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Cinema: A Paean To A Pop Postmodernist

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

The short, weird career of Andy Kaufman poses a single, overriding issue: Was he a self-conscious genius of the put-on, cleverly calculating his effects, which were ever poised on the thin line that separates childish innocence from transgression? Or was he just another of those sociopaths, unable to tell right from wrong, funny from unfunny, whom the popular culture occasionally dredges up to amuse and confuse us?

Milos Forman’s film Man on the Moon, and Jim Carrey’s performance as the artist constantly in question, don’t attempt to answer that conundrum. Both merely present Kaufman with a dispassionate, ultimately hypnotizing objectivity. It is very possibly the best work each man has done, and assuredly the best thing screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have done in a joint career devoted to odd fellows–Ed Wood, Larry Flynt–coolly observed.

The film somewhat scants Kaufman’s only widely popular success, as Latka, the “foreign man” of Taxi. But all his other creations are here in full: the Mighty Mouse lip syncher, the Elvis impersonator, the wrestler who challenged women in the audience. And, of course, Tony Clifton, the hostile Las Vegas lounge singer. Carrey is easy in all those guises but never frantic for our favor. He gives a wonderfully disciplined performance.

Kaufman rightly objected to being called a comedian. But he was, perhaps, a mordant self-satirist, perpetually in touch with, loving and loathing, his inner child, the lonely little Long Island boy, consoled by his obsessive interest in the trashiest manifestations of pop culture. It was his luck to come on the scene in the ’70s, just as a generation that had been shaped–blighted–by the same pop materials was arriving at self-consciousness. The natural impulse of the members of that generation was to nostalgize pop culture and their own innocent response to it. On the other hand, it was hard not to feel betrayed by the tinniness of what they had played on their toy record players, the empty sensations they had caught on TV. Kaufman spoke both to the treasured remnants of their naivete and to their angry sense of betrayal.

According to a recent profile of Kaufman in the New Yorker by Julie Hecht, who hung out with him in those days, he spoke about killing himself on television, which would have been, for him, the perfect summarizing gesture. Probably he was kidding. But his self-destructive and endlessly confrontational relationship with networks, concert managers and audiences was the great theme of his career. He was always disconcertingly catching everyone between laughter and outrage. And the cookies-and-milk treat he sometimes offered later never quite healed that ambiguity. Man on the Moon doesn’t either. It just gives us Andy, the pop postmodernist, and permits us to make what we will of him, which is a fascinating activity.

–By Richard Schickel

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