Double Displeasure I have a theory about Steve Martin. Actually, I have two theories about him. The first is that Steve Martin is the kind of artist who is best dealt with in terms of a theory. A corollary of this theory holds that if you can have one theory about someone like Steve Martin, why not have two? Things generally look better in matched pairs. The second theory, a necessary product of the corollary of the first, holds that Steve Martin, considered not just as a person but also as an artist, and indeed as an artist who in some lights looks uncannily like a person, represents the latest, and most assuredly the final, stage in human evolution. He is, in fact, the Last Man. Not only that, but he is also the Last Man's Straight Man. In sum: he exemplifies humanity when it reaches the stage of being doubled over by a joke it doesn't understand, namely itself. Call him Homo Absurdicus?but be sure to duck after saying the first word. The previous stage of human evolution, as I'm sure you will recall if you weren't napping, was the stage of alienation. People were estranged from themselves. They looked in the mirror and saw Walter Mondale. This was even more depressing than reading Sartre, so consequently many people began throwing themselves under trains, drinking heavily and watching tv when nothing was on. If this had kept up, the planet would have rapidly been depopulated and real estate values would have plunged accordingly. Mother Nature's big joke on the doomsayers and whiny pessimists (you know who you are out there) was Steve Martin. Steve transmuted existentialist angst into something new: styrofoam bunny ears. He didn't banish the modern condition of being alienated from oneself, but he did realize that it increases one's chances of finding a partner for table tennis. Refusing to give in to despair, or even to return its calls, Steve converted humanity's dark slide toward extinction into an endless tango with a dame called Irony. This saved the species but it also left Steve in what Freudians call a classic double bind. The bind, that is, of being classically and forever double. In such a state, one cannot think of oneself without also making a joke re: thinking of oneself. Witty self-consciousness becomes the true meaning of life, and dating the Doublemint Twins starts to look like a realistic goal. Thus does the world get a guy who makes films with titles like The Man with Two Brains, and who just naturally assumes that he can be a bigshot movie star and a writer for The New Yorker at the same time. If you think about it, this condition of ironic doubleness explains everything about Steve Martin's career. When you see Steve in a movie that someone else has written, you are seeing only one Steve: the double (sometimes the stunt double). The real Steve is somewhere else, perhaps having a laugh over martinis with David Denby, or, more likely, cashing his checks down at the Malibu Savings & Loan. When, however, you see Steve in a movie that he has written, you are getting both Steves. And not only that, but his doubleness affects every aspect of the story and production. Instead of a Steve Martin movie, but for the same price, moviegoers are confronted with a Steve Martin Steve Martin movie movie. This perhaps still sounds a mite theoretical, but you will see exactly what I mean if you go to Bowfinger. Would Steve Martin even consider writing a movie in which he plays, say, an ordinary joe from Anytown, USA? Of course not. Thinking self-reflexively from the time he brushes his teeth in the morning, the dexterous hyphenate naturally crafts a screenplay in which he, a real-life moviemaker, plays a fictional moviemaker setting out to make, of all things, a movie, in?can you guess??Hollywood, US of A. An inveterate dreamer, a lovable loser with a fake ponytail, the character Martin plays, Bowfinger, lives in a shabby little bungalow with a portico grandly emblazoned Bowfinger International Pictures. He has about him a small core of like-minded losers who look to him for leadership but who seem close to despair. Then Bowfinger hits on his long-awaited dream project. It's a sci-fi action script called Chubby Rain, the premise of which involves aliens coming to Earth in raindrops, hence the rain's chubbiness. This, as I'm sure you've already noticed, is a clever reference to Steve's core existential dilemma: aliens equaling alienation, raindrops all looking exactly alike, etc. In fact, the concept of Bowfinger's film-within-a-film is so dazzlingly self-reflexive that you will get carsick if think about it for any longer than it takes your eyes to reach the next paragraph.... Anyway, Bowfinger soon discovers that he can only get Chubby Rain off the ground if he enlists the services of the world's biggest action movie star, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). Not to be unkind about it, but Kit is a hair-trigger head case who's so paranoid of white people that he thinks any mention of Shakespeare is a coded racist insult meaning "spear chucker." The star also belongs to a Scientology-like cult whose nefarious leader (Terence Stamp) can barely keep Kit's overheated paranoid fantasies at a slow simmer. (An aside: I didn't realize Hollywood stars were allowed to satirize Scientology. Perhaps this is an unconscious existential feint on Steve's part: an attempt to have his double commit career suicide.) Vis-a-vis Kit, Bowfinger has two obvious problems: he is white, and his entire budget for Chubby Rain is just over $2,000. But this is where Bowfinger's ingenuity?which is to say, Steve's?saves the day. The filmmaker's solution to his own problem is brilliant. Rather than convincing Kit to take the lead role, Bowfinger decides to film the movie around him, having his actors stage scenes wherever they manage to encounter the star, who simply reacts without knowing he's being filmed. Of course, since Chubby Rain and much of its dialogue concerns aliens, and Kit's as paranoid regarding aliens as he is regarding whites, this method proves not at all conducive to soothing his troubled mind. Bowfinger is just as ingenious on other fronts. He and his cohorts manage to "borrow" most of the equipment they need. To recruit crew members, they go down toward Mexico and make captives of illegal immigrants crossing the border. Though at first not at all familiar with filmmaking, these real-life "aliens" are soon perusing Cahiers du Cinema on their breaks. For his female lead, Bowfinger discovers a comely lass just off the bus from Ohio (Heather Graham) whose down-home ways and peach-blossom innocence disguise a steely determination to have sex with every man who can advance her career. Bowfinger's other big discovery is a gawky, sweet-tempered black kid (Eddie Murphy again) who's hired to be Kit's double?you will have noted the Nabokovian proliferation of such doppelgangers?and to run errands, mainly fetching coffee from Starbucks. Since his work as a double involves running in sheer terror across busy freeways, the kid naturally prefers going to Starbucks. Then the company discovers that he is Kit's younger brother. Suddenly he's too valuable to be sent lunging into rush-hour traffic, even for coffee. From even this brief synopsis, I'm sure you will gather that Bowfinger is Steve Martin's most elaborate and multileveled allegory yet dealing with the state of being mirthfully estranged from his own reality as a big-time moviemaker. It will surely be analyzed and debated for decades by academics and other anal-compulsives, who perhaps have already noted the similarity of "Martin" to "martian" and of "Steve" to "Reeve(s)," the name of not one but two ill-starred actors to play a superhero alienated from the planet of his birth, namely Krypton. (Coincidence? Oh sure.) However, the main thing for scholars to parse in regards to this movie is that it casts Eddie Murphy?aka the funniest man in movies, and worth the price of admission even if he were playing Willy Loman?in two roles. I submit that this is nothing other than Steve Martin projecting his own condition of droll doubleness onto another, and trusting we won't notice. Thankfully, it works. Of course films about filmmaking are a dime a dozen at the moment, but this makes Bowfinger truly special. It's like The Blair Witch Project, but with a double helping of Murphy instead of no helpings of the witch (whatever happened to truth in advertising?). Bowfinger, in short, belongs in the company of every movie one happens to like, such as Sunset Boulevard, Buster Keaton's The Cameraman, Day for Night, The Stewardesses and The Wizard of Oz. Speaking of the latter, Bowfinger was directed by Frank (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) Oz, or so the credits say. Personally, I suspect that "Frank Oz"?what a name, right??may be a Martian anagram for "Steve Martin." But that's just a theory. Dick directed by Andrew Fleming Speaking of Sartre, Hollywood has been evidencing a particular form of bad faith in the last six months or so. It puts out movies with teenagers as main characters and then waits for naive or ill-tempered film critics to bemoan that teenagers don't go see them. But teenagers aren't stupid. They know that a movie like Election isn't really about teenagers; it's about a point of view that may be naive or ill-tempered but is always profoundly middle-aged. American Pie is for teenagers, as they will gladly tell you. The faux-teenager movie?which comes from older filmmakers' unsuccessful attempts to deny or evade the current demographics of moviegoing?reaches a suitably absurd crescendo in Andrew Fleming's Dick, a comedy in which all the events and famous personalities of the Watergate scandal are seen through the eyes of two teenage girls (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst). That narrative focus is supposed to make it appeal to younger as well as older audiences, but guess what? Teenagers don't get the references! Duh. A friend told of seeing the movie at a screening in L.A. In the back rows were middle-aged critics and industry types who laughed regularly and appreciatively. Down front were rows of teens and twentysomethings, who sat through the satire in glum silence, despite its groovy period costumes and music and gleeful pokes at figures like Kissinger and Haldeman. I guess I'm regressing because I didn't laugh that much myself. The most amusing thing about the movie, actually, is the advance glimpse it affords of the faux-teen movie's imminent collapse.
MUST READ NEWS
Sign up to get our newsletter emailed to you every week!
- Enter your email address in the box below.
- Select the newsletters you would like to subscribe to.
- Click the 'SUBSCRIBE' button.