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THIRD EPISODE : GERMANY 17/09/2009

Funny People  de Judd Apatow

Beyond the public and the private

Guten Morgen Deutschland ! Good morning Germany !

Want to know who Fassbinder would be if he lived today, working the stage and the screen with his favourite gang of actors, doing comedy instead of what he did, being American and Jewish rather than German and gay ? Then you should probably go out and see Funny people, Apatow’s last film, which just came out in cinemas close to you. We have been following this phenomenon throughout Europe over the last weeks : welcome on board.
The resemblance with Fassbinder is probably very superficial, or rather restricted to one specific feature : Apatow has been working and living for the last decade with the same lot of actors and friends, to the point that the whole Apatow bunch looks like a theatre company taking over Hollywood, with familiar faces popping up under new characters film after film (to see if you recognize some of the faces, see our previous episode). Just as in Fassbinder’s case, a closer intertwining of work and life is at stake : people you work with might be people you actually live with, and vice versa. Things you show on stage might be things you live in the closet of your private life, and vice versa. Funny People is very much about this, both in form and content.

The curious mixture of cinema and personal videos is probably one first symptom. During the credits, we see a young Adam Sandler doing prank phone calls, a scene reminiscent of episodes of Freaks and Geeks where geeky teenagers spend afternoons coming up with new jokes to make on the phone and geeky fathers brag about the ones they once made. But where does the footage come from ? Sandler is at least twenty years younger than today, far beyond the wonders of make-up. We hear that Sandler & Apatow were flatmates in the early days : it seems reasonable to imagine – as reality confirms it, see Apatow’s Master Class – that these two guys would still, well past their teenage years, be spending the afternoon repeatedly calling a random number to leave messages for Maurice, then call again pretending to be Maurice collecting his messages. And film it.
Funny People replicates Apatow’s flatmate years. Ira (Seth Rogen), Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman) all come to L. A. to become comedian artists, and while Mark is making money in a crap TV show, Ira and Leo are performing stand-up acts on the stage of the Improv Comedy Club, where Apatow himself went after he dropped out of cinema school. It is also the club where his former flatmate’s character, George Simmons, is said to have made his debut – at the same time then as Apatow did in real life. George who has not shown up for ages, comes back on the day he has learnt he has terminal stage leukemia, and sees the new guys perform. The looming of death, the idea that the show might soon be over prompts George to watch his first films and videos, and return where he started, prior to the Hollywood successes.

Apatow himself, after an overwhelming wave of Hollywood comedies directed, written and/or produced, is already taking his comedians back to where he and they started (Sandler and Rogen also started on stage). He has made them practice on stage before shooting the film and reciprocally has invited the world of stand-up into the film, from Ray Romano to Sarah Silverman – we will come back to that. Bringing cinema back to the stage and the stage back on the screen : this double motion opens the film to the heterogeneity of its own images, blending stage and screen, film and video, fiction and life, past and present.

Another important side to this overlapping of stage and life is of course the filming of Apatow’s family, wife Leslie Mann and daughters Iris and Maude Apatow, who play Laura, George’s ex, remarried to Clarke the Australian (Eric Bana) and her two daughters. Leslie Mann has been part of the gang for quite a while, appearing, like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, in both Knocked Up and The 40 years old virgin. The girls already appeared in Knocked Up. After having taken his comedian back to his old club, Apatow actually takes them back to his home : George and Ira spend a week-end with the mother and the girls, while George, who is concealing the fact of his remission, attempts to win back Laura.

Where is the border between the private and the public, when we spend time watching Apatow’s comedians /friends and family playing the peanut butter game, whereby one lies on the floor while somebody else chooses which part of your body should be covered with peanut butter, before the dog is let in ? Did the family play that game before the film ? Who’s dog is it ? Whatever the case, we are obviously participating in a moment of playful intimacy within a family of actors. When we watch the result of Apatow filming his wife’s emotion watching a video of their own daughter performing “Memory” from Cats at a school’s show, well, without knowing the answer to the question whether the video really is the footage of an actual show at the girls’ school, we know we find ourselves well beyond the possibility of marking a strict line between the public and the private, family video and cinema.

How did we get to this place beyond the borders of publicity and intimacy ? You might feel it is too much exposure for private things. You still need to understand why this is going on. I think there is a key connection between this striking use of personal material on the screen and the return from cinema to stand-up. Stand-up is about the disclosure of the private and the singular – the privacy of a personal daily life, of family life, of a community life – on the scene where everybody can see it and laugh about it. Stand-up is about going deep into what you are ; it is about sharing with everyone the peculiarities of an idiosyncratic way of laughing about oneself and one’s community. It is a funny way to reach universality through the emphasis on the particular. It is really un-French, possibly quite un-European way of doing it : Europeans nowadays prefer neutral grounds to meet, as neutral as the abstract monuments on their euro bills. Maybe it was not always un-European. Fassbinder never liked to meet on neutral grounds.

Next week, our Czech friends will discover Funny People. The Czech know some about different communities trying to live under the same roof while trying to be themselves nonetheless. We shall now wait for them to join us and help solve that one.

par Arnaud Macé
jeudi 28 juin 2012

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