Monday, February 13, 2006

Movement, part 2

Seeing Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (Jeff Margolis) last week, it pained me to think about how often he was wasted in bad films and how his MS seemed to be some kind of vengeful retribution inflicted by insulted gods wanting to punish an artist whose comedy relied, almost exclusively, on facial expressions, body language, mimicry, anthropomorphization, and constant movement. Mostly, though, I laughed and watched a great artist at work. Pryor's stand-up comedy depended on Pryor's performance and delivery. If one were to transcribe his comedy and read it, it might produce a few smiles or nods of recognition, but most of it would lay dead on the page. Pryor's jokes are funny because of his delivery, not what is being delivered. He is a performer, in the best sense of the word, scrunching his body into the shape of a question mark and hopping from side to side as he talks about getting beaten by his father, lying on the floor in a ball and punching himself in the chest as he tells the story of his first heart attack, turning himself into an old woman, a lying little kid, Muhammad Ali, a white man, a pet monkey who likes to fuck people in the ear, a German sheperd, the engine of a car, and on and on. Pryor the artist is a living pinball, constantly in motion, banking off the multiplicity of human experience. Like all the artists I admire, he is simultaneously tough and compassionate, loving people while never letting them off the hook, and he never exempts himself from his work. He's not making judgments from on high and passing them down to an audience, he is discovering things about himself while performing and forcing the audience into self-discoveries as well. I would rank him, as a stand-up, right up there with lots of artists I admire in his wildly exciting understanding of patterns of speech and behavior and how body language and movement can reveal hidden mental states, including John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Tom Noonan, Charles Burnett, Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Elaine May, Howard Hawks, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, etc. If I'm making this sound too lofty, rest assured it is also funny as shit.

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