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The Lights Go On and You Reach for Your Hat

What is to be learned from the completely unacceptable films of Bobcat Goldthwait, which are utterly devoid of lessons?
DISCUSSED
Twisted Sister, Comedies about Child Suicide, The Citizen Kane of Alcoholic Clown Movies, Really Obvious Green Screens, Hollywood Squares, James Purdy, Puking Clowns, Sex with Roy Orbison, Semen-Covered Cookies, Nabokov’s Distinction between Satire and Parody
by Theodore McDermott
Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad (2009). Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Lights Go On and You Reach for Your Hat

Theodore McDermott
16 Snaps

Ridiculous Gang

If Bobcat Goldthwait is famous at all, he’s famous for being the comedian whose obnoxious, caterwauling scream-spasm is featured in the Police Academy movies. He debuted in Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment as Zed, the obnoxious leader of a gang called the Scullions. He returned for Police Academy 3: Back in Training to play Zed, an obnoxious new cadet in the wackily dysfunctional police department. In Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, he plays Zed, an obnoxious police officer in love.

On the strength of his performance in the Police Academy franchise, Goldthwait won the lead role in Hot to Trot, a movie in which John Candy voices a horse who gives Goldthwait’s Zed-like broker character investment advice. He performed unhinged stand-up in televised concert specials. He was a guest on The Howard Stern Show. He starred in Twisted Sister’s music videos for “Leader of the Pack” and “Be Chrool to Your Scuel.”

Thus began the career of one of America’s most compelling filmmakers.

 

Refusal

Bobcat Goldthwait has written and directed five movies: an absurd comedy called Shakes the Clown, an excessively cruel pseudo-documentary called Windy City Heat, a romantic comedy about bestiality called Sleeping Dogs Lie, a comedy about child suicide called World’s Greatest Dad, and a ranting road-trip movie called God Bless America that I haven’t seen because it hasn’t been released yet. His movies have debuted at Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival. He’s been acclaimed by John Waters and is admired, supposedly, by Martin Scorsese. The Boston Globe deemed Shakes the Clown “the Citizen Cane of alcoholic clown movies,” which is surely the only time anyone from the Police Academy franchise has been compared favorably to Orson Welles.

His films are stylistically diverse, insistently cynical, and consistently baffling. They are disorienting and unflinching. They employ the clichés of Hollywood movies as a means of mercilessly mocking convention and sentiment. They are flawed films that refuse to entertain.

 

Failure

The first Goldthwait-directed movie I saw was World’s Greatest Dad. My friend had seen it on the shelf at Hastings, a western chain of stores that combines features of Blockbuster and Borders but remains in business, and saw a sad-looking Robin Williams on the cover and rented it, hoping it might be something like One Hour Photo or Death to Smoochy.

He brought it over to my house, and they have medical marijuana in Montana, where I live, and we put it in the DVD player, and the movie began with the voice of Robin Williams saying, “My name is Lance Clayton. My biggest fear is that I’m going to end up all alone. I’m a writer… but so far nothing I’ve written has ever been published.”

In the next scene, Lance discovers his son, Kyle, watching internet porn, choking himself with a rope, and jerking off. His son’s response isn’t embarrassment but outrage: “I was coming, you fag.”

What follows is thirty-five or so minutes about a failed sci-fi writer and floundering teacher who works in the high school that his horny, insufferable teen son attends. The principal threatens to cut Lance’s poetry course due to its unpopularity. His son nearly gets expelled for telling a girl, “That pussy’s not gonna eat itself.” Lance’s girlfriend is Claire, a young, hot teacher who seems to be on the brink of leaving him for his rival creative-writing teacher, who happens to be young and hot—and who just got the first thing he’s ever submitted published in the New Yorker. Kyle hates ­everything––except for shizer porn and making his dad feel bad, which he does exquisitely. Lance’s wife is off somewhere with her “boytoy Todd.”

Then Kyle dies in the process of masturbating to cell-phone pictures of his dad’s girlfriend’s underwear while autoerotically asphyxiating himself.

When Lance discovers his son choked to death in his dark, messy bedroom, he collapses with grief, deletes the pictures, re-hangs his son’s corpse from his closet’s pull-up bar, and composes on his son’s new computer a suicide note that begins, “To all those I hate, I don’t know why I’m writing this. You never cared about what I thought or felt while I was alive.”

 

Q & A

The scholar—and annotator of Lolita—Alfred Appel Jr. once asked Nabokov, “Do you make a clear distinction between satire and parody? I ask this because you have so often said you do not wish to be taken as a ‘moral satirist,’ and yet parody is so central to your vision.”

Nabokov answered with one sentence: “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”

No one needs a lesson about the vapidity of Hollywood movies and the hypocrisy of American culture. What we do need, however, is to spend ninety-two minutes watching a man being elaborately tricked by Bobcat Goldthwait into believing he’s starring as Stone Fury, a “sports private eye,” in a big-budget action flick. Which is exactly what Windy City Heat allows us to do.

A made-for-Comedy-­Central movie, Windy City Heat opens with a man walking down a green-screened Chicago street, giving a monologue in his loud, raspy, Zed-like voice about being Stone Fury and about Chicago and about “broken dreams”—but this is intercut with titles that explain, “This is Perry / Everything you’re about to see / Is an elaborate prank being played upon him / Perry thinks he’s been cast to star in a real movie.”

If this isn’t a real movie, the viewer wonders, what is it?

Amid this, we hear a director say, “And cut” through a megaphone. The green-screened image becomes just a green screen, and we see that Perry is in a movie studio, walking on a spinning disk, getting nowhere, like a hamster on a wheel. Stone Fury’s monologue continues. The director says “cut” again, and now the camera shows us the director: Bobcat Goldthwait.

“I’ll do anything to be an a­ctor—anything to be a star,” Perry tells what he believes is a documentary crew making a behind-the-scenes movie to accompany the DVD release of an action movie called Windy City Heat. “A star more than an actor. A star! I’ll do anything to be a star.”

“Everyone is in on the joke,” the intertitles tell us, “except for Perry.”

Everyone, including you, the viewer, and so you, too, participate in the movie’s thorough humiliation and exploitation of a man who’s spent a lifetime trying to become famous and who’s clearly deluded by the dream of being validated.

At first, it’s really funny. It’s funny to see somebody being tricked and manipulated. Then it escalates terribly. Perry is made to wallow in a Dumpster filled with feces. He’s fed a disgusting blend of raw egg, old Chinese food, and beer, which gives him diarrhea. He’s locked out on a balcony. He’s brought to tears of joy by a fake awards show that’s designed to lampoon him and that will be broadcast on cable TV. In short, he’s tortured. And somewhere along the continuum, the joke is no longer on Perry, who’s clearly too mixed-up to comprehend what’s happening: it’s on you, the viewer, who’s watching this happen.

The viewer seeks the validation of being smarter than Perry, of being clever and aware, of finding all of this ironic and thus harmless—and Goldthwait exploits this desire. Rather than gratify us with some indication that it’s OK, everything’s fine, Perry’s all right, it’s all just a silly prank, he keeps the cruelty going until the very bitter end. There’s no last shot of everyone getting the joke and laughing together about it. There’s just an unwitting victim being jeered at by an auditorium full of famous comedians and extras.

We’re left on the hook. We don’t learn a lesson about how eager we are to watch someone fail and about how bad that is. We just watch someone fail and it’s awful and then the credits roll.

 

Clichés

In the suicide note he writes and attributes to Kyle, Lance Clayton exonerates himself and martyrs his son: “Which brings me to you, Dad. Don’t blame yourself. You tried hard and were the best dad a kid could want. I blame me doing this on a defect in me. In my soul. I’m sorry… I love you, Dad.”

When some neophyte investigative journalist discovers the note and publishes it in the school paper, Kyle is transformed from a loser into a brilliant, pained, romantic hero, while Lance goes from being a pathetic schlub to being the distinguished bearer of his tragic son’s legacy. His previously empty classroom fills up with students who want to know what kind of music Kyle liked and whether he specifically liked metal and whether or not he “knew Jesus before he went” and what his sign was.

A cool jock comes to confide in Lance: “It’s about Kyle’s note. It affected me a lot… I’m not happy, Mr. Clayton. I’m living a lie. I’m gay. And Kyle’s suicide note, it’s helped me get the courage to come out, finally… I’m misunderstood too, just like he was. I just want to be happy.”

A goth girl (played by Jack Nicholson’s daughter) eulogizes Kyle, poetically, in Lance’s now-overflowing poetry class: “Milky white skin and hair so brown / I wish I had known how bad you hurt / I could’ve held you while you cried / You were too sweet to stay in this harsh world / But I will always keep you close to my heart / My angel in cargo pants.”

Lance’s on-again-off-again teacher girlfriend looks at a button of Kyle’s face (just one example of the Kyle memorabilia at school) and says, “He was such a sweet kid.”

Lance’s young, New Yorker–published rival creative-writing teacher woodenly says, “As a father, I don’t know what I’d do if my Hunter did something like this. My heart really goes out to you, Lance.”

 

Sentiment

It is immediately noticeable that many of his characters speak awkwardly, uncertainly, and often in clichés, or in clusters of words which seem not to belong to them,” writes Tony Tanner in an essay about another chronicler of the emptiness of life through language: the fiction writer James Purdy. “And that is literally true. The language does not belong to them; they belong to the language.”

Like the characters in Purdy’s fiction, the characters in Goldthwait’s films don’t speak or feel so much as regurgitate the speech and feelings of characters in other movies. They don’t talk to each other so much as manipulate clichés back and forth. They can’t comprehend death, but they know what to say when someone dies—and what we say when someone dies, Goldthwait illustrates, has nothing to do with the person’s death. It has to do with us. It has to do with making ourselves appear sympathetic by making the deceased seem missed.

In this way, among countless others, we become detached from what we say. We say what we are supposed to, what we have heard before in this situation. We belong to language, but only after we’ve drained it of meaning. Sentiment is self-indulgent and therefore sentimental. A kid dies and everyone eagerly feels sorry for themselves.

 

Deleted Scene

When my grandfather died, I inherited a huge, framed drawing of a courtroom populated almost entirely by clowns. My grandmother, who I barely remember, bought the picture somewhere in South America, in the ’60s, I think.

The judge in the picture is a clown. The accused is a hangdog, resigned-seeming clown with his hands clutched in prayer. The demonstrative defense attorney is a clown. The person who holds a noose and who is therefore presumably the prosecutor is a clown. Everyone’s a clown except for one howling monkey wearing a prisoner’s black and white striped suit and one person who isn’t in costume. That person is W.C. Fields. He wears a top hat and has a bulbous nose and serves as one of the jurors.

Fields, if you don’t know, as I didn’t know, was a comedian, juggler, and actor who was famous in the early twentieth century for being, according to some anonymous Wikipedia author, “a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs, children and women.” Fields is mostly known now for his various self-deprecating witticisms about drinking, such as “I certainly do not drink all the time. I have to sleep, you know.”

Or as Goldthwait, playing the titular character in Shakes the Clown, rephrased it, “I’ve been sober plenty of times. When I was in my coma, I was sober for that entire time.”

I’ve never understood what my grandmother’s drawing means or why she bought it, but it looks like the storyboard for a deleted scene from Goldthwait’s first movie, Shakes the Clown, which is set, like the drawing, in a deeply pessimistic world populated largely by clowns.

Shakes the Clown opens with a shot of Florence Henderson––which is to say, Mrs. Brady––lipstick-smeared and passed out on a couch, while a dog wearing a pointy party hat devours the greasy pizza on the coffee table before her.

Then a boy passes through the trashed living room and tries to open the bathroom door, only to find it blocked by the head of a passed-out man. The man is Bobcat Goldthwait. The boy forces his way in and pees over Goldthwait and calls out, “Mom, who’s the naked clown in our bathroom?” She comes, the boy’s urine splashes on Goldthwait, Goldthwait yells at the boy, Mrs. Brady tries to flirt, Shakes pukes. And so on. 

 

Quotation

What is a quotation?” Tony Tanner asks elsewhere in his essay about James Purdy. He answers:

It may be an enriching contact between two contexts, a way of giving added relevance to a moment by introducing into it an echo from some previous experience and thus diminishing the contingency. Or it can be an inert phrase displaced from its proper context in a lame attempt to apprehend, or bestow texture on, a present moment felt to be lacking in definition and quality. That is to say, quoting can be an attempt to “textualize” a moment by recourse to other texts. The result can be a tessellation of incongruities, not adding a sense of continuity to an occasion but bringing out the latent feeling of discontinuity.

What I mean is, we discover Mrs. Brady and Shakes—yet another iteration of the Zed character—in this sordid relationship, in an alcoholic haze, in a dilapidated apartment, and it’s a way of using quotation to create discontinuity. Two different contexts are connected by casting, which diffuses the “present moment” of the scene, scrambles the meaning, makes a “tessellation of incongruities.”

And this is what Goldthwait does in each of his movies: he reassembles shards of popular culture into mosaics that depict the distortions of formula and cliché, that show how lame and vague the originals really are.

After all, he was, for a while, a semi-regular guest on Hollywood Squares, and he was so enraged by Paramount’s decision to cancel The Arsenio Hall Show that he spray-painted “Paramount Sucks” on the set, and he lit a chair on fire while on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and he was the director of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and don’t forget about Hot to Trot, and he even hosted an FX game show called Bobcat’s Big Ass Show, an awkward combination of Truth or Dare, Two Truths and a Lie, and a popularity contest. So he knows what he’s talking about.

 

Romance

Lance Clayton fabricates a journal entry of Kyle’s in order to impress Claire, the woman he wants. Then they sit on his couch, and he reads it to her. “I went out to dinner with my dad and Claire tonight,” Lance begins. “I’m so happy for him. But at the same time, seeing them together only proves that I’ll never be happy. I know I’ll never find a woman like her. So pretty. So perfect. She seems to complete him.” At this, Claire’s chin begins to quiver.

“I hope they make it.”

She cries.

“I hope they last. I hope I’m leaving my dad in good hands. No one could ever get me. I don’t even get me.”

She weeps.

I laugh. I laugh at a man using his son’s death to manipulate a woman into bed.

 

Fun

In the ’80s and ’90s, Goldthwait performed stand-up that consisted mainly of him scream-spasming, furiously frustrated by his inability to tell jokes. In 1994, for example, he appeared in a TV special called Comic Relief and spent the first fifty or so seconds screaming maniacally and insensibly into a microphone. The audience laughed rarely and nervously. Then, finally, he assembles a sentence: “Scott Baio is the Antichrist.” After he blurts this out, he returns to spazzing out, looks like he might break down and cry, and scolds the audience: “I don’t have a joke for everything, you know!” This makes them clap some. Bobcat starts some jokes—“My wife is so fat”; “I’m a living example of dianetics”—but doesn’t bother to finish them. Then he wishes he were elsewhere: “I don’t want to be here,” he says. “I’m really nervous and I didn’t want to do the show.” Then a couple of prop guys wheel out a shower and Bobcat gets in and undresses and the audience cheers and he tells them to shut up. Then he turns on the water and shampoos his hair while failing to tell the same jokes as before.

Then his set is done.

Somewhere in here is the origin of the movies Goldthwait makes now. This antagonistically incoherent stand-up routine morphed into his unhinged films, but both have the same effect: Goldthwait fails—or refuses—to be funny, and thereby forces the viewer to manufacture the amusement. To make fun. To clap for someone’s failure.

 

The Twisted Balloon

Shakes the Clown is the story of Shakes’s violent competition with a clown named Binky to host a popular local kids’ TV show. It’s a collage of clichés about movies and of vulgar jokes and of sight gags. It’s as convoluted as a mystery, and absurdity seems to be the only organizing principle. It’s set in an alternate, parallel reality where mimes and clowns and even milkmen are normal, competing segments of the population, and they form gangs that clash in violent conflicts that mostly have to do with whiskey, women, and money. It’s set in a town called Palukaville, U.S.A. It feels like something you’d find on public access. It’s often tedious and always ridiculous.

 

Contrivance

We shot it in two weeks,” Goldthwait has said about Sleeping Dogs Lie, “and a lot of the crew was from Craigslist.”

Mumblecore movies are made this way, too, but the outcome is the opposite: instead of an aimless film that dispenses with plot in favor of exploring the mundane complexities of contemporary malaise, we get a heavily contrived romantic comedy about a woman whose engagement is ruined by a secret she finally confesses to her fiancé: while in college, she fellated her dog. As this implausible premise unfolds, it becomes increasingly unclear if you’re watching (a) a take-down of all those terribly formulaic romantic comedies, or (b) a terribly formulaic romantic comedy made by a crazy person.

On one hand, Sleeping Dogs Lie is about finding love exactly where you least expect it. On the other hand, the protagonist’s supposedly squeamish mother confesses to wrestling another woman in her underwear while Elvis “beat off”—and to having sex, on a different occasion, with Roy Orbison; the protagonist’s brother smokes meth and plays a keyboard in front of the protagonist’s fiancé; and the protagonist’s fiancé admits to eating a semen-covered cookie. 

Like outsider art, it’s hard to tell if the poverty of technique and absence of subtlety are evidence of genius or a lack of talent. Goldthwait’s comedy, all the way back to his days as Zed, has always made the viewer wonder about this. And this wonder makes us watch.

 

Fake Journal

Everyone is eager to revel in tragedy—if by “everyone” you mean upper-middle-class Americans who are prevented by material comfort from suffering and who therefore seek sadness, because they equate it with authenticity, since both are elusive.

These, anyhow, are the people in the world of World’s Greatest Dad, and they are thrilled by the chance to have an authentic outpouring of grief at the expense of a dead saint—even if they have to conjure their saint from the corpse of a pimply, insufferable teenager who died jerking off. So they pour out their grief—they get kyle tattoos and make kyle T-shirts and fight over his supposed belongings—and Lance laps it up. They’re ravenous for more and Lance gives it to them: in a montage, he casually smokes pot and furiously writes an entire fake journal for Kyle.

The journal is published as You Don’t Know Me. Thus, perversely, Lance’s dream is realized, his aim is accomplished: a book he wrote has been published. And now he gets the girl. And now we get a shot of Robin Williams as Lance mechanically, um, humping Claire.

“Everybody loves the book,” she says, in medias res. “You did the right thing. Fuck me. Harder. No. From behind.”

Lance is getting just what he wanted—and just what Kyle fantasized about, what he masturbated to. “To the left,” Claire instructs. “My left. Yeah. Don’t stop. Stop! Stop… Pull my hair. Not so hard.”

It’s awful because, unlike everything everyone has been saying and feeling throughout the movie, it’s real.

 

Indeed

Lance finds himself in a makeup chair, backstage at an Oprah-like TV talk show called Dr. Dana, preparing to plug You Don’t Know Me, while a headset-wearing producer tells him, “Lance, if you should start to talk about your son and begin to cry or well up, just go with it. Don’t be ashamed.”

Then a literary agent pops into the shot and compliments his son’s supposed book: “I honestly think this could be the biggest posthumous autobiography since The Diary of Anne Frank. Honestly.”

Then Dr. Dana herself introduces Lance and his son’s book. “My guest today is Mr. Lance Clayton. Lance’s fifteen-year-old son, Kyle, tragically took his own life, but from this terrible story of loss arose one of hope. Here he is to share this powerful story. Mr. Lance Clayton.” He comes out and a graphic labels him “Lance Clayton, Father/Hero” and she thanks him for coming: “We know it takes great courage for you to do this… One of the most difficult things is for a parent to lose their child.”

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, it is.”

“Tell us about your son, Kyle.”

“He was a sweet boy,” Lance says and starts to laugh. Unless he’s crying.

 

Time Travel

You know,” Goldthwait said in an Onion interview, “I really want to make a short where the forty-seven-year-old me time-travels back and talks the twenty-something-year-old Bobcat out of being in Police Academy 2.”

This sounds like a funny movie and a bad idea. I doubt he ever would’ve made his smart and caustic later movies if he’d never been Zed, because the movies he writes and directs are exposés about the lie that Goldthwait believed earlier in his career, the lie that undergirds all of American culture, the lie that happiness comes from the validation of others. The lie that Lance and Perry and Shakes all fall for. The lie that Goldthwait fell for when he signed up to do Hot to Trot and Hollywood Squares. The lie that his movies won’t let us believe.

 

WWKD?

When Lance shows up at the school for a ceremony to dedicate the library in Kyle’s honor, he finds the halls plastered with posters that say things like we [heart] kyle and miss u bro. Then he goes into the packed library and finds Bruce Hornsby, prepared to play a song in Kyle’s honor. There’s no microphone stand, though, so an overweight redheaded kid holds the microphone up to his mouth while he plays a sad song on the piano. A girl wears a wwkd? T-shirt. The principal gives a speech. “Kyle did not die in vain,” he says. “Through his book and through our hearts, he will live on.”

Lance comes up to the podium to a rousing ovation.

By this point, no one is sympathetic, so you’re not rooting for anyone and there’s no tension: your hope is that everyone will lose.

Then Lance comes up and gives a speech, spills the beans:

You guys didn’t like Kyle. But that’s OK. I didn’t either. I loved him. He was my son. He was also a douchebag. He wasn’t very smart. And he didn’t kill himself. Kyle died accidentally, while masturbating. I made it look like a suicide and then I wrote his suicide note. I also wrote his journal. Thank you.

And that’s it: he’s liberated of all his wrongdoing. “Under Pressure” starts up and Lance, in a voiceover, tells us the moral of the story: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

Then he takes off his tie, smiles hugely, runs through the halls, throws his coat, throws his watch, rips off his shirt, exposes his flabby chest, arrives at the high-school pool, drops his pants and his tighty-whities, and climbs the high-dive in just his socks. This is Robin Williams, and he’s nude except for his socks. He dives into the pool and we get a glimpse of Robin Williams’s penis and that’s pretty much it: there are no consequences for all the cruel ways he has manipulated an entire high school of teenagers and teachers.

“There isn’t anything to say about such private sorrow,” writes James Purdy at the end of one of his early, devastating stories. “You just wait till the lights go on and then reach for your hat.”

 

Flaws

In the recent Failure Issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Travis Jeppesen writes:

John Ashbery once gave a lecture at the Yale School of Art on the historical avant-garde in which he asked why Jackson Pollock is considered to be a great artist while Norman Rockwell is considered, essentially, a kitsch illustrator. In asking this question, Ashbery arrived at the best definition of art I’ve heard to date. Pollock is a great artist because, no matter how much praise was eventually heaped on him in his lifetime and posthumously, there is something fundamentally unacceptable about his work. Ashbery even goes so far as to suggest to his audience of young artists, in the event that their work is received in the light of universal praise and acclaim, that they might not ask themselves whether there then might be something wrong with their work.

Similarly, it’s the flaws in Goldthwait’s movies—the formulaic plots, the absurdities, the tediousness, the lack of jokes, the unsympathetic characters, the bland camerawork—that make them more than just clever indie comedies. The difference has to do with the way the audience is treated: We aren’t entertained. There aren’t any inventive shots. There isn’t a sound track of forgotten gems from the ’70s. There’s no thoughtful use of colors in the set design. The characters aren’t aimless prodigies or quirky archaeologists. In short, there’s nothing for us to feel clever about getting—but that doesn’t stop us from trying (take this essay, for a gratuitous example). We’re as eager to be validated and rewarded for being smart as Lance Clayton is. We try, but all we get in the end is a pathetic middle-aged writer taking advantage of his child’s suicide to advance his career and get laid. We get a parody that’s a game we don’t know how to play. And we are left with something unacceptable: a movie where nobody can be pitied because nobody, not even the victim of death, is a pure victim.

“The difference between you and me and Kyle,” Goldthwait told the Onion in an interview, “is clearly we have an imagination, and Kyle has no imagination. I always would explain… that the real villain in this movie is a lack of imagination. The kids at school all have no imagination, and Kyle represented that the greatest. As soon as that computer came into his room, he didn’t have to think about anything.” 

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