Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Aristocrats

When Kerouac wrote of seduction and its empty promises in On The Road, we see a young man bragging about his lovemaking abilities to a young Spanish girl as they travel westward by bus. After they've had sex, he's vomiting apologies, sickened not only by his inability to perform, but seemingly moreso about having betrayed himself - one assumes that the Delphic Oracle penetrated the Beat Manifesto and that such violations were not only treasonous, but inevitable. Secrets only have value when kept, which is something Penn Jillette should know.

Unfortunately, Jillette's telling of comedy's darkest joke violates the magician's code. Had Gilbert Gottfried told The Aristocrats with no explanation, had it been censored beyond recognizability and confounded Comedy Central audiences for years to come, it might've maintained that in-joke respectability; now it's fodder for Bob Saget and his ilk of new Borscht humor, along with the Drew Careys and Don Rickleses. Sure, Martin Mull deadpans murderously, Sarah Silverman's trauma narrative is devastatingly funny and Taylor Negron's disco days variation is at once sophisticated and slimy and entirely believable, making it for me the closest to George Carlin's theories regarding the joke, and how it should be.

If Carlin, instead of Jillette, shepherded this loose documentary, it might've had a chance. Unlike Jillette, Carlin isn't actually thrown by the subject, and as a comedian's comedian, has been exposed to this joke throughout his career. Jillette comes off as a novice, and he laughs too hard at mediocre tellings. His stance toward the subject and the film is snobbish and naive. Rather than tell the story of why Gottfried told this joke and then work backward towards its origin, we get a scatterplot of the whos, hows and whys in no particular order. The "inside baseball" feel of the movie takes away from its politicized content in a time of Ashcroft and Gonzales, and while it shouldn't be a high-minded film, it ought to have conveyed more fervently the folly of imposed decency and prohibitionism.

Nevertheless, an NC-17 film deserves seeing in the theater; it may be your last transgressive act!


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