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Filmmakers You Should Know: Bobcat Goldthwait, Expert Craftsman of Savage Black Comedy

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 9, 2012 at 12:49PM

There are essentially two Bobcat Goldthwaits: The first exists mainly in the past, a screeching, howling stand-up comedian mainly known for playing Zed in a string of "Police Academy" films in the eighties. In recent years, a quieter, surprisingly introspective Goldthwait has funneled much of his onstage energy into filmmaking and emerged as one of the more entertainingly provocative American directors working today. Goldthwait initially showed potential as a filmmaker with the cult hit "Shakes the Clown" in the early nineties, but it wasn't until 2006, with his microbudget comedy "Sleeping Dogs Lie," that he truly found his cinematic voice. Like Goldthwait's vintage routines at the mic, the movies are simultaneously crass and insightful, charged by subversive twists but sneakily loaded with Goldthwait's life philosophies. But Goldthwait hasn't merely translated his comedic approach to screenwriting endeavors; behind the camera, he has demonstrated an attentiveness to film form, experimenting with a variety of camera styles and lively montages to take his raucous perspective beyond the constraints of a typical stand-up routine. In short, he makes movies, not sketches. Each of Goldthwait's directorial efforts revolves around solitary characters with secrets and madness locked inside their psyches. "Shakes" is a lunatic clown; in "Sleeping Dogs Lie," a woman struggles to conceal a startling sex act from her college past; "Windy City Heat" studies a mentally unstable character as if it were a documentary; "World's Greatest Dad" follows a man exploiting his son's suicide for personal gain; and "God Bless America," opening in theaters this Friday and currently available on VOD, finds a man driven to murderous extremes by the vapidity of reality television. In Goldthwait's world, only the lunatics see the light. THE FILMS "Shakes the Clown" (1991) Goldthwait's initial feature-length endeavor arrived when he was still in the thick of his eighties fame, but displayed his visible disenchantment with his status as a celebrity entertainer. In the lead role as Shakes, Goldthwait inhabits a creepy universe of clown gangs and organized crime. An endlessly sloven alcoholic, Shakes battles to get his act together (literally and figuratively) while dealing with competition. As his life careens out of control -- not that it had much control in the first place -- Shakes goes undercover as a mine when a rival sets him up for murder. "Serpico" by way of Fellini, "Shakes" eventually gained the admiration of Martin Scorsese and became the first hint of Goldthwait's new career direction.
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Bobcat Goldthwait, filmmaker.
Bobcat Goldthwait, filmmaker.

There are essentially two Bobcat Goldthwaits: The first exists mainly in the past, a screeching, howling stand-up comedian mainly known for playing Zed in a string of "Police Academy" films in the eighties. In recent years, a quieter, surprisingly introspective Goldthwait has funneled much of his onstage energy into filmmaking and emerged as one of the more entertainingly provocative American directors working today. Goldthwait initially showed potential as a filmmaker with the cult hit "Shakes the Clown" in the early nineties, but it wasn't until 2006, with his microbudget comedy "Sleeping Dogs Lie," that he truly found his cinematic voice.

Like Goldthwait's vintage routines at the mic, the movies are simultaneously crass and insightful, charged by subversive twists but sneakily loaded with Goldthwait's life philosophies. But Goldthwait hasn't merely translated his comedic approach to screenwriting endeavors; behind the camera, he has demonstrated an attentiveness to film form, experimenting with a variety of camera styles and lively montages to take his raucous perspective beyond the constraints of a typical stand-up routine. In short, he makes movies, not sketches.

Each of Goldthwait's directorial efforts revolves around solitary characters with secrets and madness locked inside their psyches. "Shakes" is a lunatic clown; in "Sleeping Dogs Lie," a woman struggles to conceal a startling sex act from her college past; "Windy City Heat" studies a mentally unstable character as if it were a documentary; "World's Greatest Dad" follows a man exploiting his son's suicide for personal gain; and "God Bless America," opening in theaters this Friday and currently available on VOD, finds a man driven to murderous extremes by the vapidity of reality television. In Goldthwait's world, only the lunatics see the light.

THE FILMS

"Shakes the Clown" (1991)

Goldthwait's initial feature-length endeavor arrived when he was still in the thick of his eighties fame, but displayed his visible disenchantment with his status as a celebrity entertainer. In the lead role as Shakes, Goldthwait inhabits a creepy universe of clown gangs and organized crime. An endlessly sloven alcoholic, Shakes battles to get his act together (literally and figuratively) while dealing with competition. As his life careens out of control -- not that it had much control in the first place -- Shakes goes undercover as a mine when a rival sets him up for murder. "Serpico" by way of Fellini, "Shakes" eventually gained the admiration of Martin Scorsese and became the first hint of Goldthwait's new career direction.

 

"Windy City Heat" (2003)

Goldthwait directed this "documentary" for Comedy Central about a goofy naif named Perry Caravello tricked by various scheming cohorts into thinking that he has been cast in the titular crime drama. The movie follows Caravello as he falls deeper and deeper into an absurdist prank. To this day, those who view "Windy City Heat" take a skeptical approach: Is Caravello really so clueless as to not realize -- over the course of a decade, apparently -- that he lacks any thespian talents? It actually doesn't matter. Goldthwait, appearing as himself in the film, revisits some of the ideas initially explored in "Shakes" by calling foul on the entire institution of the entertainment industry. Satire or the real deal, it's an incredibly wry commentary.

 

"Sleeping Dogs Lie" (2006)

Goldthwait's first attempt at working within conventional low budget constraints finally completed his transition from stand-up comedian to filmmaker. As the opening voiceover reveals, Melinda Page Hamilton plays a woman still plagued by a whimsical decision in college to perform her fellatio on her dog. That's enough to make "Sleeping Dogs Lie" stand out on the page and scare off squeamish audiences (although Goldthwait leaves plenty up to the imagination). However, the movie's brilliance lies in Goldthwait's willingness to run with the premise and -- yes, really -- transform it into a legitimate relationship drama. The underlying question of whether or not couples should keep secrets from each other takes the movie beyond its introductory gross-out gag by making its characters oddly relatable. The scene in which his conflicted protagonist finally unloads her secret is a terrific actor-director synthesis that defines the essence of cringe comedy in a nutshell.

 

This article is related to: Bobcat Goldthwait, God Bless America, World's Greatest Dad, Filmmakers You Should Know





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