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There’s a familiarity that comes with celebrity. We know our celebrities; we know their lives, their loves, their traumas and their peculiarities. We know stories about their private moments and in the 21st century we’re often privy to those things in a first hand way. We watch them on Instagram live, we enjoy their streams, we tweet with and at them.
Over the past two decades the definition of celebrity has expanded; Warhol’s corny 15 minutes came true not because more folks got on TV but because being famous metastasized into the driving force of our culture and all of a sudden there were more avenues to pursue fame. There are nobodies who are famous for their Twitter accounts, Instagram influencers with more followers than Jesus Christ could have imagined in His lifetime, podcasters who in another era would have been cranks on the corner are now speaking to millions.
We know all of these people. We are intimately familiar with them. Maybe they don’t know us, but that’s a technicality. Or it’s just a matter of time – eventually we’ll become friends. And in the meantime they should probably hear our opinions on their lives, their choices, their bodies, their loved ones, their politics or lack thereof, their hair and their careers. I mean, they owe it to us. We’re their fans.
But it doesn’t stop there. We see these people, famous for so little, and we say, “I can do that.” And we want to do that. We don’t want to work at it, we just want to get there. We want to get a YouTube channel and become PewDiePie because we deserve it. We want to start a blog and be invited to movie premieres because it’s our right. We want to get to the top, and the idea that we should work our way there, that we should have talent to even attempt it, well – this is gatekeeping. This is how the status quo maintains itself.
We know these people, and we love them. We know these people, and we want to be at their level, and we kind of hate them because they’re not letting us in. Not letting us into the inner sanctum where we belong, where we could do what they’re doing.
We’re all Rupert Pupkins.
There are movies that grow and change over time, that open up new aspects of themselves to you as you age. And then there are movies that stay the same, that stay planted in one position, and let the world come rushing towards them. The movie doesn’t change, everything else does, and then you begin to wonder if this film – this 38 year old film! – was actually sent back from the 21st century as a warning.
“It’s going to get this bad,” it says.
The movie is The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to Raging Bull. That movie had resurrected his career; this one threatened to sink it again. A huge flop, The King of Comedy was certainly what sent Scorsese careening towards work-for-hire with The Color of Money, and while it’s maintained a cult status it has never reached the high level of canonization it deserves. It’s A+ Scorsese but people treat it like it’s second tier.
They do that because it’s simply one of the most unpleasant movies ever made. The unpleasantness isn’t in violence or exploitation. No one dies in The King of Comedy; the only gun that goes off is a pellet gun. But there’s psychological violence dripping from every frame, and every character in the movie is suffering in psychic ways that are almost unbearable. Today we live on the other side of Ricky Gervais’ The Office, which mainstreamed the comedy of discomfort, but in 1982 this wasn’t what people wanted to see for entertainment. Hell, The King of Comedy is still miles beyond the most awkward stuff you’ll see in a modern film – there are excruciating sequences that go on forever, constant repetition of Rupert Pupkin making a clown of himself, deep dives into delusion that leave us feeling skeezy and upset.
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