You know that line from the opening of “Howl,” the one in which Allen Ginsberg laments the fate of his Beat friends with the plaintive cry, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …”? Well, it occurred to me recently that I have seen the best minds, well, the best comic minds of my generation destroyed by … warmth .
Warmth: Look how it ruined Robin Williams who once had a gift for brilliant, laser-sharp riffs that cracked you up but could cut deep, too, lacerating the pretensions of pop culture and pop sensibility. He once did what the best satirists were supposed to do: hold a mirror up to nature even if that mirror was streaked with the remnants of white-line fevers, or acted like one of those scary motel-room magnifying mirrors that turns each pore into a bottomless abyss .
A couple things set me thinking about this-about the way warmth, the lust to be beloved in a fuzzy, cuddly way has ruined Mr. Williams. First there was a message I got when I was traveling recently, that someone from the Los Angeles Times wanted to get a quote from me “about Robin Williams and the Holocaust.” At least that’s what I think it said, since the words were garbled by the bad reception of the in-flight Airfone, and I wasn’t able to get back to the caller, and I didn’t figure out what it was really about until a few days later, when I was in a theater, watching the previews, and I gazed with growing horror at the trailer for Mr. Williams’ forthcoming Holocaust “warmedy” (the TV sitcom term of art for life-affirming fun), Jakob the Liar . I realized the L.A. Times call must have been prompted by my recent column attacking Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust warmedy Life Is Beautiful (“Benigni and Chaplin: The Arrogance of Clowns,” April 19), which I characterized as a “feel-good fable about the Holocaust.”
Now I don’t want to prejudge Jakob the Liar , but the trailer alone was sick-making, featuring scenes of a warm and fuzzy Mr. Williams (his warmth-induced self-destruction as a performer began when he first grew a beard and started looking warm and -literally-fuzzy in Moscow on the Hudson ), Mr. Williams receiving the grateful appreciation of ghetto Jews for his beautiful, life-affirming, life-is-beautiful antics. I felt a kind of physical revulsion: Haven’t Jews suffered enough without having to be depicted as grateful supplicants to the healing “hilarity” of Patch Adams? The estimable NPR commentator Elvis Mitchell once characterized the execrable Mr. Benigni as “the Patch Adams of the Holocaust,” and it suddenly made me wonder if Mr. Williams had read that-or misread it-as a compliment and decided, “Gosh darn it, that’s just what I’ll do in my next film: I’ll be the real ‘Patch Adams of the Holocaust.’”
Have you seen Patch Adams , by the way? You know you’ve been on the road too long when your hotel room Spectravision habit becomes so perverse, you watch something you know you’re going to hate just to relieve the cabin fever. Whoa: Patch Adams was intense, like being force-fed canned cake frosting. Patch Adams was soooo desperately warm, soooo hysterically steeped in generic “humanity” and clichéd “healing” wisdom, you just wanted to puke. It’s a wonder Mr. Williams’ friends, the ones who aren’t on his payroll, haven’t tried to do some kind of intervention on this guy. Jakob the Liar looks like evidence that if they tried, they failed.
Am I being too harsh? Consider the way the emotional fraudulence of Patch Adams ‘ warmth discloses itself in a way Mr. Williams may be too warm in the head to even realize. It’s in the allegedly “stirring” Patch Adams speech to medical students about his supposedly “patient-centered” medical philosophy. It’s a line that is featured in all the promos for the movie: “You treat the disease, you win you lose. You treat the patient, I guarantee, you’ll win no matter what the outcome.”
Now think about that: Notice how this supposedly patient-centered aperçu is really about how the doctor feels , about finding a way for the doctor to feel like a winner, all warm and O.K. with himself even if he happens to lose the patient. Um, if you really want to be patient centered, Doc, Patch, Robin, be less concerned about how you feel and a little more about how your patient feels-how he’s gonna feel knowing that you’re feeling all warm about yourself when his corpse is in the cooler.
That’s what’s so sad about Mr. Williams’ desperate and deluded attempt to shove his Mr. Warmth persona down our throats: his evident contempt for what he once was so good at being, a “mere” comedian. As a “mere” comedian, as the brilliant satirist mimic he once was, he had a pitch-perfect ear, a genius for satirizing self-deception. He could have seen right through his Mr. Warmth persona, the pretense that it’s really about giving when it’s really transparently about getting -getting love, making himself a mainstream movie star, getting the more lucrative leading-man roles. His warmth feels like a coldblooded career calculation that doesn’t give, but instead cheats his audience-and himself-out of his true talent. You just know that, deep down inside, Mr. Williams has to see what a con his Mr. Warmth act is. Or hope he does. It would be even more sad if he was too far gone to know.
Anyway, I was thinking about the way warmth ruins comics.
I was thinking about it and getting worried because I was due to attend a screening of Albert Brooks’ new film The Muse , and the trailer I’d seen made me nervous that one of my all-time favorite comics, one of the most wickedly, sneakily daring comics, was about to Go Warm.
When I say Albert Brooks is daring, I don’t just mean in a loud, bombastic, Sam Kinison way. Yes, Mr. Brooks can make people laugh harder than even that; he’s a legend, particularly among fellow comics, for his convulsively incendiary riffs. But, perhaps because of that, I don’t think people really appreciate just how deep his comedy cuts-particularly in his first three films, Real Life , Modern Romance and Lost in America . I’m still surprised, by the way, that there are intelligent people out there who have yet to see Real Life . If you haven’t, you really should rent it now, tonight. It’s not just a brilliantly prescient satire of media exploitation and showbiz ego that deserves to be ranked with the immortal Spinal Tap , it also features two of the three most painfully funny scenes ever put on film.
But beneath the belly laughs you find, in all three films, Mr. Brooks creating a genuinely daring persona, one that nails an aspect of the American male character with surgical precision. You might call it the critique of pure charm or the critique of fake warmth-the way charm and warmth, even self-deprecating charm, becomes the fig leaf, the enabler of both deceit and self-deception, the mask of predatory narcissism. Mr. Brooks nails it in a way Neil LaBute’s crude caricatures of the obvious fail to, nails it more subtly than David Rabe’s more sophisticated (than Mr. LaBute’s) caricatures of men in Hurlyburly (although you should rent the film version of Hurlyburly for Sean Penn’s tour de force performance)
What makes Mr. Brooks’ persona so daring, if sometimes painful to watch, in those first three films is his refusal to make himself lovable on screen. Funny, charming, but in the most important ways a subtle, self-deceiving monster of narcissism. One who can mask his reptilian scales with the mantle of fake warmth. His early work, then, is about the exposure of fake warmth rather than the manufacture of it, Robin Williams style. But in his last two films especially, Defending Your Life and to a lesser extent Mother , there were signs that even Mr. Brooks had decided to Go Warm, that some studio exec, agent or shrink who wanted to be a studio exec was telling him, “You can be more than a comic, you should be a star , a leading man, and leading men have to be lovable. Give yourself a little warmth. Make yourself a romantic hero.”
I’m not sure how else to explain Defending Your Life , which, while often very funny in a Brooksian way, seems intent on being taken seriously as a Lesson in Growth, in Facing Your Fears and Expressing Your True Feelings. Less a film than a group therapy session. Same with Mother . There was this need to be loved not just by his mother but by his audience. As a matter of fact, if I could put on my Dr. Ron, Shrink to the Stars, hat for a moment, it seems evident that the mother in the movie (Debbie Reynolds), whose approval and love Mr. Brooks’ character so desperately craves, represents the great American mass audience that Mr. Brooks-as-actor craves, the mass audience for which he’s tempted to Go Warm to get.
And so I could honestly say that, as the minutes ticked away before the screening of The Muse , the suspense was killing me: Would this be the moment Mr. Brooks Went Warm for good? Heightening the suspense was the fact that the screening was to be followed by a reception afterward (at Le Cirque!), where Mr. Brooks would be present and I might feel compelled to confront him on the question. In the moments before the lights went down, three of us, my friend Virginia Heffernan, the only editor of Talk magazine finishing up a Harvard doctorate, and my former colleague Stephen Schiff, now an A-list screenwriter, and I were making lists of which comics had, and which had not, Gone Warm. It happened to Richard Pryor, alas, at least in his movies; it happened to all those SCTV guys; it happened to Bobcat Goldthwait after Shakes the Clown . It didn’t happen to Sam Kinison and Andy Kaufman, maybe because they died first. It hasn’t happened to Howard Stern (well, maybe a little in his movie, but not if you’ve ever seen his Saturday night TV show, which keeps redefining extreme). As the light went out, Stephen Schiff whispered, “Redd Foxx!”
So now I guess you want to know what I really thought about The Muse and whether Mr. Brooks has Gone Warm, and I’d like to frame my answer in terms of the brief but illuminating exchange I had with Mr. Brooks himself at the reception afterward. An exchange about the concept of “edge,” a concept that bears a direct relationship to the Going-Warm question, a concept that is at the heart of his new film. The Muse is about a screenwriter played by Mr. Brooks, a fairly successful one who’s been Oscar-nominated and has just won a humanitarian award for a recent script, only to be told by young, hipper studio execs and agents that he’s “lost his edge.”
What’s interesting is the way “edge” seems a double-edged concept in The Muse . It’s ridiculed in its caricatured flavor-of-the-month, transient-hip version. But you also sense that at some deeper level Mr. Brooks is interested in the idea of “edge,” worried not so much whether he’s lost it so much as whether to sacrifice it for mass appeal. That perhaps he’s “thematizing,” as the lit crit types say, his own dilemma about whether to Go Warm to get a mass audience: Will it mean that he loses his edge, loses his identity?
At first I worried about The Muse in this respect, worried that despite many hilarious Brooksian moments it seemed, on the surface at least, to dumb down this dilemma. The screenwriter character that Mr. Brooks plays turns in desperation to a goofy muse (Sharon Stone doing Cameron Diaz) for inspiration and edge. But inspiration and edge as defined how? By his progress in finishing the “summer comedy I always wanted to write,” a piece of dimwit pap that The Muse ‘s “brilliant” inspiration rescues with a dopey ending in which the owners of an endangered aquarium strike oil “just like The Beverly Hillbillies “?
This was so pathetically second-rate that I found myself wanting to believe that this was Mr. Brooks’ sly way of making The Muse an audience-friendly warmedy on the surface but, at another deeper level, a far more bitter satire: In Hollywood, even the Muses have become dumbed-down airhead hacks. I hope it’s the latter. I hope Mr. Brooks is still satirizing fake warmth rather than manufacturing it.
Still, uncertain of my reaction to what was really going on in The Muse , I was reluctant to approach Mr. Brooks at the reception afterward, although as someone whose column title gives him a kind of proprietary interest in the question, I did want to ask him about his concept of the “edge.” At the reception, Mr. Brooks was playing the genial host. When he entered the room to a standing ovation, he hailed the crowd by announcing with mock solemnity (on the day of George W. Bush’s front-page evasions), “I have not used cocaine.” And afterward, as he was circulating among the other tables, Virginia Heffernan prodded me to overcome my pathological shyness in the presence of artists I really admire and ask him a question. So I threaded my way between such other guests as Keith Richards (a god of edge), Lauren Bacall, Dwight Yoakam, Donald Trump, Police Chief Howard Safir and Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers to press my question upon poor Mr. Brooks.
I told him how much I admired his work and then asked him: “How would you define ‘edge’?”
He hemmed and hawed at first. “I don’t know … Um, I really don’t know … How would you define it?” he asked me.
“Um, maybe intensity, testing limits …”
As I trailed off, he came through with a remarkably coherent response: The edge, he said, is “something that draws you and yet you want to stay away from it at the same time.”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since. First of all, the scene reminded me of The Simpsons episode where Homer and Apu travel to a mountain in Tibet to meet the grand lama of the Qwik-E-Mart stores, and the grand lama grants them Three Questions. Upon which Homer says, “Are you really the grand lama of the Qwik-E-Mart? You? Really?” thereby forever forfeiting their three chances for Wisdom.
But I think there’s something more to Mr. Brooks’ vision of the edge than guru-speak. It paints a picture, sets a scene: the edge of a cliff, a place you’re drawn to because you long to look over the edge; the parapets of Elsinore that put “toys of desperation” in the mind of those who gaze at the sea-surge below. You want the thrill of the vision, even though you know it’s dangerous physically and metaphorically to gaze into such depths. You risk losing yourself, disappearing, plunging over the edge.
And who knows, maybe for a guy like Mr. Brooks, warmth itself is the edge-that which he’s drawn to but fears losing himself in. For some, war is hell, but one imagines that for Albert Brooks warmth is hell , and perhaps we should salute his courage in flirting with the edge of the warm inferno he fears.