"What Can We Say?" Bodied and Gilbert: A Fantastic Fest Double Feature that Addresses Taking Art Too Far
It’s the morning of day six of Fantastic Fest and while the film dork in me cannot believe that the fest is over halfway finished, every cell in my body is crying when will the madness stop?! I am both physically and mentally exhausted, which is, on the one hand, ridiculous because I’ve been essentially been sitting on my butt for five days in a row watching one movie after another, a pastime that is usually reserved for a serious bout of the flu. On the other hand, watching movies is an activity, when done right, that requires intense focus so that you squeeze all of the goodness out of the fruit of the filmmaker’s labor. When you’re bombarding your brain with one film after the other and you’re pushing your mental acuity to the breaking point, you find your brain starts to grasp at thematic straws to make sense the influx of unrelated information. Little observations start bubbling up in your brain like, “Say, both Thoroughbreds and Thelma has people being roofied by their loved ones,” “Whoa, Maus, 1922, and Bodied all have rats. What is this trend of more rats in cinema?” or “Man, is every movie going to use Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria?” The human brain is a pattern-seeking computer, composing the algorithm of survival through noticing redundancies in the world around them. Back in our proto-human days, the apes that survived were the apes that noticed things like, “Say, every time I eat the berries off of that bush I shit my loincloth. Mental note, brunch elsewhere.” While generally these thoughts are utterly useless, like, “Bad Genius has pencils and Anna and the Apocalypse has pencils!” every once and a while, I find a thematic correlation that really gets me thinking, and that’s what happened when I watched the two very different films Bodied and Gilbert back to back.
On their face, the movies Bodied and Gilbert could not be more dissimilar. Bodied is a comedy written and directed by Joseph Kahn and co-written by Alex “Kid Twist” Larson about a white Ivy League grad student navigating the world of battle rap. Adam (Calum Worthy) stars as a YouTube battle rap junkie who is trying to turn his obsession into a thesis about the use of the “N-word” as a poetic device, but ends up getting sucked into an impromptu battle and catching the bug. As he progresses in his carrier as a rap battler, he finds himself at constant odds with which ideologies he’s willing to compromise for the sake of winning a battle. Gilbert is a documentary featuring comedy legend Gilbert Gottfried, directed by Neil Berkeley. We get an intimate glimpse of his once super secret private life with his wife, Dara, and two kids Max and Lily. We also get a retrospective on his illustrious career, including the twitter scandal that had him fired as the Aflac duck. Both battle rap and comedy are art forms that capitalize on the ability to scandalize and both films beg the question, are there lines that should not be crossed when it comes to making art? Is creative license a carte blanche to say whatever you want?
In Bodied, Adam starts the film trying to do intellectual contortions trying to justify his nerd-love of battle rap to his über liberal, academic, hipster girlfriend, Maya (Rory Uphold) and their clique of similarly entrenched friends. His peers wear their cultural sensitivity like slim-fitting chainmail, with defensive arguments wound so tight that no criticism will ever slip through and there is absolutely no room for growth. They take a certain amount of relish in slinging well-constructed accusations of bigotry at each other and crowning them selves the most evolved. Meanwhile, Adam is navigating the nuanced codes of the battle rap. In his first official bout against Korean battle rapper Prospek (Jonathan Park), Adam has to choose between seeming racist and winning the battle. These mental crossroads appear above his head as old digital file folder icons, and after some consternation, he slapped the folder that held all of the super racist Asian material, and he really laid into it – everything from poor driving, to eating dogs, to Hentai. After the battle, he is totally jazzed that he was able to hold his own in his first battle and astounded that Prospek would deign to share post-contest meal with him after the barrage of Asian stereotypes he slung at him. Prospek even paid him a compliment, “At least you know I’m Korean. That’s culturally sensitive by rap battle standards.” Adam still pushes to get some kind of affirmation that he’s not a racist, which Prospek cleverly avoids giving.
From his act, you get the impression that Gilbert Gottfried doesn't have a governing filter when it comes to what jokes he will and will not make. He doesn’t just push the envelope, he beats the crap out of it until it’s simpering tree pulp. The documentary, Gilbert, features some choice bits of his material, like the one where he pantomimes beating off a shark for five solid minutes, or one of my personal faves when he says, “I would gladly take any strain of cancer to lick Catherine Zeta Jones’s…,” you can fill in the rest. Talking head after talking head - everyone from Jim Gaffigan to Anthony Jeselnik to Joy Behar - praises Gottfried for his bravery, calling him a ‘comedian’s comedian,’ a comedian that every other comedian can’t help but love and respect. At the height of career, it seemed like there was nothing he could not get away with. He would go on talk shows and just torment the hosts while they would just squirm in discomfort, asking Arsenio Hall point blank, “Have you ever had sex with Paula Abdul?” He would promote the Aladdin sequel, Return of Jafar, by saying that it would have “full frontal nudity.” Being able to besmirch the good name of Disney and continue to work is next to godliness. On the Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, just eighteen days after 9-11, Gilbert bombed a 9-11 joke and recovered by telling the infamous street joke, The Aristocrats, a strategy Patton Oswalt described as “digging until I come up on the other side of the earth,” and I’ll be damned if he didn’t win that crowd back. Gottfried rode his titanium balls right into legend, unflappable.
Both Adam in the realm of battle rap and Gottfried in comedy did enormous, backflips out of the realm of common decency and received high marks from the judges, which compelled them both to push themselves further in the realm of the offensive gymnastics. But you can’t truly be a master without eventually falling on your face. Adam eventually has a waistband pointed out for him by his rap mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), of what is considered below the belt in battle rap, and that is the ‘personal.’ The reason that Prospek could still hang with Adam after their bout is that the racist material wasn’t really about him, it was about the Asian stereotype that is not a reality, just a concept. A ‘personal’ is insulting your opponent by exposing facts about their private life that humiliate them in front of the crowd. Using a personal is like going nuclear. Yeah, you’ll win the bout, but what kind of person will you be afterward? Even after Behn laid it out explicitly, “no personals,” Adam was just too hungry to not destroy. He hits that red button at the first opportunity, and hits it hard. Immediately afterwards, he had to face the monster he had become, a phenomenal battler and a bad person.
Gottfried had always used his comedy as a defense mechanism in times of tragedy. Nothing hacks through a thick cloud of despair like a joke, the cheaper the better. The Gilbert doc shows Gottfried accompanying his sister Arlene to her cancer treatments. She has stage IV breast cancer, and she is greatly comforted by having her brother along, “He makes me laugh,” she says. Dara fondly recalls the time she was mourning after her mother passed way and she wished she could just call her on the phone. “You can call,” she remembered her loving husband telling her, “but she won’t pick up.” That made her laugh and made her feel just a little bit better. So when the world saw the tsunami devastate Japan in 2011, while we were weeping, Gottfried went to work. Perhaps in the old days, the jokes may have been made to his family, or perhaps to an audience who opted into being offended, but thanks to this new fangled platform called Twitter, Gottfried had a global platform for his harsh remedy and the burgeoning Twitter-verse did not take it very well. The term ‘backlash’ is not sufficient for the consequences that Gottfried faced. The level of offense that people took became a media sensation, and the same talk shows that had been celebrating him as a comedy daredevil were reading his tweets to even a broader audience and then admonishing him, calling him unfunny and tasteless. And, in that instance, they were not wrong. Gottfried lost his beloved position as the Aflac duck, a spot that was lucrative and he was immensely proud of. Dara saved the tweets that got him fired in a file folder, and read them on the documentary. She knows how harmlessly they were intended and how much the whole debacle hurt him. “He cried,” she confessed.
Being a pioneer in the frontier of the offensive can be a costly, treacherous endeavor. In Bodied, Adam may be a champion battle rapper, but none of his peers will ever trust him again. In Gilbert, we see what an insecure, vulnerable person he is. He feels hardly deserving of his beautiful, supportive partner of over 20 years, Dara, and his two adorable kids. He refers to his personal life like an episode of The Twilight Zone, like perhaps it is a surreal punch line with him as the butt of the joke. There is a flipside of being a ‘comedian’s comedian’ and that is the audience will understand and appreciate the pure craft and genius of what Gilbert Gottfried does as comedians do. Honorable as it is, a straight up ‘comedian’s comedian’ will never pay as well as being an audience’s comedian.
At the Q & A of Bodied, an audience member asked director Joseph Kahn what are the upper limits of free speech and can it go too far. Kahn gave the typical non-committal answer – censorship is wrong, and the only way we can solve our differences is to address them, but we should also consider the context. Any well-intentioned human person agrees with that, but sometimes bringing up the taboo subjects like race, gender and rape culture requires sensitivity, and addressing them in the wrong way can feel like the social equivalent of shitting our loincloths. So, we err on the side of saying nothing at all, which can be just as damaging. We’re ultimately asking the wrong question when we ask ‘what is the line?’ ‘What is the thing we cannot say?’ The question is, ‘how can we talk about challenging subjects, in art and in life, and still be a good person?’
Bodied makes the point that when white people, like myself, talk about race, we do it from the defensive position of ‘what can I say that will not make me look racist.’ Being on the defensive makes the people on the other side of the conversation the offensive, which is combative and unproductive. Gilbert points out there are times when making jokes in the face of tragedy is the compassionate thing to do. But those times are generally the intimate times, when your sister is sick or your wife is mourning, and they can read your intentions. But there are times that truly are ‘too soon,’ and subjects that to a greater audience are too raw. But we’d never address the line if stuntmen artists weren't taking shots at it, tripping over it, and paying for it. The most important thing is not how we speak to each other, but that we speak to each other with compassion. And I’m so grateful that my odd-couple of a double feature, Bodied and Gilbert, here at Fantastic Fest could remind me of that.