Saturday, April 22, 2006

Picked Flick #57: Without You I'm Nothing

"They call me... Peeeea-ches!" Sandra Bernhard sings, with shrill and seemingly misplaced pride, looking utterly ridiculous in her calico West African robe and matching headwrap, and certainly no less ridiculous with her arms now raised in triumph at the finish of this, her rendition of Nina Simone's terse and forlorn "Four Women." The spirited sincerity of her performance is matched only by the stunning incongruity of both the performer and her approach. We could hardly have imagined that Bernhard was headed here when, in a short prologue, she addressed us from her backstage makeup mirror, trimming a few split-ends and testifying in the deadest possible pan, "I have one of those hard-to-believe faces: it's sensual, it's sexual. Sometimes, it's just downright hard to believe." Even if you aren't an English professor, you want to emend the redundancy. Or you may, like the sozzled, affronted, and undisguisedly bored patrons in Bernhard's audience, want to make a shuffling break for the exits.

In short, ten minutes into Without You I'm Nothing, everything has already gone wrong—although every viewer will probably cite a different epiphanic instant when the tawdry errancy of the film reveals its brilliant comic design, exposing that the uneasy laugh you're having at Bernhard's expense is actually the laugh she's having on you, and on herself, and on almost everybody. Like Margaret Cho's I'm the One That I Want further down on this list, Without You I'm Nothing is a perfect screen transfer of what Bernhard frequently touts as a "smash-hit one-woman show." Bernhard, though, unquenched by her clever conquest of the stage and her fearless lampooning of her own image, reimagines her material as a scabrous, slippery, and uproarious subversion of the stand-up documentary. Which isn't to say that Without You I'm Nothing doesn't deliver, quite lavishly, as a purer and simpler form of comedy. Bernhard, after a garish close-up of her ankles in wine-colored tights, themselves planted in chintzy gold high-heels: "When I was a little girl, I used to come home for lunch every day, and I'd pretend that my mother was a waitress in a roadside café: 'I'll have a side-order, ma'am!' A side-order consisted of a chunk of white-meat tuna, a dollop of mayonnaise, some carrot strips, and potato chips. And then I'd sit at the counter, and ignore her." Later in the same monologue, now taking shape as Bernhard's envious ventriloquizing of her neighbors' blissful Gentility: "I'd fantasize that I had an older brother named Chip, and a little sister named Sally, and my name would be either Happy or Buffy or Babe, one of those big sexy blondes who plays a lot of volleyball... 'Oh, God, Chip, you are so cute! I wish you weren't my brother so I could fuck you!'" In her next persona, as a blowzy chanteuse: "We've been all over the country, me and my Jewish piano player... I would love to dedicate the show tonight to all of those who enjoy Remy Martin, because I love to sit around my motel room after my show in my bra and panties and say to someone, 'Get me a Remy Martin with a water back, God damn it!'"

Maybe none of this is funny in transcription; in fact, if it reads as crashingly, irredeemably dull, this would suit Bernhard's comedy perfectly. Only half the fun resides in Bernhard's priceless oscillations among a dozen diva archetypes—the disco nightmare, the quivering addict, the crooner with the murderous melismas ("Me and Mrs. Jo-o-o-o-o-ones"), the soured Supreme, the shameless product endorser, the fulsome patterer, the high-class auction fiend who thinks she's best friends with Andy, the gay icon in the age of genital panic ("I would feel just a little bit better if you would apply some spermicidal jams and jellies to the area"). The other half springs from her almost scary willingness to push every envelope of cliché, foolishness, coarseness, ethnic and subcultural appropriation. If ex-best-friend Madonna, classically skewered here, is the undefeated champ of trendy pilfering, Bernhard is an unbeatable anatomist of the thieveries, parodies, and pillories that are the spines and the mitochondria of pop entertainment. The bad jokes are made funny—hilarious—by the good ones. The throwaway lines and gestures are as memorable as the big numbers. The critique of white celebrities' desperate courting of black approval has got Bulworth beat by 20,000 leagues. The deployments of lighting, angle, and montage are as deft but also as silly as the spoken-word caricatures, and the whole thing is weirdly, riotously exalting. And if that "Age of Aquarius" finale in The 40-Year-Old Virgin had you chuckling, just look at what Bernhard does with, and to, "Little Red Corvette." (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1990 M.C.E.G. Virgin Home Entertainment.

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Blogger qta said...

OMG! Nick, I love you more than ever before because of this post (and that is saying something).

I have not seen this film since it was in the theaters (I saw it 4 times in release). I used to listen to the cd recording endlessly. So many of the people I know, love, and respect absolutely HATE Sandra B. and that boggles my mind. To me, she is one of the greats... and this film details all the reasons that I love her... reasons that you have captured perfectly in your post.

9:33 AM, April 22, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Thanks, Damion! I'm so glad you're a fan. I admit that Bernhard used to scare me, back when I was young and she was Madonna's friend. I learned the verb "caterwaul" from a TV reviewer's description of Bernhard. But now I love her, and I really hope I get to see her new show in NYC.

(And P.S., since you're of the academic persuasion: check out the chapter on Without You I'm Nothing in Ann Pellegrini's Performance Anxieties.

Also, P.S., a special thanks to Nathaniel, since I originally rented Without You I'm Nothing at his recommendation.

2:30 PM, April 22, 2006  

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