be a more thrilling match. Our own game of softball proved surprisingly exciting - an impromptu match against some rather rough looking chaps who turned out to mostly be quite sporting, although not without the occasional piece of unwarranted aggression.

Low point so far has to be being dragged to see The Aristocrats, which ranks as one of the worst films I've seen this year. I knew I would hate this film before I went, but hoped that my pre-judgment might be proved wrong. Sadly, my sentiments were only bolstered by what was a turgid and completely indulgent 'comedy' documentary. The best thing by far about this film was its tagline, which promised 'no sex, no nudity, unspeakable obscenity'. This suggested that, in a modern desensitised age, it might be possible to be more obscene by suggestion and implication rather than through depiction. The film delivered nothing of the sort. The film is about a supposedly legendary non-joke among comedians, whereby the comedian relates describing an act to a talent agency. The act itself is as horrible and obscene as the comedian wishes it to be - and can involve all sorts of supposedly taboo-busting behaviour from defecation and incest to paedophilia and necrophilia. The punchline is that the act call themselves 'the aristocrats', or in some cases 'the sophisticates'. This at least finally proves that Americans do 'get' irony, but it makes for a rather flimsy premise for what is repeatedly presented to us as an uproariously funny gag, and it certainly makes for a ludicrous premise for a 90 minute film. It's not surprising that it's independently produced - you can't exactly imagine how they'd pitch this to a major studio.

The film itself is a poorly edited rag-bag of mostly American comics trying out their own versions of the joke, or providing fairly banal insights into the reasons for its success. It is unbelievably repetetive and tedious - a bit like listening to a one note guitar solo for 90 minutes. The same rather limited conceptions of obscenity are resorted to again and again - without being either particularly shocking or funny. They are also pasted together mostly at random, with no sense for exploring themes or coherent ideas. It's also horrendously self-congratulatory, with a successsion of comedians basically patting themselves on the back for being so damn brilliant.

It's not without its moments - but these suggest that the use of obscenity is only meaningful or successful when it has a purpose or a context - it's much funnier when the shock tactics are used to debunk the self-importance of artists such as Maya Angelou or, even more contentiously, entire religious faiths. Best of all were the poor taste situation of child abuse brilliantly constructed by Sarah Silverman, or the hilarious mime sequence (which perhaps indicates that visual comedy works best after all). I will concede that I have an inherent suspicion of stand-up and preference for sketch shows and sitcoms. You have to be damn good to sustain the attention of an audience at stand-up, and crude humour is rarely sufficient to entertain me. The scenes which created genuinely challenging situation comedy, as opposed to mere sucking and f*cking, therefore worked best for me.

The film reaches a rather obvious conclusion 3/4 of the way through - namely that it might now be impossible to shock people as it once was. Yes! This is true! We live in an age desensitised by onscreen violence and internet pornography! Basic shock tactics no longer offend! Why, then, have these people even bothered? This film no more pushes boundaries than I push weights. Would this not have been a much better starting point for the film? What followed could then have been a more entertaining and insightful investigation of how stand-up comedians could shock and entertain their audiences in the modern world. Instead, we end with a truly awful scene of Gilbert Gotfried performing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. We are told that he brilliantly lightened the mood by deploying the aristocrats joke. Yet his telling is one of the least inventive here and his performance is at a gala event - to an audience consisting almost entirely of other comics. The film resolutely fails to investigate how other audiences react to the joke - we simply have to accept that the directors at face value that it is the stuff of legend.

The film's supporters say it is more about the style of delivery than the content of the joke. Perhaps so - but imporvisation, be it comic or musical - depends on an understanding of tradition and form as much as it does individual innovation and spirit. The film could in fact have told us much more about the individual style and approaches of the comedians it featured, but the one-note focus could not provide the necessary insight. Avoid this one like the plague - it's the cinematic equivalent of being anally raped whilst your father kills and rapes your mother in front of you. Torturous, in other words.

5 comments:

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John Kell said...

"a little more similar to other US cities than I had expected"?

I hadn't realised Toronto was a US city.

Trans-Atlantic pedantry!

Daniel said...

Fair enough on the pedantry front John - Canadians hate being called Americans after all, although 'North America' seems to be OK.

Ollie said...

Nice to see that you haven't forgotten your old mates from London Met, I must pull you up at calling Toronto similar to other US cities, tut-tut!

Oh, if your looking for some work during the day, we have started enrolment again, shall I put your name forward?

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