40 years after conceptual comedian Andy Kaufman died, from lung cancer at age 35, questions remain, as does his unique mystique. Who was he and where did he come from, and did the real Andy Kaufman ever really stand up? Furthermore, was he even in the business of stand up or comedy, as such, or was he more a pioneering performance artist in the public mass media square?
Director Alex Braverman’s fascinating new documentary Thank You Very Much, which screened at the Metro 4 yesterday, goes a long way to answering some of those lingering questions, while accepting the fact that much about Kaufman is unanswerable. Leaving them laughing and also wondering was essential to his m.o. as an artist.
The film may well be the most definitive primer among Kaufman documentaries, blessed with fresh and archival interviews and illuminating layout of Kauffman’s career. His oddball career went from buzz-worthy shows at the Improv to surreal SNL appearances to the mass appeal of TV’s “Taxi,” but also controversial detours into his persona as Vegas a-hole Tony Clifton and his extended, fan-losing bout of wrestling with women. But the real power of the film has to do with its ample showcasing of Kaufman’s actual work, beyond the talking heads and headlines of his life story.
In a post screening Q&A, Braverman recognized the prophetic nature of Kaufman’s “acts,” resonating in “this period of time when it’s very hard to separate the real from the fake, the persona and the genuine personality.” The fascinating riddle of Andy Kaufman carries on alive or dead. Or, as the myth machine would have it, is he really dead, after all?
With his remarkable 2008 film Gomorrah (screened at SBIFF), based on the true story of Sicilian mafia life, Italian director Matteo Garrone quickly established himself as an filmmaker of uncommon power, blending visceral post-neo-realistic grit with a finger on the pulse of both humanity and the cinematic art form. With his stunning new film Io Capitano — clearly one of this festival program’s highlights and in the running for the foreign film Oscar — Garrone again works with the stuff of reality and youthful energies, but from a entirely different perspective.
Here, the subject is the gritty business of idealistic youths from Senegal dreaming of a better life in Europe, in a film which follows a migrant’s journey from the source rather than on the European receiving end. Brutal conditions and money-grabbing malefactors and criminals line the path to illegal immigration, but so do communally nurturing fellow travelers and sympathetic Senegalese comrades. Garrone based his script on the actual experience of migrant Mamadou (who showed up for the post-screening Q&A along with the principal actors Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, early on Saturday morning before a packed house at the Metro multiplex).
The adventure/misadventure led him through the Saharan desert, a Libyan prison and as “captain” of a ship heading from Tripoli to Sicily, aka “freedom.” Garrone brings his singular cinematic vision to the task, resulting in a compelling and visually engaging journey saga with real world implications, from the heartfelt and hard-won perspective of Senegalese youths facing a world of hurt—but also hope.
At the Q&A, Fall put forth an impassioned, almost sermon-like monologue, intoning “life is a risk, like a jungle… this film is also like a doc, because it is reality for so many people. Every single person has a right to dream. This movie will help the world see about this reality.”
Garrone had a busy day in Santa Barbara, appearing at the early morning screening and then as part of an International Directors panel at the Arlington which also included German veteran Wim Wenders. At the Arlington, Garrone spoke about the important point that the trope of migrants most fleeing war zones or persecution at home is an incomplete picture of the situation: “they also learn from social media about the conditions in Europe or elsewhere. The desire to discover the world is a right which should be shared by everybody.”
Diversity ruled with an unusual intensity at this year’s Virtuoso Awards, last night at the Arlington (see Leslie Dinaberg’s full report here). As moderator, TMC’s Dave Karger noted, there was nary a straight white actor onstage on this night. Of special note, for the panel and also the 2023 Hollywood film crop, there was also an unusually strong spotlight on women—of color and otherwise.
America Ferrara, by now famous for her epic Barbie monologue about paradoxes of the “ideal” woman’s role in society, expressed her great admiration for the Greta Gerwig-directed masterpiece of art-meets-popcorn dimensions. “No one asked for this movie,” Ferrara said, “but clearly, we needed it.”
The star of the night, in some way, was Lily Gladstone, Golden Globe winner for her subtly powerful role as an Osage woman in Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. She stole the sartorial show with her feathery outfit (“thank you,” she joked, with a knowing eye roll, “I just flew in this morning”) and answered to the praise for her being the first Oscar-nominated Native American actor: “The Oscars are in their 96th year. That’s a lot of years of exclusion and misrepresentation. It also means a lot to me that Scott was also nominated (referring to musician Scott George, whose Osage tribal ensemble beautifully opened the night with the song from the film). This honor is shared,” she continued. “A win for one of us is a win for all of us.”
This SBIFF program, a few days into the thicket, has been a good one for, among other things, alternative coming-of-age films. The Danish Mr. Freeman came from a very humane corner of cinematic left field, as does Quebecois director Nathalie Saint-Pierre’s insightful film On Earth as in Heaven. Young actress Lou Thompson gives a stunning and nuanced performance as a daughter in a cloistered and hyper-conservative Christian community (or cult), who flees to Montreal in search of her “astray” sister, only to discover the blurry dimensions of life in the “outside” world. Admirably, the film stops short of knee jerk damnation of religious piety, but instead explores the multiplicity of outlooks and ways of life up for consideration for a flowering youth.
In a Q&A at the Fiesta multiplex, the director and stars convened, and Thompson admitted “I felt I could live and understand this character. I felt like she was my friend.” That lived-in quality shows.