Give 'Em Enough Rope

Two films capture people in unflattering lights — one to get laughs, the other to unnerve

Let America Laugh

While the qualifier 'alternative" no longer means squat in music, a case can still be made for its application to a handful of comedians. Comics like David Cross, Janeane Garofolo, Bob Odenkirk, Robert Smigel, Todd Barry, Patton Oswald and others have achieved modest mainstream success while maintaining an offbeat, intelligent and often socially conscious aesthetic. You may not recognize their names, but you know them as the best oddball walk-on characters of any given sitcom season, the smartest parts of the dumbest movies, the creators of every sketch comedy show's most memorable moments. Balding, bespectacled, cargo-shorted David Cross is arguably the most visible denizen of comedy's punk-rock fringe. In addition to regular network-TV appearances, he's appeared in dozens of movies (Men in Black, Scary Movie 2, Ghost World), teamed with former Saturday Night Live writer Bob Odenkirk for HBO's cult hit Mr. Show, and last November released the lauded live double CD Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!. As a featured player, Cross is most often cast as an eccentric loser, but his stand-up is scathing, culturally aware, obtuse and often pointedly shocking. He's the latest in the lineage of confrontational-comics-as-commentator that includes Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks.

Let America Laugh documents the same 2002 tour that yielded Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!. Cross took a band on the road with him, and played music-oriented grottoes and theaters rather than the usual comedy clubs — and generally to hipsters, underground music fans and college students rather than the usual two-drink-minimum crowd.

He also brought along bare-bones music-scene documentarian Lance Bangs (R.E.M.'s Road Movie, Pavement's The Slow Century, Jackass), who fashioned for noted Seattle rock label Sub Pop a typically contrary alternative to the standard in-concert offering. The 93-minute feature is less performance video than insider travelogue; it's an entertaining product on its own, or a companion piece to the double CD, but it's not a rehash of the CD with visuals.

Shot with one handheld camera but ably edited, Let America Laugh's backstage scenes, in-jokes and storytelling intercut with shots of the stories actually unfolding lend a casual, incidental vibe. Cross' stand-up performances get a substantial amount of screen time, featuring bits not archived on Shut Up and lots of dealing with overly rowdy patrons. Some of the biggest laughs, however, come from the film's bit players.

More than anything, Let America Laugh uses its copious off-stage time making fun of various characters Cross and crew encounter throughout the tour, constantly asking the question "do you see what we have to deal with?" Countless clueless Cross supporters (and some who don't even know who he is) implicate themselves, Heavy Metal Parking Lot-style, for your ironic amusement. The touring company's eye rolling is so strongly inferred, it feels like the whole thing was shot in Sardoni-Vision.

No one is safe from Cross' cutting sense of humor and Bangs' neatly disparaging edits: Drunks in a rock-club men's room. Drunks in the crowd. Drunks on the street. Interviewers (one pushy 'zine scribe sets up the DVD's single best line by mentioning his buddy's party pad on the beach). Collegiate show promoters. Club owners (a Nashville proprietor gives Cross the boot after the comedian takes their disagreement to the stage). Los Angeles entertainment-industry insiders. The city of Little Rock, Arkansas. Cross' own sister. All are framed as the woefully un-hip antithesis of Cross' lifestyle and what he obviously considers "his crowd" — smart, respectful young men and women who only like independent music and refuse to engage in any open fawning.

And therein lies Let America Laugh's only real setback. The scenes involving folks who are out-and-out jackasses are few. Most of the people who gently skewer themselves for the benefit of the viewer are real fans who just got caught saying some stupid shit — and who don't fit Cross & Co.'s conspicuously telegraphed idea of "cool." They're hilarious, to be sure. Ninety-nine percent of viewers will get a kick out of the unfunny guy who doesn't understand why he was disqualified from a group-comedy competition for performing a Mr. Show sketch word for word. And the two irritating bleach-blonde Cali girls who disrupt an entire set before sneaking backstage to glom onto a nonplussed Cross for a night of partying. And the inebriated punk who can't explain why he said that New York City is better off without the Twin Towers.

But some may find that, given the dearth of footage showing Cross interacting with fans he actually seems to like, Let America Laugh comes off a little thankless. And maybe that's the way Cross wants it — to remain somewhat exclusive, a preacher to the converted. After all, if you "get" Cross' brand of humor, chances are you think most people are idiots anyway. Pedestrian viewers, however, might take a look and determine that, too often, dealing with being David Cross is no fun at all.

Capturing The Friedmans

There are some fine documentaries competing for this year's Academy Award, but if there's any justice, the Oscar will go to Capturing the Friedmans. Andrew Jarecki's documentary puts us uncomfortably up-close and personal with the Friedmans, a middle-class suburban family tearing itself apart as it strains to cope with two family members having been charged with child molestation. What transforms Capturing the Friedmans from an interesting film to an extraordinary one comes down to the Friedmans themselves, a bizarre mix of Barnum & Bailey showmanship, brutal honesty and sexually repressed secrets and lies. Coming off as the most eloquently dysfunctional American family since the Crumbs, the Friedmans are an endlessly fascinating bunch, and one forever obsessed with documenting themselves — originally on ancient Super-8 film, and then, as the years go by, on video, audio tape, whatever's handy. The family archives everything, allowing the recorded images to become memory, and we're compelled to take it all in. What emerges is a profoundly neurotic saga that gradually takes on the air of a crackling good mystery and crime drama, as well as a poignant tale of corruption of the innocent.

Because of all this home video, some of the footage naturally exhibits significant grain and other imperfections. That said, the anamorphic widescreen picture on HBO's new two-DVD set smoothes out most of the material's rougher edges. Extras include an extremely interesting director's commentary and more than two hours of bonus material that supplement the film beautifully. Far more than just your standard interviews and deleted scenes, we get a wealth of information regarding new developments since the film's completion, an extensive section devoted to the heated public discussions surrounding the film, and revealing, previously unseen home videos of the Friedmans. Perhaps best of all, in "Answers to Frequently Asked Questions," various Friedmans attempt to explain why they filmed themselves and talk about the complicated relationships between the family members today.

A treatise on the fine art of self-destruction, and a film as funny and heartbreaking as it is scary, Capturing the Friedmans reveals the truth to be a very slippery thing, as complex and elusive as a dozen Rashomons.

Contact Music Critic Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or [email protected] Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at 813-248-8888, ext. 157, or [email protected].

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