The best movies I saw this summer? Let me get back to you on that. The best filmmaking I saw this summer? Week after week on the FX Channel’s Louie and I’m not the only one who’s noticed it. Most of the hosannas lofted in the direction of Louis C.K.’s semi-autobiographical sitcom, now on the home stretch of its third season, tend to measure its innovative excellence by everything that’s ever been on television – which on the one hand offers a striking contrast and on the other is way too limiting.
You could, for instance, take the Aug. 2 episode, “Barney/Never” (the title alone could be a minimalist poem), and submit it to Cannes or Sundance with every expectation of winning a short film prize. (The Oscars? Well, yeah, if they deep-sixed their restrictions on previously broadcast films and that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.) From its opening black-and-white shot of both Louie and a barely recognizable Robin Williams as the only mourners at a club manager’s burial to its concluding exchange between Louie and an intractable little boy who “diarrheaed” in his bathtub, the episode seems as familiar and as startling as the best works of realism in any medium. Kurt Vonnegut has said the human condition can be summed up by the word, “embarrassment.” Amplify that to “mortification” and you’d have to conclude that, as writer, director and actor, Louis C.K. has become as inquisitive and as unsparing an auteur of the human condition as those hydra-headed humanists Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. And I’m not embarrassed to make the comparison.
Nor am I embarrassed to trace Louis C.K.’s filmmaking acumen back to what remains his only big-screen directing credit. I refer, of course, to Pootie Tang, which barely gets mentioned in profiles of Louis and reviews of Louie. Apparently, C.K. remains more embarrassed about it than anybody else. I suppose if Roger Ebert uses phrases like “train wreck” and “not bad so much as inexplicable” to describe my first at-bat as a director, I’d think twice before mentioning it, too.
C.K. and Ebert can think what they want. But if you go to www.rottentomatoes.com and look up the critics’ reviews for Pootie Tang, you will find by my name a red, ripe tomato among a relative sea of green splotches. I am as proud of that tomato as I am of anything I’ve achieved in thirty years of newspaper work. Having watched the movie again recently, I’d add another half star to my original two-and-a-half-star Newsday review in which I brought in both Jean-Luc Godard and Rudy Ray (“Dolemite”) Moore as direct and equivalent influences.
Good luck finding that review on-line, though. For that matter, good luck finding a DVD of Pootie Tang. You can, however, stream the whole movie the way I just did: in pieces, on You Tube. And it doesn’t matter what sequence you watch them in since, befitting the movie’s origin as a recurring sketch on The Chris Rock Show (where Louis C.K. served as staff writer), Pootie Tang is a surreal mélange of bits, sight gags and spoofs glued together by a plot line whose puerile silliness is among the movie’s woozy, offhand graces.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll try to be brief: Pootie Tang (Lance Crowther and where the hell is he these days, anyway?) popped up on Chris Rock Show as this mysterious, bespectacled Lothario whose ways with women were as impenetrably enigmatic as his speech patterns. Pidgin English doesn’t begin to define Pootie’s patois, whose best-remembered outgrowths include the movie’s original title, “(I’m Gonna) Sine Your Pity on the Runny Kine”, “You’re a baddy daddy lamatai tebby chi” (In my delirious moments, I almost get that one) and the oft-repeated, apparently multi-purpose “Sa dat tay.”
The character proved popular enough (even Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on the Rock show doing Pootie-speak) to tempt Rock, C.K. and fellow travelers to concoct a blaxploitation parody giving Pootie a back story: He is born in a “small city outside Gary, Indiana” and raised by a widowed father, a foundry worker played by Rock, who perishes when he’s mauled by a gorilla at work. (“Third time it happened that month,” someone says.)
Daddy Tang bequeaths to his grieving son the belt the former frequently and vigorously applied to the latter as punishment. Pootie is told that he can use the belt to apply Whup Ass to whatever evil comes his way – as it inevitably does in the form of a corporate sharpie (Robert Vaughn) wishing to neutralize Pootie’s global influence as a do-gooder-pop-star-positive-role-model-vigilante.
The pace is pokey. The visual style (or “style”) goes from pasty to pallid in ways that Quentin Tarantino would covet for his own cracks at Roadhouse Chic. The Godard-ian moments come principally in those interludes where Wanda Sykes as Pootie’s loyal, bewigged squeeze Biggie Shorty speaks to the camera at oddly-placed interludes. Any rational minded movie-goer would judge the whole thing as half-baked. But so are most of one’s fainter-by-the-year memories of blaxplotation movies and Pootie Tang’s klutziness works in its favor as a subversive spin not only on what it’s spoofing, but on the very idea of spoofing the genre in the first place.
As J.B., Chris Rock’s narrator-dee-jay persona puts it: “Pootie Tang will draw you a picture of how he gonna kick your ass, then mail it to you ten days in advance. The picture gets there right? You’re goin’, “What the hell is this?” and then Pootie Tang knocks on your door, Promptly kicks your ass and you still won’t know what happened to you!” OK, this isn’t precisely the analogy I was looking for. But re-think the above quote’s references to Pootie Tang as the movie rather than the character and it makes some kind of twisted sense — as does the movie.
Most will never bother finding out. I doubt this brief will change the minds of haters or makers. (As Rock himself said in an episode of The Bernie Mac Show, “Even my momma didn’t see Pootie Tang!”)
Still, whatever problems Louis C.K. has with this movie’s existence, its refusal to paint even within its own wobbly lines resounds in the groundbreaking, boundary-breaching nature of Louie. As Pootie himself might say, and I’m only guessing here, “Dadda bee inna detta tau dandee day.” Or something like that,