Friday, June 16, 2006

A Dirty, Freckled Dick: LUCKY LOUIE

The television situation comedy is an old friend of mine, and while the interest doesn't usually find voice on Kinetoscope, sitcoms surely consume 1/3 of my viewing attention. I love it, can't help it, and am not always sure why. The rules of sitcoms apply nowhere else, work nowhere else, and move us in context as they do nowhere else. The challenge faced by TV programmers is: I haven't been enthralled with a new sitcom in nearly a decade.

God-given-gift standup and TV gag writer (and, well, Pootie Tang auteur) Louis C.K.'s new HBO sitcom Lucky Louie premiered on Sunday night. The concept is a revival of the multicamera, live studio audience family sitcom, with the freedoms allowed by HBO. These freedoms amount mainly to swearing; that the pilot episode hinges on Louie's wife, Kim (Pamela Aidon), catching him masturbating, and revolves around her potential motives for graphically offering him a solid week of sex... well. It may pop Granny's dentures, but is she going to see it in the first place? It's all All in the Family and Seinfeld territory at worst. A subplot about adorable daughter Lucy (Kelly Gould) being disturbed by a black Barbie doll is unlikely to drop any jaws after any given episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Verdict: Lucky Louie's okay; the bricks are there for a better show, and so is the precedent. For a lot of folks, the sitcom-approval rule requires nothing more than being made to laugh. And Lucky Louie makes me laugh, so bully for that. There are great jokes: a rote gag in which Lucy won't stop asking her father "why" ends up topping itself repeatedly, as Louie refuses to lie until finally confesses "God is dead and we're alone." There are dirty jokes I like in spite of myself: the episode ends with the declaration of spousal love "I'm gonna fuck your tits off." There are dumb, unworthy jokes: supporting gal pal Tina (Laura Kightlinger) gives loud sex tips in a grocery store and embarrasses an old lady... you wish, Lucky Louie. You wish...

The primary goals are admirable, to mine bitter humor from the daily miseries of Louie's family as they struggle with real human problems, financial, marital and social. The totally unsuppressed rage, vented on loved ones and the world at large in equal measure, and wallowing in a sad sack assholism are bussed in from Louis C.K.'s stand-up persona, and the smartest move the writers make. Louie's character is a bit vaguely defined (he's like the "real" Louie, but poor and works in "a muffler shop" for some reason), but Every Schlub characters are hard to flesh out when pilots have so much other work to do.

The characters are poor, the sets are hideous and cheap, the poverty is palpable. The redeeming ideas are supposed to be that in the end, Louie's family loves each other (aw), and that they joke through their problems to survive. Whether it wants to be a rough and tumble Honeymooners or a less-relevant All in the Family, time may tell. Pray Louie doesn't descend to the schmaltzy depths of the former and remains funnier than the latter. It will be Lucky Louie's choices in how it judges its own characters that will decide. The crassness of the pilot episode is strained, rather than the natural milieu: characters don't talk frankly about sex like real people, they just kind of talk gross. I just know the talent on hand is funnier than that. If you don't "keep it real," you've got Married... With Children. And I like things about Married... With Children, but it's unambitious, and it's not smart.

The sitcom true-believer in me wants Lucky Louie to look Roseanne as a model. Not just for the surface plot (honest faced blue collar heroism and despair) and thematic similarities (edgy taboo-pushing, grating leads masking depression with sarcasm). Roseanne's earliest episodes have fine moments, but are mostly overwhelmed by the transplanted stand-up comedian serving as the star. It is when the Roseanne Barr stand-up material dries up and disappears, and the supporting cast steps forward that Roseanne grows wings. The novelty of being vulgar has to disappear, leaving the more adult truth that drives the characters. Even if Lucky Louie never attains those highs (I don't see a John Goodman or Laurie Metcalf in the supporting players), it's nice to see a sitcom grasping for the same idea: we are all this vulgar and miserable, and God love us for it.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Who is FANTOMA?...

... More like "Where WAS Fantoma?"!

Citing the usual distribution woes, Fantoma DVD's official website was recently quietly updated for the first time in more than a year, and R.W. Fassbinder's hilarious, nasty masterpiece Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? hit shelves on Tuesday, May 30... Even more surprising and happy-making, among the announcements are a short-n-sweet release calendar. On June 27th, another Educational Archives four-volume collection, this time in novelty "School Locker" packaging, and containing the four discs not included in the pricey and space-consuming (sense bitterness?) Lunchbox Edition. On July 25th, the Fassbinder Collection II repackages Fantoma's Martha and In a Year with 13 Moons discs. The only scheduled new film is Yasuzo Masumura's bloody/weepy Red Angel on August 22nd. The collections seem like obvious placeholders until a release is scheduled for the history-making long-promised Films of Kenneth Anger. Fantoma hints that the Anger discs will be available before the year is out... rocketing this up to the top of Kinetoscope's Most Anticipated list (for the Curious Reader: early reviews of Anchor Bay's Cemetery Man have cooled all anticipation. Blargh).

Kinetoscope doesn't usually bother with DVD news (I know where I go for that stuff, and it's the same places you go), unless I'm particularly jazzed about something. The excitement here is mostly over the return of the Fantoma label. Of the 100-or-so boutique labels worth paying attention to (investigate the sidebar for a primer), Fantoma's been a personal favorite. I like the catalogue, which spans Blue Underground/ Synapse world-class sleazo territory (Blind Beast), but tips more steeply into art house heavies (those Fassbindies that eluded Criterion) and cult genres. I like the attention lavished on minor works from important artists; Hercules in the Haunted World and Fando and Lis are two discs a viewer with even a passing interest in Bava and Jodorowski cannot be without. I like the undeniable editorial taste demonstrated when compiling the Educational Archives volumes, the kind of material Something Weird Video offers in an un-filtered deluge of DVD-R and VHS, which makes similar SWV titles grab-bag party tapes, but frequently dull. I like the uniformity of packaging, with title logo, and director's name listed in red, like the author of a book, along the black spines. A lot of the above may be true of other boutique contenders, but Fantoma's peculiar air of class and cool makes their discs more collectible -- and I'm a sucker for the smart collectible -- and their selection of supplements only when informative and useful elevates Fantoma product from other packed-with-junk but empty-at-heart cult discs.

Fantoma's track record is not exactly spotless, but I'm still glad they are in control of the Kenneth Anger films, even with the years of delays. They've always seemed to me a disreputable little brother to Criterion, and something about Criterion's austerity and reputation has stripped some trashy mystique from their cult and underground releases. Who, after all, feels as titilated or mind-blasted by Derek Jarman's film as they used to, after seeing Criterion's Jubilee? And even Criterion might have drawn the line at the encyclopedia-cum-treasure-chest of Fantoma's One From the Heart, a marvelous, overblown set aimed at so small an audience it's rumored to have almost sunk the DVD label like Coppola's film toppled his Zoetrope. That's the foolhardy movie-love I like in a DVD company, and the kind of devoted craziness that I pray is stalling the Anger DVDs.

Anyhow, welcome back, Fantoma. I was pulling for you the whole time, buddy. Just don't do it again.