the better truth

the better truth

Friday, February 12, 2016

Horace and Pete: Episode 1 (2016)

Horace and Pete: Episode 1 (2016)
The Interiors of Louis C.K.

First serious dramatic film of Woody Allen and as such Allen's first film which was not a comedy. Woody Allen was known for comedy, and wanted to break the mold by having no humor at all in this picture. At one point the family is gathered around the table laughing at a joke which Arthur has just told, but we never hear the joke.
-Explanation in the trivia section of IMBD of Woody Allen’s film “Interiors”

Everything that’s difficult you should be able to laugh about.
-Louis C.K.

It has been said that being an artist is to embrace the idea that you might dedicate your life to being wrong. You will have faith in your work, but others might not. Pity the stand-up comic. Not only are they burdened with the artistic curse of forging a lonely path, they must do so in front of a never-ending assembly of critics. The comedian’s job is to polish a window into their soul in the hopes that a group of strangers will love them. That effort is often rewarded with scorn, rather than affirmation. Offstage, there are no happy comics. One might apply this adage to other artists except that their craft does not rely on the use of comedy clubs as incubator of their talent. This institution is the distant cousin of yesterday’s Roman forum. Our modern-day gladiators either kill or face death. Just as in ancient times their are a few warriors who survive battle and become recognized heroes. Even the winners bear the battle-scars of psychological abuse born years of facing rowdy crowds with their inner-most machinations. Louie C.K. is one of the chosen who has risen above the low-earth orbit of seedy venues to become an entertainment juggernaut.  The path to glory is to land your own TV show after making the rounds on the established talk shows. Louis has gone one better. He created is own virtual network. Basking in the knowledge that he conquered comedy, he stormed the wall of ‘legitimate’ theater. Louis’ latest work, Horace & Pete: Episode 1, is another journey into his soul. You’re not supposed to laugh. That is part of the problem.

After a failed gig on a sit-com Louie took matters in his own hands. Taking advantage of present day distribution options, he launched an extremely successful auteur series on cable; that was re-distributed via the internet. That show highlighted the best of his stand-up routines with an a dramatic storyline showing his struggles as a divorcee, parent and New Yorker. Broadcast TV networks might smile on the Manhattan based, qwerty nihilism of “Seinfeld.”  No such welcome for the dour, Brooklyn existentialism of Louie. It is as if Ralph Kramden’s great grandson embarked on a career as an entertainer after divorcing his wife and quitting his city job. One might imagine a “zany” episode of “Friends” in which Seinfeld shows up at the Central Perk for a cup of joe. If Louis was hired for the same guest spot the plot line would be different. He would be apprehended by the authorities after a frantic 911 call made by Jennifer Aniston taking refuge in the ladies room. Thankfully the real-life Louis knew what the network wouldn’t tolerate in addition to what the general public craved. After a few seasons of the success of the eponymous “Louie”, the comic returned to his standup performances, albeit in nicer settings. He also dabbled in other projects including cameos in feature films (including Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”). Suddenly, without any publicity, he posted a new show on his website, available for $5 per episode. (As of this writing there is only one but the title hints that this will be part of a series). “Horace and Pete: Episode 1” is a departure on both the business and entertainment fronts. There are no middle men to vet the material. The writer/director/creator is selling his wares directly to the public. Regrettably the goods themselves are certified ‘dry’. 

Louis forcefully makes the case that he is a capable author and purveyor of art. Whether the work itself is serious… is an open question. The auteur, however, is the most important comic of his generation and this hour long, two act play, deserves respectful consideration. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is a seminal icon; but is precisely because of his silence that everyone took note of Chaplin’s spoken word when he played the great dictator. The fact that “Horace and Pete” lacks the genius of Louie’s foundational comedy should not relegate it to being written off with a Bronx cheer. One might expect a dark Louie C.K. drama to bear a resemblance to the sardonic New York humor found in Jules Pfeiffer’s “Carnal Knowledge”. That poignant study of a misanthropic misogynist had some strangely light moments scattered amongst searing social commentary and bitter recriminations. Louie certainly channels the anger but his muses are the standard bearers of the American Theater, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil. “Horace and Pete” has smatterings of the gothic family in “Long Days Journey” meshed with the impossible transition to modernity in “Death of a Salesman”.  The spare storyline is predictable. A family business, Horace and Pete’s saloon, is facing a crossroads of the next generation ownership. The old proprietor, brilliantly played by Alan Alda, is at odds with his niece who wants to sell to outsiders. The play takes numerous side journeys. Louie dabbles in punditry about the current state of affairs. This is the least successful portion of the play. Although the comments are contemporary, they bear a tired, sophomoric resonance. Ditto for the forced generational conflict with customers. Yes, Brooklyn has been invaded by hipsters. Yes, they can be callow and annoying. Yes, Trump supporters can sound brutish and barroom philosophers can hold the floor for a few rounds. The play fairs better with the family conflicts. This is something near and dear to the author.

As a child, Louie was abandoned by his father. He made an interesting 2 minute animated short about managing the rage towards the old man. ( Interestingly the subject matter is never mentioned in the title. The cartoon father-figure bears a physical resemblance to the Alda character in “Horace and Pete”, including large awkward glasses. He shares the same habit of uttering inappropriate responses that are designed to provoke and divide. There is also a parallel powerlessness of the victim-child. The animated film is about the possibilities of acting boldly, albeit in a ‘Walter Mitty’ world. This heroism takes the form of confronting his father. This suggests the impossibility of such actions in the real world. “Horace and Pete” shows Louie to be equally stymied. He has no agency over Alda and a distant relationship with his daughter. She confronts him as being a feckless, out-of-touch, narcissist. That is confirmed by Alda. It is also indirectly proved by his sister. Her push to sell the saloon-business stems from Louie’s mismanagement. It is difficult to blame the erstwhile bar-owner as the inheritance of the building/business is a burden, rather than viable enterprise. In addition to the grumpy uncle Alda, “Horace and Pete” employs Louie’s mentally ill brother. If those people are impediments to effective management there is also his father’s ex-girlfriend/spouse. She is the resident barfly. We learn that drinks are and much more are… “on the house”. The fictional Louie, in terms of career, might have stuck to his knitting as an accountant. His general demeanor, however, hints that his is too emotionally damaged to thrive at any vocation.

“Horace and Pete” has a repellent quality that is built on the back of the inept central character. Louie’s choice of ignoring comedy is fatal to the enjoyment of the narrative. This decision is rooted in fear of rejection. The audience’s blind love for the established “funny-man” will snuff out hope of accepting the “new” Louie. Unfortunately being dour prevents the audience from establishing a connection with the material. Woody Allen faced the same conundrum when stepping out the comedy enclosure. Ironically he made the same missteps in trying to remedy this imaginary problem. In the mid 1970s, the heretofore bawdy slap-stick gag-man, turned to… Ingmar Bergman. “Interiors”, the forgotten feature film produced after the smash success of “Annie Hall”, is inspired by the master’s “Cries and Whispers”. Allen’s version should have been titled “Moans and Whimpering”. Allen even attempted to secure Ingrid Bergman for a leading part. She was committed to working with Ingmar in “Autumn Sonata”.  Instead of imitation Scandinavian angst, the film renders inauthentic Brooklyn neuroticism. A lack of confidence in an American ‘long days journey’ spurred a hagiographic re-enactment of a European style family break-up.  Unlike Louis, Allen did not appear in the film and stayed, safely, behind the camera. Maybe an unconscious act of distancing himself knowing the inauthentic quality of the drama?  Louie, in “Horace and Pete”, shares this lack of sincerity, despite being front and center. The wonderful ensemble cast, featuring a host of pitch-perfect veteran performers, failed to move the heart. They were unable to break the gravity of badly drawn characters locked in a uninspired premise. Unlike the portrait of the patrons, the family friction has some resonance. (Write what you know); unfortunately not enough to evoke pathos. The moment when a dark family secret is revealed it triggers a grimace, rather than a tear. In this light the struggles of the uncle-daughter-sister-brother never really stand a chance. Louis strangely embodies the failure of his dramatic character in bringing forth a strangely ineffective production. The acting is as wonderful as the writing is lacking. One trick he might have learned from Allen is to take advantage of the film medium. Gordon Willis’ photography made the slog of watching “Interiors” an  
aesthetically pleasing two hours and ten minutes.  “Horace and Pete” adopts a surveillance camera approach to cinematography. The claustrophobia of a security guard booth does not add to the audience experience. Fortunately all these missteps are merely a passing moment. "Stand-ups" are the masters of resilience and reincarnation. No doubt great things will be forthcoming from this important artist. Maybe even in the coming episodes. 

The comic, Rodney Dangerfield, was famous for yelling, “I get no respect”. It is the plight of any stand-up who mounts the boards to face a lifetime of a snarling and disinterest. Masters of this craft, not surprisingly, hunger for legitimacy; hence Louis’ craving for “legitimate” theater. The fantasy is that cantankerous, rude audiences are replaced by erudite pillars of society. This give birth to the dangerous notion that respectability can be born by killing the inner-jester. The self-hating clown can morph into the polished cultural icon. In reality audience craves artists who play the entire orchestra of human emotion. Louis needs to wear Dangerfield’s lament as a badge of honor. He needs to recognize the seriousness of being funny. It is a craft that resists formal training and is bestowed on a very select group. As Mr. Rogers would say: 'You've made this day a special day by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.' Some people made fun of this children’s TV host. In the end, the dignity of his art gave him the last laugh. Be serious, but never forget: you are Louis C.K.. Be true to yourself. This is the only path for successfully resolving ownership of Horace and Pete’s bar. 

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