[EDITORS NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of 5 articles looking back at some of the notable people, trends and companies of 2005.]
The first few months of 2005 saw the festival premieres of three films that might be called risque, button pushing and edgy: Paul Provenza's "The Aristocrats," Liam Lynch's performance film "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" and Paul Dinello's "Strangers With Candy." They form a troika of pictures that, with varying levels of success, manage to push the public's capacity for "out of the mainstream" comedy right up to the edge, and in one case, right off a distributor's release calendar.
Humor Most Foul
Question: What do you get when you cross a couple dozen comedians with a legendary joke filled with feces, urine, incest, bestiality and just a soupcon of vomit? Answer: Paul Provenza's "The Aristocrats," which was picked up by ThinkFilm at Sundance and released this summer to mostly raves by the critics and has fared quite well at the box office.
The benefit of an almost "Crying Game" level of hype ("What/Who exactly is/are The Aristocrats?") Provenza's film grossed more than $6.3 million by late December and is poised for a big DVD payday. Visions of everyone from stoned high school students to professors of English literature cozying up to Saturday night worship sessions at the shrine of Gilbert Gottfried must be dancing in the heads of marketing execs.
"So I'm licking jelly off my boyfriend's cock"
"Jesus is Magic," on the other hand... isn't even on the other hand, to be honest. It's more like one of the fingers on the same hand as "The Aristocrats." The same sick shit that will make you howl with laughter at Provenza's film will do the same with Lynch's concert film, assuming you don't mind jokes about anal sex, dying old people, AIDS, asshole waxing and other Sunday dinner topics.
While not having the benefit of the built in promotional aspects of Provenza's film, "Jesus is Magic," which was acquired by Roadside Attractions in June, is still in release in more than 50 theaters with a gross of over $1 million after 7 weeks at the box office.
High School Hell
Paul Dinello's "Strangers With Candy" is different from the above-mentioned films in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it is a narrative feature, as opposed to a work of non-fiction or a performance piece. The film is a prequel of the cult Comedy Central show of the same name starring Amy Sedaris as a 46 year-old recovering junkie who returns to high school in an attempt to help her father awaken from a coma that he's been in for more than 30 years.
Its route to theaters is much more convoluted than the other two and in fact is not yet complete. When the film was picked up at Sundance by Warner Independent Pictures, the distrib's president Mark Gill said in a statement that "'Strangers with Candy' completely caught me off guard. It is rude, hilarious and bizarre. We loved it." Nine months later however, the specialty division dropped the film, with a Warner Independent spokesperson telling indieWIRE, "We are not releasing the film, there are too many un-cleared items in the film," however the spokesperson added that internally, the company loved the move. Speculation within the industry is that Warner Bros. is gun shy from the litigation-plagued summer release of "Dukes of Hazzard."
There's Always Room For Edgy.
Given the current conservative political climate in the United States (if you disagree with that assertion, that's a whole different article), one might be curious as to how these films get distributed and more than that, make money? Assuming that the film is actually of quality, which "The Aristocrats" most definitely is, ThinkFilm's head of U.S. theatrical, Mark Urman pointed out that "edgy and racy films are going to be limited in one way or another," regardless of the current political climate. "So, if one theater chain, however large or one media outlet, however pervasive, boycotts you, you still have more than enough opportunities to travel reasonably far and wide...for an edgy racy film."
Roadside Attractions co-president Eric d'Arbeloff agreed that "it can be a challenge to book theaters, play trailers, and convince stores to sell videos. On the other hand, that's true for every indie film," not just the edgier fare. D'Arbeloff continued, adding "the plus side is that the media are sometimes really excited to write about edgy stuff, especially if some group is trying to suppress it. So far there seems not to have been a religious backlash to the Silverman film, a risk, considering the film's title. "The title wasn't a particular concern to us," said d'Aarbeloff, "but we did just hear about a theater in Utah where the marquee just reads "Sarah Silverman's Movie. " Ah, Utah.
The Keys To Success?
On one level, "The Aristocrats" is one of the most outrageous, foul-mouthed and offensive films ever made. However, it's also a documentary. On a decidedly different and one could argue more important level, the film is a fantastic exploration of the evolution of a joke and the etymological roots of said bit of funny. Not only that, but the film title is the punchline. This is a film about what might be the most famous joke known only to comedians and the punchline isn't the most important part. How you get to the punchline is far more intriguing and therein lies the raunch. The filth. The prurient interest (if you're a really sick fuck, that is).
While Silverman is certainly pushing buttons, one thing that may be holding her film back from true ground-breaking success is that today's audiences are already familiar with Richard Pryor and to a lesser extent, Lenny Bruce. Comedians such as Silverman and David Cross, while admittedly extremely funny, are not as shocking as their forbearers and are essentially preaching to the converted. Silverman has the advantage of being a successful and outspoken woman in a largely male's game, making much of her humor just that little bit the more shocking, however.
Addressing this point in reference to "The Aristrocrats," Urman pointed out that "there need to be ideas behind the sensational material. If there is something to talk about and something for journalists to write about, you've got a shot. Mere shock value doesn't cut it any more." ThinkFilm's strategy was clearly intellectually driven. "What really paid off was that we gave the film a very high I.Q.," said Urman. "We gave our audiences permission to like the film -- through good reviews and very serious reportage," adding "We took the film to the center of the cultural debate and went straight to the op ed pages of the New York Times instead of wallowing in the gutter."
D'Arbeloff's approach appears to be a bit more "naturalistic" in tone, evoking one of this year's biggest hits by saying "I would say anything is possible. Movie fans who really want to see something are like penguins - they find a way." His film has only been open for seven weeks, so there's plenty of time for him to get the word out to the public so that they can find their inner penguins.
As far as "Strangers With Candy" goes, several calls and emails to Cinetic Media, the film's sales representatives, yielded no new information on the status of a theatrical release.