Reviewed today: American: The Bill Hicks Story, As God Commands, Journey To The Moon, My Greatest Escape.
2.00pm: American: The Bill Hicks Story (official site)
I realised earlier this year that I’ve been suffering from a mild form of False Memory Syndrome for close on two decades now. If you’d asked me, I really couldn’t have told you for certain whether I saw Bill Hicks perform during his breakthrough run of shows at the 1991 Edinburgh Fringe. Anyway, I recently did the research, and it turns out I didn’t: must have been too busy watching Chris Lynam shove bangers up his arse, or something like that. I do have all the Hicks CDs, though: even Flying Saucer Tour Volume 1, a posthumously released album which specifically documents a gig where the audience didn't like him.
Hicks was – is – a comedian who inspires a high level of fanaticism, and there’s always a danger that a biography of the man will get needlessly messianic. It’s a tribute to the fine work of British co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas that American: The Bill Hicks Story doesn’t do that. As they said in the post-screening Q&A, it would have been so easy to go down the route of interviewing contemporary comedians about how influential he was, which ultimately tells us very little about Hicks himself. Instead, they’ve concentrated on the ten or so people who knew him best: his mum, his brother and sister, his closest friends, and the small group of comics he worked alongside as he developed his craft.
The film takes a strictly chronological approach, carefully balancing his personal and professional life. We follow his childhood in Portland, his teenage comedy performances with best friend Dwight Slade, the slow growth of his popularity coupled with his increasing dependence on booze, and the astonishing upturn he experienced once he got sober. There’s some splendid footage from gigs throughout his career (the early teenage shows are especially impressive), while the bits in between are illustrated using digitally manipulated still photos. It’s a technique that Harlock and Thomas freely admit is inspired by its use in The Kid Stays In The Picture: but where that film used motion graphics to simply add depth to photos, here entire dramatic scenes are built out of the pictures, illustrating events where no camera was ever present.
One of the key elements of the Hicks myth is the way that he only really achieved limited fame in America, peaking with a series of appearances on Letterman (including his infamous final cancelled slot): whereas in the UK, he was playing to huge audiences, and performing full-length sets on TV. His brother Steve suggested why in the Q&A – “British audiences are smarter and better-looking” – but I’d suspect that it’s a little more complex than that. Possibly not smarter: but maybe more willing to accept a comic who doesn’t talk down to the audience, and credits them with at least a little intelligence. That takes in anyone from Russell Brand telling knob jokes in overly complex language, to Hicks throwing in bits of new age philosophy alongside his gags.
Does he deserve his reputation as some sort of comedy messiah, or was he just a very naughty boy? Well, there’s no denying that when Hicks was angry about something, he was an unstoppable force of nature: and the contrast with his concluding message of love gave his sets a unique texture. But a messiah? Not really. There’s always an element of preaching to the converted in his comedy. I don’t believe anyone ever changed their mind as the result of anything Hicks said: rather, he reassured people that they weren’t the only ones that felt that way. Still, that’s probably just as important.
The copious clips in American give you a nicely balanced view of the highs and lows of that approach. They include his final shows, where his rants on the Waco massacre have the same creepy dead air feel of the last Lenny Bruce gigs, in which he read out his court transcripts without caring whether they were funny or not. In the end, both men were doing stand-up comedy because they had something they had to say, rather than doing it as an audition for a TV show: and audiences respond to that, even now. American is a fitting tribute to Hicks' work, although there were one or two editing glitches in this screening that really need to be sorted out before its release.
6.45pm: My Greatest Escape (official site)
It’s been a good year for watching French blokes in prison. In the movies, at least. This summer, we had the two Mesrine films telling the true story of France’s Public Enemy Number One, including several daring jailbreaks. Elsewhere in the LFF we have Jacques Audiard’s acclaimed A Prophet, which we’ve had to put off seeing until its commercial release, so we can catch rarer stuff at the Festival. Such as Fabienne Godet’s documentary about armed robber Michel Vaujour, which to be frank is less likely to succeed at the UK box office.
It’s not that Vaujour’s story isn’t exciting: it is. He wasn’t a terribly good crook, apparently, given how frequently he got caught during his heyday in the 70s and 80s. Here’s what he was good at, though: breaking out of prison. During 27 years in prison, he managed to escape from jail on five separate occasions. On one occasion, he used a Babybel cheese to take the impression of a cell door key: on another, he was inspired by an escape method previously used by Jacques Mesrine, and made its notoriety an integral part of the process. Not to mention the most spectacular story of his prison career, when his wife Nadine lifted him out of there in a helicopter.
That last one may sound a little familiar, particularly if you’ve been following the Spank Gold pieces on old Festivals this year: the helicopter escape was the basis for a 1993 Beatrice Dalle film, La Fille de l’Air. Inevitably, that was shot as a big thrilling action movie. My Greatest Escape, on the other hand, isn’t. It takes a while for you to realise that it’s almost entirely made up of a face-to-face interview with Vaujour, interspersed with a few shots of the French countryside where he lives now. It has to be said, there were a number of walkouts at this screening, presumably from people who were expecting a bit more on-screen helicopter action.
Still, it’s a great story with some surprising twists and turns, and Vaujour tells it well – Fabienne Godet sees her job as presenting it with as little interference as possible, and that’s exactly what she does. The intense focus on Vaujour gives you some insight into his personality, but you always feel that he’s keeping one or two things back: even though he insists that he’s one of those good criminals who never hurt anyone, you’re never quite sure how much you can trust him. Anyway, it’s a fascinating tale, although it does make me want to see La Fille de l’Air again.
9.15pm: As God Commands (official site)
Hard to believe that we’re in day 13 of the LFF, and this is the first time I’ve seen Adrian Wootton this year. After six years running the Festival, he’s happy these days to take a relative back seat, mainly concentrating on the Italian section of the programme. He seems particularly delighted to be introducing Gabriele Salvatores at this screening, as he’s a director who’s made frequent appearances at the Festival – for example Teeth in 2000 and I’m Not Scared in 2003, which are just the ones I’ve seen.
As God Commands has a connection with I’m Not Scared, as both of them are adapted from best-selling novels by Niccolo Ammaniti. This one is the story of single father Rino (Filippo Timi) and his son Cristiano (Alvaro Caleca). Rino struggles to find work, and is getting angrier at the society that he sees as preventing him from living the life he deserves. He’s not just looking after his son, but also his mate Four Cheeses (Elia Germano), who’s been a bit unstable ever since a workplace accident. The conditions are ripe for things to come to a head, and on one dark stormy night that’s exactly what they do.
The result is a watchable thriller, but a very uncomfortable one. The story in I’m Not Scared built up slowly and believably, drawing you into its young protagonist’s dilemma. With As God Commands, it’s a sudden mid-film lurch that kick-starts the drama. This may or may not be a consequence of the story being brutally edited down from a 500 page novel, but it doesn’t really flow properly either way. And there’s something queasily wrong about the way that Four Cheeses’ disability is used as the basis for that lurch. The main characters are unsympathetic enough already without muddying the moral waters ever further.
Still, that uncertainty may well be part of the plan of both author and director. And there’s no denying that there’s tension to be found in the dark farce that arises from everyone misunderstanding everyone else’s motives. There’s also a good score from rock band Mokadelic, as well as smart use of external source music – note how all the most horrific moments in the story are heralded by, of all things, the sound of Robbie Williams. Nevertheless, it’s not as satisfying a film as I’m Not Scared, so you may want to stick with that one instead.
Notes From Spank's Pals
American: The Bill Hicks Story
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - I must admit I have never been that much in awe of stand up comedians. Okay like everyone I have my favourites but you know so what, it's usually just the old wife and mother in law routine rehashed one way or another isn't it? Well when I first saw the Bill Hicks show Relentless on Channel 4 circa 1992, for me that was as close to the second coming as things could get. In fact to go further I would say to anyone who would listen back then, that Hicks was the same to comedy as The Beatles and The Sex Pistols were to rock music. Fortunately I had that on video, and courtesy of Channel 4 his 1993 follow up show Revelations as well. Then whoosh bang did I just hear that right (?) in 1994 Bill Hicks had died of cancer (a death forever emotionally linked for me that year, with that of The Labour Leader John Smith, and the racing driver Ayrton Senna). So as Diet Morrissey said in the introduction, this film has been a long time coming.
So what we have here is a documentary (in a format not too dissimilar to the Dr Feelgood one) that works its way chronologically through Hicks' childhood and teenage years, up to the killer social commentating comedian, who has built up such a cult following since he passed away. Thus we learn what a comedic prodigy Hicks was, how he nearly destroyed his talent through alcohol, and that he never quite got the recognition from American audiences (well not Republican ones anyway) as he did from those in the UK. As you would expect there is a host of contributions from those who knew him, including the hard drinking group of Houston comedians that he forged his talent alongside. Most revealing of all though is that even though he was terminally ill, he found himself being censored by the David Letterman show for being too explosive and off message for what Americans wanted to hear back then.
Which brings me to the one weakness of this documentary, namely it is very hard to nail down what a genius Hicks was by just showing random short clips of his work. You really do need to track down Relentless or Revelations in their entirety to really get it. Yet even then you are still hamstrung by the fact that you lose some of the topicality of his work, for instance his material on the first Gulf War (whoops I forgot they had a second one didn't they, so maybe not). In fact what I think I am trying to say is, you can't help wishing he was still with us, if for no other reason than to see him rip into Dubya over the last few years (you know, give Michael Moore a bit of support and that).
Anyway, I must admit I had forgotten about Hicks over the last few years, until a young Welsh singer called Jem that I like (alright then lust over) cited him as an influence, so don't forget It's Just A Ride - here's Tom with the weather.
Journey To The Moon
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - Well this was a little oddity, and I must admit coming straight after the Bill Hicks movie I found it quite a struggle to initially tune into. Mind you, the low budget production values didn't help. The format alternated between black and white still images of a Fifties Turkish village accompanied with voiceover narrative, and current day talking head intellectuals twittering on about modernism and the like. So yes, for the first quarter of an hour or so it was sufficiently heavy going for me to be keeping one eye on the door. However by hanging on in there, one was rewarded with an amusing piece of whimsy.
So basically, backward Turkish villagers are visited by a travelling (through) politician spouting the usual rabble rousing nonsense from the door of his car. You know the sort of thing, promise the thick locals the moon to grab a few extra votes here and there. The only trouble being that once he has gone the locals put two and two together, make something larger than the sum of those parts, and start telling their rival village that they are going to be the site for the new Turkish space program. You know, just like the ones the Russians are doing with Sputnik.
Well of course the neighbouring village soon suss this out for what it isn't worth, leaving our village with the proverbial egg on its face. However these are resourceful people, so with the help of a drunken bike mechanic, a pretty girl (naturally), and a dancing shepherd boy, the villagers decide to start their own space program anyway. Thus the rocket shaped minaret from the local mosque certainly comes in handy, even if the propulsion system is a couple of hot air balloons. As for how it all plays out, well you will just have to wait until it visits a multiplex near you (not).
So okay there is no great overall payoff to the story, and the talking head intellectuals are boring basically and really geared to what are Turkish cultural norms. However for a space buff like me, there is something of an Ealing comedy here, and I am pleased I decided to stick with it.