In what must be one of the most peculiar assertions ever made by a major philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead once told an interlocutor that his only problem with the Jews was their lack of humor. Lack of humor?! Must have been those Anglo-Jewish academics he hung out with.
It would be wrong to say that the Jews invented stand-up comedy, although the badkhn may well be the first stand-up (and a forerunner of rap, to boot), but surely we have contributed mightily to this particular mode of performance art, beginning in the 20th Century. One could list the Jewish stand-ups from vaudeville to the present as a unbroken line running from Weber and Fields through Jack Benny and Burns and Allen to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Robert Klein and so on.
Inevitably, such a list would include Joan Rivers, who is the subject of a new documentary that is having its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. As Kathy Griffin points out in the film, Rivers was one of a tiny handful of women who kicked down doors to get on stage and on screen and, with her conquest of the Tonight Show in the ‘60s, Rivers probably did more than any other to keep those doors open to women comics.
Of course, that is part of the story told by Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. But the focus of their film is more on Rivers as she is today, a 75-year-old woman fighting, biting and scratching to continue plying her trade. On stage, she is raucous, profane and frequently strident. Also brutally honest and very, very funny. Off-stage, Rivers is someone who lives to work, who seems utterly lost when not in motion, a person hiding and hugging a core of deep sadness and anger. As she admits herself, “If I wasn’t angry, I wouldn’t do comedy.”
Yet she repeatedly asserts to the filmmakers that she considers herself an actress, not a comic. “I play a comedienne,” she says defiantly. Over the course of the year in which the film was shot, we see her take that notion to its logical extreme, road-testing a play about her life at the Edinburgh Festival and in London. The mixed reviews in London scuttled the project, but you can feel Rivers’s intensity and commitment as both writer and star. She’s been doing this since 1966, over 40 years she proudly announces, and she isn’t going quietly. Then, she never has.
An ardent Zionist (the set of her play was festooned with Israeli flags), Rivers might not entirely recognize Ahmed Ahmed as one of her professional offspring. He’s an Egyptian-American comic and, now, a filmmaker whose first feature is a documentary Just Like Us, which chronicles a comedy tour of the Middle East he led about a year ago. He put together a multicultural roster of comedians, including both men and women from a bewildering array of ethnicities, for what would be the first comedy tour of the region and, in several of the countries included, a first-ever evening of stand-up comedy.
“Nobody has a concept of stand-up comedy in these countries,” he says early in the film. But all their cultures have humor in abundance.
And ground rules. Although surprisingly few topics prove to be out-of-bounds, especially in Beirut, where the rules are definitely not in play, for Dubai and Riyadh the performers are cautioned to “treat it like a Tonight Show setting.” That warning is observed for about fifteen minutes until Anglo-Iranian comic Omid Djalili responds to a shout of “Take it off” in Dubai with what appears to be ten solid minutes of jokes about male genitals.
The comics are for the most part quite good – Ahmed and Tommy Davidson make a particularly strong impression – but they seem as committed to the idea of using comedy to breakdown stereotypes and barriers as to working these houses for big laughs. In the course of the film, we see the first woman comic to play Dubai and the first Saudi woman comic, who appears briefly in the Riyadh sequence. The film ends with Ahmed and several other Arab and Muslim comics working a club in New York, where a different but no less powerful set of stereotypes need to be challenged. “Comedy provides a dialogue for social change,” Ahmed says bluntly.
Just Like Us is a pleasant and decidedly well-intentioned film, although it tries to do rather too many things at once, giving us a comedy concert documentary, social commentary, some lovely autobiographical passages and some amusing touristy stuff, particularly in the Cairo sequence. It is unfortunate that, for obvious reasons, Ahmed couldn’t include a Jewish comic on this trip and entirely logical that Israel wasn’t on the itinerary, since there is no shortage of stand-up comedy there, but a second excursion rectifying those omissions would be a great subject for another film.
Omid Djalili, who makes such a strong impression in the first half of Just Like Us is also represented at Tribeca by a comedy feature The Infidel. Written by David Baddiel and directed by Josh Appignanesi, this is a broad farce about Mahmood Nasir, a middle-aged Anglo-Pakistani Londoner (Djalili) whose life is thrown into complete chaos by two startling developments. His son’s fiancée has acquired a new stepfather, a stridently anti-western imam, who must give his blessing for the wedding to take place. And he has just learned from the papers left by his recently deceased mother that he was adopted and, to his utter bewilderment, was born a Jew named Solly Shimshillewitz. In his effort to sort out his own sense of identity and to satisfy the concerns of the rabbi who is caring for his previously unknown, now dying father, he needs someone to teach him about Judaism. His choice is a dyspeptic Jewish-American cabdriver, Lenny (Richard Schiff). Inevitably, things escalate from there.
The Infidel is frequently funny, occasionally silly and, surprisingly, relatively light on the soggy home truths and sentimentality. Djalili is a deft physical performer who brings real brio to the title role, but he also carries himself with a certain gravitas so that Mahmood/Solly never becomes a cliché. Even more important, he has a nice rapport with Schiff, whose own mixed motives and feelings give his character a bit more heft too.
With the presence of Djalili, Ahmed and the next generation of comics, the Jews no longer have a near-monopoly on stand-up (if they ever did, which is highly doubtful). Nor should they. I cannot imagine an American comedy pantheon that didn’t include Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney or George Carlin, to name only the most obvious stand-out stand-ups. I wouldn’t want to meet someone whose pantheon didn’t include them and a rainbow coalition of other funny women and men. At the risk of stating the obvious, as these films occasionally do, funny is funny, it doesn’t have a color or religion or gender or affectional preference. What it should do is speak truth, keeping in mind George Bernard Shaw’s excellent advice, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”
Then there’s the Russian mob. If Alexander Gentelev’s new Israeli documentary, Thieves by Law is to be believed, they’ll laugh while they kill you. This portrait of four gentlemen of leisure who are former (one hopes) gangsters spotlights the sort of fierce geniality that has been absent from the screen since Edward G. Robinson’s move into comic criminality in the late ‘30s, and from the printed page since Jimmy Breslin’s semi-retirement. However, this is definitely a gang that can shoot straight, when needs (or whims) dictate, and Gentelev has spent a considerable amount of his career covering them, which works to the film’s advantage. There is a certain cable-TV slickness to the film and its subjects are a bit too glib to be believed, but they are never dull. They might want to consider a second career in stand-up comedy.The Middle East provided some other memorable moments in this year's festival, few more memorable than the first hour of The White Meadows, written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof. Rasoulof's first feature, Iron Island, played New Directors a couple of years ago; it was a visually striking if somewhat stifling film about a group of poor people living on a beached oil tanker. His new film is a cunning reversal of that film's narrative topography, tracing the wanderings of a man who moves from island to island in a dream-like, often fog-enshrouded sea.
Rahmat (Younes Ghazali) rows from one salt-encrusted island to another in Lake Urmia, collecting people's tears with a couple of tiny, beautiful glass implements. His passages are mysterious, each of the islands is a strange community with customs that seem downright pagan, and the result is, for about 60 minutes haunting, reminiscent of the best of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov. The latter seems a particularly apposite parallel; both filmmakers are fascinated by seemingly pre-literate folklore-dominated social circles and both present an almost oneiric series of rites and rituals, deeply, inexplicably hermetic. Add to that the extraordinary setting of The White Meadows, a series of spectral landscapes composed of white-covered corrugations and crenellations, an eerie mix of ghostly and rocky, and you have a recipe for a work that tugs at some deeply buried, atavistic pre-memory.
The problem with the film is that, like most picaresque, the structure is more arbitrary than in other narratives and the filmmaker must find some other way to unify the work. Rasoulof has chosen to make the many episodes highly repetitive. For the first two-thirds of the film, that works splendidly, but much of the final half-hour feels exhausted, spent. Yet, when in the film's final scenes, we are transported to a palpably real modern world, with Rahmat riding a motor scooter to meet an old man in a wheelchair, the change is deeply unsatisfying. Still, The White Meadows is a fascinating exercise, and some of its images will stay with the viewer for long after the lights come up in the theater.
Concidentally, the editor of The White Meadows is Jafar Panahi who, as you probably know if you are a regular reader of this blog, is somewhere within the confines of Iran's infamous Evin Prison. The lastest development in his case is the creation of a petition by a raft of important American independent film directors and producers calling for his release. If you'd like to see the petition, you can find it here. I'm waiting for information on what else you can do in support of Panahi, but in the meantime, I recommend you go to Amnesty International's website to read a guide to writing letters in support of prisoners of conscience and drop a note to the Iranian authorities.