Thursday, 19 December 2013

Comedy Special: Bo Burnham And The Battle Of Art VS Comedy

A little while ago, I wrote a special feature on comedies for an online magazine called Splendid Fred. It focused on why comedy films are not considered good films - why jokes are not considered art. Obviously, I am not the only one who has been involved in the art versus comedy argument but I feel like a recent creation brings the two together in a glorious collision of music and laughs. That creation is Bo Burnham's recent stand up show, what. (Available in full on Youtube and Netflix) But this is not the first time Bo has proved himself a master of art and comedy.

Bo started on Youtube with songs such as 'My Whole Family' and '3.14 Apple Pi' in 2006. He then went on to release an EP entitled 'Bo Fo Sho' in 2008, followed by a full length album, 'Bo Burnham', in 2009. From there, it was strength to strength for Burnham as he filmed his own Comedy Central, had small roles in films such as American Virgin and Funny People, released his own live special and album, Words, Words, Words, and secured a TV deal with MTV to air in 2013. This TV series turned out to be the horribly underrated and prematurely cancelled Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, a show that I personally recommend. Despite Zach Stone's cancellation, Bo stayed strong and wrote a poetry book called Egghead: Or, You Can't Survive On Ideas Alone. Most recently, Bo toured with his new show, what., which he then released, for free, online.

Bo's success is undoubtedly thanks to his universal, but ultimately niche, appeal.  This is an oxymoron, a paradox of demographic. His jokes are sometimes as mainstream as they come but they are always, always, layered with heaps of intellect and it is this that pigeon holes him. It is this reason that Zach Stone did not strike well with the contemporary audience that Bo's dick jokes go so well with. The crude side of his jokes, even without the layering of intelligence, still have a basic comedy value but as Burnham has moved forward, he has developed his style so that the crude jokes are now the side bit, the superficial top layer. His social commentary that the jokes cover has moved more into the foreground and his clever wit and performance style has highlighted the satirical nature of his work. But this mainstream/niche appeal leaves him in a perfect position to create a discourse (or blend) between 'art' and comedy.

Words, Words, Words was Bo tipping his toes into the world of the battle of art and comedy. The majority of the show was a combination of clever gags and his usual subversive music, both delving more into the world of politics and social commentary. However, there are two songs that stand out in this debate: 'What's Funny' and ' Art Is Dead'. Their titles even spotlight their insight into the argument. The former simply parodies how easy it is to create comedy and why such simple things are funny, while the latter suggests that it is exactly this attitude that has killed art. He points out that comedians are just the kids who wanted attention and are now being paid to do just that, and can call themselves artists because of it. But this is where Bo is so clever: he is using an art form to criticise the nature of art itself , he uses comedy to point out how easy it is. This meta-comedy routine makes us question our own thoughts on the subject, brings the debate into full-view, and provides a paradoxical answer. This is where what. comes in.

what. is almost a full fledged dedication to art versus comedy. There is still his normal subversive songs and his could-be offensive brand of jokes, but from the very opening of the show he is commenting on the nature of 'art'. After a bit in which he sings about his natural voice whilst heavily auto-tuned, he knocks a bottle of water over followed promptly by a track that says, 'he meant to knock the water over ... art is a lie, nothing is real'. He then goes on to prove that 'art' is a lie with a, crudely beautiful, poem entitled 'I Fuck Sluts'. A masterfully constructed piece of spoken word, an indisputable art form, comically written with highly misogynistic language, the contrast of which brings the humour. It is not the only time that Bo uses this form in what. as he returns to poetry later on to continue what he started in 'I Fuck Sluts' - to completely juxtapose the art form he uses, a lot like 'Art Is Dead' from Words, Words, Words.

But the peak of the debate comes in the form of a skit that, in audio alone sounds like a piece of art, but in visuals alone looks like a very crude, and tasteless, joke. The song is very bluntly titled 'Beating Off In A Minor', which Bo clarifies as the key and not the felony. The music is a delightful, joyous piece of music consisting of a flute, piano, and violin before turning into electric rock, and then after a pause turns to a haunting, harsh keyboard. On stage, we see Bo mime typing on a computer, before seeming content and pulling his trousers down, and the joke becomes clear. To the electro-rock, Bo masturbates furiously, to the haunting track, Bo shamefully washes his hands of his deed. Masturbation jokes are, arguably, one of the lowest forms of comedy but Burnham turns it entirely on its head by combining it with a well composed segment of music creating an intriguing piece of performance. Is it art or is it crass? Or is it both - is comedy art? Who would have thought a young man mime-masturbating would raise such questions?

Finally in what., is 'Repeat Stuff' and 'We Think We Know You', two songs which point out the fickle nature of the music industry, supposedly an industry of art. 'Repeat Stuff' is a song about the production and creation of pop hits, the idea that they must appeal to everyone and be immediately memorable leading the art within to suffer. 'We Think We Know You' carries this on with a conversation between Bo and three others, an agent, a bimbo, and a jock. The bimbo and jock highlight that change that fame can bring, both socially and within the self, whilst the agent shows the corrupting influence the industry can have on the content and quality of art. 'We Think We Know You' ends with Bo remixing the voices, adding a layer of synth and drums, until the audience are completely absorbed into a musical trance. Art made out of the commentary of art - how much more meta can you get?

So in the argument of art versus comedy, or comedy versus quality, Bo Burnham excels in contrasting the two to raise the point, the same point I raised in my last feature on the topic: why can comedy not be considered art or quality? Bo simply answers it can be. He plays with people's expectations of art and makes it hilarious. The majority of Bo Burnham's work can be found on his Youtube, and it is highly recommended by myself and critics alike. what. is available on Netflix and Youtube worldwide and Words, Words, Words is available on UK Netflix or to buy.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Timey-Wimey Stuff

The 'un-filmable', when referring to books, seems to be considered more of a challenge these days than a suggestion. We have seen it time and time again. Think American Psycho or Life Of Pi. In fact, 2012 also saw the release today's film, also deemed 'un-filmable'. This is Cloud Atlas.

Where to start?
At its essence, Cloud Atlas is six tales of six people throughout time. Across the six tales, there are, primarily, thirteen actors covering all of the main characters. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant play seven characters each. Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Doona Bae play six each. Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, and Susan Sarandon also all play several important roles over most of the stories. The stories consist of a man saving a slave and vice-versa in the 1800s, a young composer trying to create a masterpiece in the 1936, a reporter trying to reveal something huge in the 70s, a publisher getting in lots of trouble with his brother, a nursing home, and thugs in the present day, a Korean clone made purely to serve food longing for more meaning in life in the far future, and a tribal man in post-apocalyptic Hawaii.  All the stories interlink in some way, as Sonmi-451, the Korean clone, says: 'Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.'


There is one thing that is almost a certainty with Cloud Atlas: you will be surprised in the credits when the images of all the characters are shown with the actors names. The versatility of all of the performers is simply astounding. It is hard to pick a stand out amongst such a variety of performances and it is hard to dive into too much depth on such a wide topic. What is also worthy of high praise here is the make-up, hair, and costume departments on the film for making everyone almost unrecognisable across the six storylines. These, often horribly overlooked, departments were clearly a huge catalyst in developing the way in which the actors developed their characters; they were literally transformed into someone else. This is a whole new league of multi-roles and will take some work to top in years to come.

Well this sucks.

But Cloud Atlas' indescribable nature does not end with the acting. Trying to explain Cloud Atlas to someone is a lot like trying to theoretical physics to a seven year old; you can describe it perfectly, but it still will not quite make sense. But when all the stories link and tie together, it is masterful. Wonderfully adapted from David Mitchell's novel by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, Cloud Atlas skilfully blends the six stories with such grace and brilliant editing that one cannot help but be sucked simultaneously into each one. The near three hour runtime seems like half that as climaxes come periodically throughout the film, releasing catharsis and then building up to the next one. A mix of all genres, stretching from period drama to sci-fi action, and all in between to create something truly unique.

Philosophical, dramatic, action packed, and touching. Cloud Atlas is a truly spectacular piece of cinema that will no doubt be a talking point for years to come. Some of the best performances in years, though focus is required. Set aside a solid three hours with snacks and drinks, and enjoy.

Best Bit? Jim Broadbent's Timothy Cavendish's story line goes from strength to strength but climaxes with one of the most entertaining escapes in years as some O.A.P.s and himself have to break out of a nursing home and, naturally, go to a pub straight after.

Monday, 2 December 2013


At the moment, this blog is dedicated to opening people's eyes to the great range of films out there. From classics like Sherlock Jr, to modern day masterpieces like Gravity. From foreign films like Amour, to small indie miracles like Beasts Of The Southern Wild. And recently, documentaries. Today's film landed at number 19 on Empire Magazine's top 50 films of 2013. That's above Les Miserables, A Field In England, and Trance. Could it be that documentaries truly are an equally entertaining and enjoyable (as well as educational) genre of film as all our other favourites? But what is causing such a splash? This is Blackfish.

Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is the primarily the story of Tilikum, a killer whale, otherwise known as an orca, that performs in SeaWorld. The documentary takes us through his tale from capture as a calf, to his performances in Sealand and onwards. However, Tilikum is a whale that lives up to his species' name. After killing a trainer in Sealand, causing its closure, Tilikum moved to SeaWorld and, as they all say, history is doomed to repeat itself. But along the way, we are enlightened by fascinating interviews with former SeaWorld trainers who explain the experience of working with the mammoth mammals. They also talk about the darker side of the industry. The lies, the cover ups, the lack of information, the danger they were never informed of. Accompanying this are side stories about other whales and other trainers and even other theme parks in which whales perform. This is far more than a story of a single killer whale; this is a documentary about the nature of the creatures. How gentle they can be but also how violent. How intelligent they are, how emotional, how heartbreaking. The story of Tilikum just links it all together. 

SeaWorld's representatives were flipping out over the film.

Despite SeaWorld claiming that the information portrayed within in the documentary is false or misleading, Cowperthwaite seems to have done her research. Every point the film makes is backed up with either hard evidence such as videos and audio from the courts, or interviews about personal experience in the profession. The latter of which are sometimes jaw-droppingly shocking. One former trainer, Samantha Berg, points out the countless incidents of harm caused by the whales in captivity, and that she was never informed of any of them before her employment. (A shocking list of incidents involving killer whales in the wild versus captivity is available here, on good ol' Wikipedia) Eventually, the evidence is piled up against the treatment of killer whales in captivity and event heir trainers. It becomes somewhat of a horror in the truest sense of the word: what it presents can only be described as horrifying.

They just have a whale of a time.

What Blackfish excels in is its editing. It masterfully paces the way it reveals information throughout its runtime. Revealing its main premise early on and then going back to the beginning, the shocking story of a trainer killing killer whale becomes a terrifying tale of the mistreatment of animals and a new insight into the corruption of greed and power. What seems like a 'look how scary nature is' documentary turns out to ask a bigger question: who is the real monster - man or beast? Cowperthwaite includes video footage that documents the incredible abilities of the trainers and their professionalism around the animals, but also the beautiful and majestic nature of the whales, from their friendliness, to their grief, to their aggression, even in front of an audience. They are used to tell stories and emphasise points, and, in both instances, they help develop the grand scale of shocking information that gets presented.

If Super Size Me put you off McDonalds, Blackfish will likely taint the childhood memories you have of seeing Shamu diving into the air, trainer standing on her nose. Your inner Greenpeace warrior will come out, if only to go after the SeaWorld cooperation that so willingly risked human and animal wellbeing for a few more dollars. A terrifyingly shocking piece of cinema. A real eye opener.

Best Bit? Perhaps should be called worst bit. There is plenty of video footage of orca 'accidents' happening. These moments you simply pray for the trainers, but also feel sorry for the whales.