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‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times

February 12, 2017 1 comment

‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro enjoy one of the great cinema muse relationships in movie history. Few American directors have found an actor who so thoroughly inhabits their screen worlds as De Niro does his old friend’s. The pair are best known for their collaborations on:

“Mean Streets” “

“Taxi Driver” 

“New York, New York” 

“Raging Bull” 

“Goodfellas”

“Casino” 

Powerful films all. But, as you’ll read, I’m making the case for Scorsese’s least known and seen film with De Niro, “The King of Comedy,” as a woefully under-appreciated work that ranks right up there with their best teamings.

Cases can be made for five of the other six pictures they did together to be considered in the Top 100 American movies of all-time: In an unusually strong decade for film, “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” are certainly among the very best of that ’70s bumper crop of New Hollywood films. The first is an alternately gritty, trippy look at the small-time mob subculture that goes much deeper than crime movies of the past ever dared. The second is a cautionary tale fever dream that anticipates the cult of celebrity around violence. Though an acquired taste because of its uncompromising fatalistic uneasy rumination on love, “New York, New York” is a lush, inspired melding of intense psychological drama, magic realism and classic MGM musical. “Raging Bull” is often cited as THE film of the ’80s for its artful, brutal take on boxer Jake Lamotta and “Goodfellas” expanded on what Coppola did with the mob in the first two “Gpdfather” films by exploring in more detail the lives of men and women bound up in that life they call “our thing.”

Just as De Niro came to the fore as an actor who penetrates characters in unusually deep, perceptive ways, Scorsese does the same as a storyteller working on the periphery of human conduct. Extremes of emotions and situations are their metier. Their mutual penchant for digging down into edgy material make them perfect collaborators. “The King of Comedy” is a dark film whose intense, deadpan approach to disturbing incidents makes it read as a straight drama much of the time. But it’s really a satire bordering on farce and theater of the absurd about obsession with fame and media. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally stunted wannabe comic and talk show host who’s prepared to go to any lengths to make his show biz fantasies reality. His intrusive, hostile pursuit of affirmation and opportunity from fictional talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) grows ever more dangerous and aggressive and eventually turns criminal. The character of Pupkin is often compared to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and there are definite similarities. Both are isolated loners living in their own heads. Viewing himself as a kind of avenging angel, the loser Travis fixates on cleaning the streets of the human trash he sees around him and rescuing the child prostitute played by Jodi Foster. After growing up ridiculed and bullied, chasing autographs from celebrities, Rupert sees himself as entitled to what his fixation, Jerry Langford, has and he hatches a plot with a fellow nut case (played by Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Jerry. Rupert’s ransom: doing a standup routine on Jerry’s show to be aired nationwide.

 

 

 

“King of Comedy” depicts the extremes, dangers and blurring of lines that make the object of celebrity media worship a target of an unstable mind. De Niro delivers a pitch perfect, tour de force performance as a vainglorious neurotic whose love for Jerry masks an ever bigger hate.

The film is filled with awkward, all-too-real situations that make us uncomfortable because we can identify with Pupkin’s desperate need to be liked, to be respected, to be taken seriously. The character is full of contradictions and De Niro strikes an incredible balance of grotesquerie, sweetness, delusion and determination..As Rupert, De Niro is pathetic, inspiring, scary, funny, needy and strong.

It had been awhile since I’d seen the film before catching it for free on YouTube the other night and I must say it holds up very well, and perhaps resonates even more with these times than with the time it was made and released (1983). After all, in an era when America’s elected a bombastic, egomaniacal reality TV star and grifter as president, is it such a stretch to think that someone could extort and kidnap their way onto late night television? “Triumph of the Will” (1935), “State of the Union” (1948), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) “Medium Cool” (1969), “Network” (1976) and “Wag the Dog” (1997)show, decade by decade, the unholy alliance we’ve made with mass media’s ability to manipulate, seduce, exploit and distort. Likewise, “The King of Comedy” (1983) shows just how far some among us are prepared to go for attention, power, fame.

Watch the movie at this link–

 

 

Now, more than three decades since the film’s release, De Niro currently stars as an old, belligerent standup in “The Comedian,” a film that Scorsese was originally going to direct but didn’t. I haven’t seen it and so I can only go by the reviews I’ve read, but it appears to be a real misfire. I will hold judgment until I see it for myself, and I want to because I’m eager to compare and contrast what De Niro did with the standup he portrays in “King” to the comic he plays in the new film.

After recently watching “The Graduate” and now “The King of Comedy,” I was reminded of what brilliant chameleons Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro were early in their film careers. They very much followed what Marlon Brando did during his first decade and a half in Hollywood by submerging themselves in very different characters from film to film to film. Their collections ofcharacterizations may be the most diverse in American film history. These kinds of actors are rare. The closest equivalents to them we have in contemporary cinema may be Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp.

But I digress. Be sure to check out “The King of Comedy” and let me know what you think of its ballsy, over-the-top, sometimes surreal yet always thoroughly grounded take on the implications of seeking celebrity as its own reward and the thin line between harmless flights of fancy and deranged compulsion. In its view, the American Dream and the American Nightmare are two sides of the same obsession. Be careful what you ask for it seems to be saying. And don’t look now, but that schmuck and impossibly irritating, shallow moron may just be the next Big Thing in entertainmet, media or some other sphere of public inflience. There’s something Trumpian about the whole thing and its media is the message theme.

‘The Graduate’ revisited

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

‘The Graduate’ revisited

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

This is the 50th anniversary for a much beloved yet peculiar film,“The Graduate” (1967), that landed as a sensation in its time, became an adored artifact of the 1960s but has steadily lost some of its stature and allure over the proceeding half-century. I watched it again the other night and while it’s a film I’ve always admired and I still enjoy I can see now that it’s a strange thing to have resonated so deeply in any era, even in its own breaking-the-rules time.

I mean, the new college graduate protagonist Benjamin Braddock sleeps with the mother of a childhood friend and then falls in love with the daughter and interrupts her marriage to run off with her. It’s a preposterous plot line but it works, which is to say we go along with it, because the film is basically a farcical, satirical indictment of the establishment and an embrace of youthful rebellion and following your heart. The performances by a very fine cast mostly hold up. the writing perhaps less so and the direction is, well, needlessly showy. Mike Nichols was a Broadway wunderkind and a fresh force in cinema who helped push American filmmaking more in the direction of the various European New Wave movements with rapid cutting, restless camera, nonlinear structure and frank exposition. He veered dangerously close to going over the top with it all in his first three features – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?,” “The Graduate” and “Catch 22” – I suspect because he was enthralled with the new freedom cinema offered and was just insecure enough not to trust the material to hold our attention without using various tricks. His much later work (“Working Girl,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is far more traditional, visually and technically speaking, but far more satisfying, too.

The best thing about the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It’s a tour de force that sneaks up on you. He is so present and in the moment in every shot and scene and so real and truthful to the buttoned-down character he plays that it seems like he’s doing nothing when in fact he’s doing everything an actor’s called to do. Much of his characterization is done without words. Indeed, his performance reminds me of those of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, only he’s less busy and big.

 

9shot - the graduate

 

photobooth the graduate

 

My take on “The Graduate” today is that if not for Simon and Garfunkel’s music, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as a ’60s counterculture piece. Indeed, other than the music there’s virtually nothing in the film that either overtly or even obliquely refers to the very decade it purportedly speaks to. There’s no mention of civil rights or the war in Vietnam or the burgeoning feminist movement or the end of Camelot or the culture wars ushered in by rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and free love. There’s no reference to politics either. Admittedly, Ben is from a privileged white suburbia world where some of those currents and issues would not be discussed or experienced. But even in those circles things would not have been so sterile or blind or one-dimensional that some of these things didn’t come up or resonate or cause a conflict. The generation gap the film depicts is so generic that it would be easy to forget what decade the film is set in except for that music.

On the other hand, the film is far superior to the vast majority of comedies made in that era, especially the lame youth films of that decade. Even though the men who wrote (Buck Henry and Calder Wilingham) and directed (Nichols) “The Graduate” were much older than the generation they were obviously siding with – even Hoffman was far older than the character he played – they managed to catch a certain ironical spirit of the time that really was a carryover from the 1950s as much as it was a purely ’60s sensibility.

Where the film is perhaps most interesting is in striking an odd but somehow effective balance of the romanticism, even idealism and anger of the ’60s tinged with the cynicism that the ’70s would more fully usher in. The end of the film echoes the beginning in that Ben is searching for his path in life. At the start, he’s alone as he tries finding his way. At the end, he’s with a girl, but still very much alone and adrift. Sure, he’s defied the cookie-cutter, plastic life of his parents and their friends but at a price. He’s lost his naiveté but gained a heavy does of reality that will, as we’ve come to know, likely find him following many of the very Establishment precepts he rejected as a young man.

Looked at today, the movie seems to have some mixed or superficial messages: the hot passions of life are all very ephemeral but desirable; going after what you want is a messy buisness but it’s worth it; conformity equals comfort if not contentment so why settle for less? It kind of sounds like the very things “The Graduate” supposedly rejected. Ben, in middle age, probably ended up in a similar circusmstace as his parents and their freinds, not that you could have convinced him of it at the time. And so it goes…

Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent’s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

September 5, 2011 2 comments

Here is the latest story I’ve done on author Rachel Shukert, this one about her second book, Everything Is Going to Be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour. If you don’t know her work, make a point to discover it. If you do, well, then, I’m preaching to the choir.
Rachel Shukert

 

 

Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent‘s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)

 

Playwright, essayist, blogger and author Rachel Shukert (Have You No Shame?) mines “the ruins” of her life again in her new Harper Perennial memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great. Its subtitle, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, gets to the heart of her expatriate experience.

In her early-20s the Omaha native did what many aspiring writers do: go off on a a finding-one’s-self spree. A theater gig landed her in Amsterdam, where the meta self-indulgence of her new book takes place. The surreal life that ensued provides the arc of her sardonic, self-deprecating narrative. This borderline debauched interval abroad served as her coming-of-age and rude awakening.

While her first book consisted of short stories, this one, she said by phone from her New York City home, is “more traditionally a memoir, but I think of it like a true novel.” She said even in the midst of this “fairly action-packed” interlude, it felt like “living in a novel.” The book’s characters are emblematic of that time.

The book charts her penchant for falling into weird, risky situations. She said, “I’ve always been sort of an adventurer. I’ve always gone looking for that stuff, but I also have always been a magnet for that kind of thing. When I was younger I hadn’t quite figured out where my boundaries were just yet. I think a lot of that has fallen away as I’ve gotten older and my life has gotten more settled.”

Getting away from it all was an act of emancipation from parental purse strings. Her new found independence allowed her to get lost in a way not so easy to do today.

“The particular couple of years when this story happened was kind of the very last gasp of that ability to not be connected to everyone you know all the time. It was before Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t WiFi everywhere yet. No one had a Blackberry really. I didn’t have a cell phone. There wasn’t Internet banking. It would have been really different if this had happened just two or three years later.”

 

 

She also found herself as a writer there.

“There’s something about being removed from the mainstream culture that makes you retreat into yourself in a way that’s really productive,” she said. “You don’t get as distracted the way you do here, you just don’t have as many options for procrastination. And you also need to keep yourself company a little bit. Even if you know some people and have friends it’s still a bit of a lonely state of being, and writing alleviates that.

“For the first time I was really enjoying writing. I’d always written, I knew I was sort of good at it, but I didn’t like it and was really resistant to it. I discovered writing could be really satisfying and joyful. I think that’s the most important thing that happened there as far as me being able to eventually write books.”

It wasn’t until back stateside, regaling friends with stories of her mishaps, she said she realized she had material for a book. “Some of the deeper, more painful stuff I never really talked about until I wrote this book,” she said. “I feel like the reason is I needed enough distance to really excavate it.”

Shukert feels she took away as much as she gave up from her grand tour.

“I think it was an even trade. I left behind a lot of illusions which are both beautiful and harmful. I left behind a lot of self-destructive tendencies. I think I proved to myself I was maybe more self-sufficient and resilient than I thought. That I could get along in relatively difficult circumstances. I mean, I didn’t survive the Holocaust or anything, I just didn’t have a credit card.

“I feel like i did a lot of growing up while I was there.”

Through it all, her high-low humor resounds.

“For me when something is spinning out of control, and I think this is a very Jewish thing, if I make a joke of it it, it doesn’t seem so big and scary, and you can ultimately not be destroyed by it. A lot of my sense of humor and the humor of my work comes from that juxtaposition of using sort of very high prose to describe a situation that is really terrible or even vulgar.”

She just sold a three-book young adult series. She has a new play opening in New York and she’s working on an adult novel.

Visit her website at www.rachelshukert.com.

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Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

September 5, 2011 3 comments

Author Rachel Shukert is every bit as entertaining to interview as her books are to read. For being quite youbg she has a remarkably developed sense of style and a satiric voice that is hers and hers alone. What follows are two short pieces I wrote about her and her first book, Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories, one for the Jewish Press and the other for The Reader. I look forward to chatting with her again and to reading more of her work. In a separate post, you’ll find a third story I did about Shukert, this one about her seconod book, Everything is Going to be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour.

 

 

Starstruck by Rachel Shukert (Image Credit: Rachel Shukert) / Tweet (Image Credit: Maureen Johnson's Twitter) / Rachel Shukert (Image Credit: www.rachelshukert.com)

 

Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

Omaha native Rachel Shukert is coming home to face the music after the publication of her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard). In it, the New York-based writer applies her unsparing satire to growing up a rebel and Jew here.

She’s appearing at two local events to promote her book: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the Jewish Community Center; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

For a long time she was hell-bent on being a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. In New York she grew disillusioned by the business of acting. She turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences…but I just never really wrote them down.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “…people were really responding and suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow. I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed.”

On the heels of getting her plays staged and essays published in NerveHeebMcSweeney’s and Salon, her agent struck a deal for the book. Its irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right?”

The stories express the dissatisfaction she felt growing up a brilliant, defiant free spirit. “When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

 

 

 

 

 

Rachel Shukert Gets Personal with Her Satiric First Book

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

For a long time playwright/author Rachel Shukert saw herself not as a young literary lioness but as a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. Picture a Jewish Marisa Tomei. Then reality hit. In New York the Omaha native grew disillusioned by the business of acting — making the rounds, et cetera.

Unable to find monologue material to suit her satiric bordering-on-absurdist tastes and suffering from anorexia, she turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard), is lauded for its collection of unsparing satire. Shukert will schlep through town for two book events: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the JCC; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

Reinventing herself as a writer both liberated and tested her.

“I was having a hard time as an actor in New York,” she said by phone from the L.A. Book Fair. “I’m not particularly castable and I also really dislike the process and the dues you have to pay as an actor. All of the things actors have to do to get started I found completely anathema to my way of being. I’m a total narcissist but I’m not a narcissist in the right way.

“I have a really hard time sending photographs of myself to people and constantly being up and being really hungry for roles I have absolutely no interest in. I hate going to the gym. I hate doing hair and teeth and skin. The actual day-to-day grind of being a professional actor did not sit very well with me.”

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences that I would repeat over and over again but I just never really wrote them down.”

She’s always been an attentive reader. She counts Phillip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jonathan Franzen, David Sedaris, Truman Capote, Kingsely Amos and F. Scott Fitzgerald among her favorite authors.

“I’ve always been very turned on by very elegant writing — people who are really wonderful stylists.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. When you’re imprisoned by your anorexia there’s not a lot else you can do. You don’t want to go out and eat or drink with people. So to keep my self company almost through this I started to write a lot.

“It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing eventually superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “I was moving forward at a rate I never had for the two years I was trying to be an actor. I felt like I was getting all this traction, things were moving really fast and people were really responding. And suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow.”

One thing led to another. “I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed,” she said. “

Her theater influences include Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Charles Ludlam, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady.

With her plays getting staged and assignments flowing in from online magazines Nerve, Heeb, McSweeney’s and, more recently, Salon and Jewcy, she said she decided, “Well, maybe this is what I should be doing instead of struggling at this thing I don’t really like and that doesn’t really do it for me creatively. But I definitely had like a mourning period for my acting, just because it had been like who I thought I was going to be for so much of my life – from the time I was 7 or 8. But now I really haven’t looked back.”

The transition’s not all roses.

“I’m not a writer that finds writing particularly easy. It can be pretty torturous, like extracting teeth or driving needles into my hand. So I have to give myself a lot of time. I’ve never been able to just knock it out.”

The book produced a breakthrough.

“This is a project where I think I really figured out a lot about my writing style and rhythms because I never had…such a protracted process before. What’s been kind of a nice surprise is that writing is a lot easier than it was at the beginning. I’m a pretty good editor of my own work. I have a pretty sharp eye. I’m pretty down with cutting things and getting rid of things that don’t work.

“I write every day. I’m pretty disciplined about that and I won’t stop until I have something. When I was writing the book I really tried to do about a thousand words a day. I’m pretty good about punishing myself. If I slacked off and didn’t write a thousand words then I wrote two thousand words the next day.

“I remember there’s one section I wrote after I woke up in the middle of the night. I wrote 15 pages in like four hours and that’s one of the sections of the books that’s the most unedited and unchanged.”

That section, about the bacchanal of a Jewish youth convention she attended, elicited negative feedback when a shorter, harsher version of it appeared online.

“That was one of the very first pieces I wrote as a freelance assignment,” she said. “I think I was still like trying to make a splash. I mean, I still think it’s a good piece and I totally stand by it but I’m glad I got to do it over again and give it a little bit more perspective and space. The chapter in its extended form is a lot gentler…”

The book’s irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right? While obviously that kind of satire is part of my work and it’s sort of the way I see the world and the way I write, it’s very important to me to not be unnecessarily cruel or hurtful…And I find turning that critical gaze on myself sort of tempers that.”

Her book’s partly an expression of the dissatisfaction she felt growing up as a brilliant, defiant free spirit.

“When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

A maddening thing about the Midwest she still can’t shake is how one’s Jewishness is made an issue here by gentiles. “Like they need to point it out. It’s very weird.” It’s one reason why she prefers New York. She and her husband Ben, an advertising creative director, reside in Manhattan on the Upper East Side.

All of the pieces in the book long simmered in her.

“I think I’ve sort of been writing them in my head for most of my life. I mean, it’s funny how a lot of my close friends have been reading this book and they’re like, ‘I know about this. This is the way you always told this story.’”

Her stories invariably throw in stark relief our shared human frailties. Life’s comedy and tragedy exposed side by side.

“That’s kind of my thing. I try to combine the two,” she said. “I want them to be hilariously funny and you only realize how serious they are afterward.”

The title chapter ends the book on a warm, funny, sad, graceful note describing the final days of her beloved grandmother. Shukert’s love for family shines through.

An autobiographical work is a rite-of-passage for first-time authors. “It’s almost like you have to get it out of your system before you can do something else,” she said. “Like you have to tell your own story before you can tell other people’s.”

Today, she’s busy writing essays and cultural criticism for online mags and, increasingly, for print publications. “I really like journalism,” she said. “It’s a chance to exercise your craft without having to like think it all up yourself, which can be intimidating. It’s nice to have that jumping off point, even if it’s something editorial like a movie review or a blog post. At least you have that information to analyze. I really like analyzing everything.”

Her penchant for picking things apart may be a function of being the daughter of a psychologist mother and urban planner father. Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

 

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Slaying Dragons, Author Richard Dooling’s Sharp Satire Cuts Deep and Quick

May 18, 2010 1 comment

The "QWERTY" layout of typewriter ke...

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Rick Dooling is yet another immensely talented Nebraska author, one who left here but came back and continues to reside here. His work exhibits great range, but at its core is a sharp wit and a facility for making complex subjects compelling and relatable. His books include White Man’s Grave, which was nominated for the National Book Award, Critical Care, Brain Storm, and his latest, Rapture for the Geeks. He’s also a great guy. This is the first of a few stories I’ve written about him, and it is by the far the most in-depth.  It orignally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Look for more of my Dooling stories to be added to the site.  I strongly recommend anything by Rick, who also writes essays on societal-cultural matters for the New York Times and other leading publications.

One of Rick’s books, Critical Care, was made into a feature film by the same title directed by Sidney Lumet.  Rick was working with filmmaker Alan Pakula on another big screen adaptation when Pakula was killed in a freak highway accident.  Since this article appeared, Rick has collaborated with Stephen King on the television series Kingdom Hospital and adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac for a feature film by the same name.  He’s currently producing-writing a TV pilot.

Slaying Dragons, Author Richard Dooling’s Sharp Satire Cuts Deep and Quick

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Since 1992 Omaha native Richard Dooling has gone from being just another frustrated writer to a literary star, creating a body of work distinguished for its dizzying array of ideas, sharp satirical assault on cherished dogma and sheer mastery of language. In three acclaimed novels — Critical CareWhite Man’s GraveBrain Storm — this writer-provocateur skewers American mores, trends, fads and sacred cows, reserving his most cutting remarks for two fields he once worked in, the law and health care. Easy targets, yes, but Dooling doesn’t settle for tired old broadsides or cloying jokes worn thin. Instead, he uses the hubris and cynicism endemic in the law and medicine as a prism for critically examining issues and raising questions that vex us all.

Dooling, who would make a great teacher, doesn’t presume to provide answers so much as prod us to think about how once basic human yearnings and immutable beliefs are foiled in this world of modern ambiguity and conditional ethics. His work is funny, dramatic, analytical and literary. The attorney-cum-author uses his knack for research to glean telling details that, as in building a good case, lend added weight to his tales.

“I do a lot of research,” he says. “You’ve got to get your facts straight, and then you can do anything you want with them later.”

From 1987 to 1991 he was an associate (specializing in employment
discrimination law) with St. Louis’ largest firm, and before that a respiratory therapist in the intensive care unit at Clarkson Hospital. From working in the legal-medical arenas to holding odd jobs as a cab driver, house painter and psyche ward attendant (“to share some of those patients’ vivid delusional systems is an interesting experience”) to traveling across Europe and Africa, Dooling has a deep well of living to drawn on for his fiction. His stories feature naive white middle-class professionals, all animated extensions of himself, enmeshed in fever-pitch moral dilemmas not patently resolved by the end. Like a lawyer, he argues both sides of an issue in his narratives.

In addition to his novels he has penned a well-received volume of essays (Blue Streak) defending the use of offensive language and op-ed pieces for major publications that poke fun at the latest excesses on the social-cultural front, including a rip-roaring send-up of the President’s imbroglio with Miss Monica. He is currently writing screen adaptations of two of his novels for planned feature films.

In person, Dooling exhibits the same penetrating wit as his prose, although he seems too normal to be the voice behind the scathing black humor he relishes. Married with four children, he is a practicing Catholic. His wife, Kristin, is converting to the faith. The family drives from their southwest Omaha home to worship at a near north side church. Dooling writes from an office in the Indian Hills business district.

 

 

If ever a wolf, albeit an intellectual one, in sheep’s clothing it is the 44-year-old author. He has the jowly, post-cherubic face of an altar boy (he was one) flirting with middle-age debauchery. Look closely and his hail fellow-well met facade reveals a gleam in the eye and curl of the lip that betray the bemused, wry gaze of a born agitator who likes pricking the mendacity he sees all around him.

Why satire? “More than anything, I like to make people laugh,” he says. “I don’t want cheap laughs. I want you to discover something new about yourself you didn’t understand before. What interests me as a writer is people on the threshold struggling to organize the flawed parts of themselves into a good person.”

What sets him off on a satirical jag? “Hypocrisy. That’s probably the first thing that provokes me. Somebody saying one thing and doing something else,” he says. “When law and medicine pretend to be helping patients or clients and really it’s raw self-interest, than that’s satirical material. Medicine and law are perfect targets for satire just because they exercise so much control in our lives, and people resent it in a way. You want to bring down the high and mighty and make them just like everybody else. Satire is the great leveler.”

He especially likes deflating any pretensions litigation is a sedate reasoned process for resolving disputes. “It’s combat. It’s a contest and just because it’s essentially bloodless doesn’t make it any less violent. I’m not a big fan of litigation. I think it should be avoided at all costs.”

The looming monster of political correctness is among the trends raising Dooling’s hackles these days. “Because, again, it’s a hypocrisy of a kind,” he says. “The claim is you want diversity in everything, but the central paradox of political correctness is that proponents demand diversity in everything except thought. You have to think the same way as they do or else you’re the enemy. And also the notion you can control people’s thoughts by changing their language just repels me. As a writer, language is the most important thing in your life, and when people start telling you what you should say or not say, it makes you want to say exactly what they don’t want to hear. It makes you want to rebel.”

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed he ridiculed attempts at removing certain offensive words from Merriam-Webster dictionaries. One of those petitioning for the excision of hateful language, Kathryn Williams of Flint, Michigan, defended her position by saying, ‘If the word is not there, you can’t use it.” In response, Dooling wrote, “Following…Ms. Williams’s reasoning, we could also remedy the drug problem if we simply removed the words cocaine and heroin from our nation’s dictionaries, for then junkies would be unable to use them. How nice if ancient hatreds could be remedied with a little word surgery, a logos-ectomy to remove offensive words and the hateful thoughts lurking behind them.”

If it weren’t for his dead-on observations, Dooling could easily come off as a smart aleck who is clever with words but short on substance. He is, however, that rarest of commodities: A Swiftian satirist whose barbed, elegantly phrased comments are both funny and thought-provoking. Even when his points are made with dark humor, he avoids sounding contemptuous because he infuses his work with glints of his charming guile and frames his skepticism within a moral context. It makes perfect sense when you learn he grew up in a middle-class Catholic family of nine children and is the product of Jesuit educators. His father was an insurance claims adjustor. His mother, a nurse.

If nothing else, he’s proof “it’s possible to be Catholic and still be satirical,” he says, unloosing his hyena cackle laugh. Growing up in the Bemis Park area, he graduated from St. Cecilia Grade School and received his Jesuit “indoctrination” at Creighton Prep and later at St. Louis University, where he earned his bachelor’s in English and art history and his law degree. He credits the Jesuits for instilling in him “a disciplined approach to any field of knowledge.” Even a quick read of his work reveals both a complete grasp of a subject and a deft handling of it.

An avid reader since childhood, his love for writing began at Prep.  There, a priest got him in the habit of keeping a vocabulary notebook, which he still maintains today. His ardor grew deeper in college, where he won a short story contest. “That was a big deal,” he says. “I just assumed I was going to be a writer by that time. That I was going to graduate and be getting published left and right.” It didn’t quite work out that way. He graduated, all right, supporting himself with day jobs while completing a novel and short stories, but “nothing was getting published.”

Frustrated, and desiring a change of scenery, he saved up for a year-long trip overseas. His 1982 travels across Europe and Africa served as the writer’s requisite expatriate adventure abroad. “I just had a feeling I wanted to see something besides this,” he says of America, “because this is an artificial world compared to the rest of the world.”

He wrote while away and returned with Critical Care partially completed and the idea for White Man’s Grave in embryo.

His seven-month stay in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where he visited a friend working in the Peace Corps, “changed” Dooling and his take on America. “Somebody said, You don’t travel to see foreign countries, you travel to see your own country as a foreign country. That’s what I think a lot of writers have in the back of their minds when they travel. It just shakes everything up,” he says. “All of your assumptions about how life is lived are subverted. In the Third World people eat out of a bowl with their hands and squatting on a floor. No electricity, no running water. Everything you’ve arranged your life around back here is gone. It’s a valuable experience, especially for a young person. It’s very healthy.”

When he returned to the vulgar excess of the U.S. the dislocation was so intense that home seemed unreal, like a garish nightmare. He used his experience as the jumping-off point for a New Yorker-published short story, Bush Pigs. “Everything here looks obscene when you come back. It’s overpowering. Bush Pigs tells exactly what it’s like. It’s about a Peace Corps volunteer who comes back home after three years..and in the course of 24 hours has a psychotic breakdown, and it’s funny. It’s kind of a cult favorite among Peace Corps volunteers because they all feel a bit unsettled when they come home.”

In Dooling’s case he was unhinged, broke, and hungry for a new challenge, so he applied and was accepted to law school. Why the law?

“I knew that I liked to read and write and I thought if I went to law school I could at least make my living reading and writing.”

Preparing briefs and motions became his forte. Despite disparaging the law now, he says he enjoyed the profession and would return to it should his writing career falter. Fat chance.

Writing in his spare time, he finished Critical Care and, after years of trying to get somebody interested, finally sold it — to William Morrow — and upon its 1992 publication found himself both published and celebrated.

His long struggle should be a lesson in perseverance. “I always urge young writers to, as soon as they can, write a novel, even it it doesn’t get published, just so you get used to thinking that way. Send out a chapter with a query letter to 20 or 30 agents. You’ll get rejected, by all of them usually, but you might just get one or two who’ll say, ’Let me see the whole book.’ To be able to write a novel you have to have supreme self-confidence.”

His overstuffed office is evidence he saves “everything” he writes and will rummage through boxes and cabinets full of files to “plunder stuff.”

With the success of Critical Care he faced the decision of spending another four or five years shaping White Man’s Grave in between his law duties or quitting the practice to write full-time. He had a family. A mortgage.  In the end he gave up a secure career for the mercurial world of writing, promptly moving his family from St. Louis to Omaha. “Realistically, I just didn’t feel I would be able to serve clients with all the time my writing career entailed, so I decided to take the plunge.”  Besides, the compulsion to write was overwhelming. “I didn’t really have a choice. It’s not something I really have any control over. I don’t recommend people become writers unless they can’t help it.”

Similarly, he describes his penchant for satire as “an impulse” he cannot suppress, like being nervous or shy.  “It’s not something I intentionally do. It just happens. I can start out writing seriously…and before I get half way through I start getting this risible impulse to tear down or make fun of, and it turns into satire.” If he can ascribe his inspiration to anything, it’s “the kindred spirits” he found reading such satirists as Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut in college.

But as anyone who writes seriously can attest, the process has less to do with heeding one’s muse than with tirelessly learning the craft. “When you’re young and read good writing you don’t realize why you like it better…you just do,” he notes. “But then the older you get, and especially if you’re growing as a writer, you come to realize that most really good writing is good because of the labor involved, not because of inspiration. It’s about taking out all the unnecessary words and making sure it’s in the active voice and all that, so that by the time the reader reads it they don’t even notice what happened or why it’s so appealing.”

That’s not to say he discounts the contributions of the unconscious:  “It’s very important. I find when I am stuck on a bigger project it is because I’m not dreaming about it at night. I find when I’m really into a big project, like the end of a novel or the end of a screenplay, I pretty much dream about it all night and write about it all day.” When things are really flowing, and words just fill the page, he goes into “a kind of trance.”  He says when ideas come to him in his sleep he’ll awaken and rush to get them down on paper, otherwise fearing “they won’t be there in the morning, they’ll be some ghost of what they were.”

 

Richard Dooling's photo.

Richard Dooling

 

Dooling, who composes on a computer, has no fixed writing routine. “Totally irregular. I’ll write for three weeks and then not write at all for two. When I am working, I might write 12 hours a day or I might get up in the middle of the night. You just live to be able to do it.” When stuck, he’ll move on to another project or occupy himself reading, e-mailing, filing, et cetera.

A fact of life for any published writer is working with editors. Dooling relies on editors to tell him “things you can’t  tell yourself. A good editor kind of steers you. I couldn’t live without one.” If he can be faulted for anything, it’s losing the urgency of his stories amid too many ideas and too much word play. He admits a “weakness with plots.”

To date, his fiction has been informed by his experience and leavened with his imagination. He echoes what other authors have long been advising would-be scribes: Write about what you know.

“I always try to encourage young writers, especially, to try and personalize everything first and then hope that you take it up to the next level of art where it appeals to everyone. That’s what art is — when you take a particular experience and render it in such a way that other people read it and say, ‘Oh, I felt like that.’ You establish a relationship with your reader that way. I think the easiest way to get in trouble or to become cliche, and young writers do this a lot, is to base an emotional passage on some TV or movie image of emotion instead of an immediate thing from real life.”

Dooling mined the human misery he saw as a respiratory therapist, along with the savage humor he and his health care cohorts used as a coping strategy, as the basis for Critical Care . Its protagonist is Peter Werner Ernst, a young doctor stuck in a medical, legal, moral, ethical quagmire involving a dying man with two daughters warring over his life and will. Pressured from all sides, Ernst wavers whether to keep the man alive or allow him to die. Meanwhile, vegetative patients on the edge of hereafter confront the limbo of their life and eternal destiny.

 

 

Anyone that’s spent any time in a hospital will identify with this portrait of medical practitioners who view family as the enemy and regard patients as nicknames and numbers, like Orca, the Beached Female or, more cryptically, Bed Five.

The book’s opening passage sets the tone: “Dr. Peter Werner Ernst was the Internal Medicine Resident…presiding over the Ninth Floor Intensive Care Unit…Each pod in the octagonal Death Lab contained a naked, dying person…High in the corner of each pod, a color TV was mounted…The hanging televisions were obviously designed by an architect or a hospital administrator who knew almost nothing about ICU patients. When was the last time somebody had seen one of these stiffs sitting up in bed watching a ball game? Instead of their lives flashing before their eyes, these patients died slow deaths listening to American car commercials, the 2.9 percent financing, the unbelievable buyer protection plans.”

Sarcasm amidst mortality is hardly new. Dooling, though, elevates the death watch and end game of the ICU to new heights, cutting closer to the truth with humor than somber platitudes and hoary dramatics can do.

“What really fascinated me,” he says, “was the defense mechanism of dark humor. There’s this impulse you have to make the patient not human. Otherwise, you’re there all day long saying, ‘Oh, here’s a human being dying right in front of my eyes.’ Well, you can’t even function then, so there’s this tendency to make light of the situation, which enables you to carry on. It’s not an admirable thing, but it was fascinating to me how it works.”

As Ernst digs himself deeper and deeper in the mess, he begins doubting his own omniscience. At one point Dooling speculates on the question in the back of Ernst’s mind: Where is God in the midst of all this human suffering? Dooling’s wickedly funny answer begins:

“In college he (Ernst) had read that God was dead. In medical school, he learned that God was not dead. He was just very sick. God was probably pronounced dead prematurely. Instead of dying or being found murdered, God may have just slipped into a coma or had an attack of transient global amnesia (TGA), during which time He simply forgot He was God and left the universe to its own devices. Instead of announcing his debility to the world, maybe God just went into seclusion, the way ailing Russian premieres do…In the meantime, planet Earth fell apart. Things look bad for the world, but why jump to conclusions and pronounce God dead, when he probably just needs to be transferred to a crackerjack ICU equipped with the proper medical technology? Once God gets to feeling better He can go back to thinking of Himself as a doctor, in much the same way that doctors think of themselves as God.”

In White Man’s Grave Dooling draws on his African sojourn to explore  the conflict arising when neurotic American culture meets mystical Sierra Leone culture. A character sums up the conflict with: “Back in America, demons inhabit the mind. Here, they inhabit the bush.” At first struck by the differences between the two worlds, Dooling became intrigued with the similarities after starting law school, particularly the parallels between the law and witchcraft.

“I encountered the phenomenon of bad medicine (hale) there, what we call witchcraft here. If you have an enemy and you want to seek revenge on him, but you can’t do it by, say, hitting him with a stick or something, then you go and you put a swear on him. If he hears about it, he’ll go and put a counterswear on you. Then you each have a witch person working on your behalf in the same way we hire lawyers here to resolve our intractable disputes. The impulse to litigate the lawsuit is to destroy the other person — not physically — but to destroy their life, to take all their money, to ruin their name. The same sort of thing with witchcraft. When I got a front row seat in the process called litigation I realized litigants hated each other every bit as much as villagers who decide to consult a witch.”

Like the ritual and gobbledygook that accompany a swear, he says, “the law is very much incantation. It really is.”

In Grave, an obsessive American lawyer, Randall Killigan, is a warrior-wizard whose fierce bearing and awesome power strike fear in opponents’ hearts. His well-ordered world unravels however when his son, Michael, a Peace Corps volunteer, goes missing in Sierra Leone and a totem-like bundle sent from Africa causes disturbing events/visions.

The novel, a 1994 National Book Award finalist, follows the dual odyssey of Randall, who battles combatants he can’t comprehend, and of Boone Westfall, a friend of Michael’s who goes to Africa in search of him. Michael’s disappearance, rumored to be linked to witches or rebels or both, brings the blundering Westfall in contact with things he can’t grasp. As the two disparate worlds merge, a surreal adventure unfolds that finds protagonists seeking remedies based in faith, myth, fact.

Like Westfall, Dooling arrived in Sierra Leone woefully ignorant of the place. Beset by violence in recent years, the nation was peaceful when Dooling visited but plagued by corruption and poverty. And like Westfall he was appalled by the sickness he found, dismayed by the stock villagers put in sorcery, weakened by malaria and dysentery and, yet, still charmed by the people’s unfailing generosity and the landscape’s stark beauty.

Grave offers many views of Sierra Leone, ranging from the cynical to the rapturous. In Aruna Sisay and Michael  Killigan, Dooling gives us Westerners fluent in native languages and customs who upbraid Westfall, a typical poo-mui (white person) for his ethnocentrism. The model for Sisay and Killigan was Dooling’s friend, Michael O’Neill, who spoke like a native, owned the respect of village elders and disabused Dooling of his prejudices.

After the book’s publication, some real life events ended up mirroring fictionalized ones when O’Neill, like Killigan, was captured and held by rebels and was the target of apparent witchcraft.

While never branded a witch, as Westfall is in the book, Dooling did come under suspicion for breaking various taboos. “As a writer and reader I was used to spending time alone,” he says, “and anybody who keeps spending time alone is a little suspect because it’s such a social place. And the more I asked about bad medicine the more suspicious they became, like, ‘You must have a reason to be asking these questions. You must want to use some witchcraft.’ I was never accused of witchcraft — nothing close to it — but it was easy to imagine.”

 

 

Another form of black magic — brain research — next drew Dooling’s attention and resulted in his latest novel, Brain Storm, published last spring by Random House. Specifically, he became fascinated with how new insights are challenging “the assumption that something’s in control of your brain besides your brain. Everybody calls it something different,” he says. “In psychology, it’s ego. In the law, free will. In religion, the soul. But the more we learn about the brain the question becomes, Is your mind anything more than your brain? Is consciousness just cellular activity or do you have a soul? So then I started thinking about dramatizing this somehow.”

He investigated how the latest brain findings might color a basic tenet of the law —  intent — in a criminal case. The possibilities intrigued him.  “Let’s say you come home one night and suddenly, totally out of character, you start swearing and being violent to your mom or wife or whoever, and a week later you go on a rampage. And let’s say it’s found a huge tumor is pressing on the part of your brain that makes you violent. Think about that trial. How much are you responsible? It doesn’t seem like a very complicated question if you stay with the older technologies, but it does the more you use today’s enhanced measures of brain metabolism. If blood flow is reduced to certain parts of the brain — the frontal lobes for instance, which exercise self-control — it might explain why someone has such a terrible temper. Does he get punished the same as everyone else?

“Free will is a fundamental assumption in the law and if neuroscience keeps going in the direction that it’s going, they’re going to collide.”

That’s precisely what happens in Brain Storm . Set in the near future, the book follows attorney Joe Watson preparing his first criminal defense case. His defendant is a virulent white racist, James Whitlow, accused of murdering a black man and facing execution under a hate crime statute. In a Faustian bargain Watson teams with Rachel Palmquist, a neuroscientist temptress, to build a defense even he doesn’t believe that posits a cyst caused Whitlow’s hate-tinged violence. As Watson presses for a reduced count, Palmquist pursues surgically-repairing Whitlow’s hate-filled brain.

Palmquist sums up Whitlow with the chilling appraisal “he’s a big mouse with an advanced brain” that’s “malfunctioned” and needs repair. Short of repair, she disdains execution as “a waste of money” and instead advocates “vivisecting” him and his ilk “like guinea pigs, if necessary, to find out why they short-circuited. Killing only puts them out of their misery.”

Watson, a nerd more at home in cyberspace than a courtroom, is a conflicted Catholic in turmoil over: Defending a client he detests yet feels is being railroaded by hate-crime hysteria; his superior’s desire to have him plead Whitlow out; his partner’s specious ethics; and his own guilty attraction to Palmquist, who tests his marital fidelity and shakes his faith.
For the record, Dooling is, like Watson, “just trying to function in a world of science while believing that you have a soul and free will.” He says Brain Storm is in part a cautionary tale reminding us that perhaps the reach of brain scanning technology “exceeds our grasp” of what human consciousness is or is not when applied to the law, religion and the like.

Dooling’s caustic, rather cinematic novels are proving attractive to Hollywood. Critical Care was made into a feature by Sidney Lumet. Dooling was working on an adaptation of Brain Storm with noted producer-director Alan J. Pakula, but after the filmmaker’s recent death is unsure where it sits. He is adapting White Man’s Grave for Quentin Tarantino’s producing partner, Lawrence Bender. A newcomer to screenplay writing, Dooling says, “It’s harder than I expected. You’re constantly compressing, throwing things out…selecting crucial plot points from your book and visualizing them into short visual images. I’m just learning how to do it.”

He is undecided what his next project will be. “I have ideas and so on, but I’m not sure if I will do another novel, an original screenplay or what.” A dream project he’d like to see realized is the publication of his collected short stories. Meanwhile, what’s catching his satirist’s eye? “Genetics. Especially with the announcement they’re going to be growing human stem cells in cow eggs. Are we going to have cows with human heads or what? This is pretty scary stuff. That’s the fun part.”

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