PARK CITY – When you cover film and pop culture for 17 years, you end up writing about an incredibly broad spectrum of topics. Even so, there are things that are obviously more important to you or that you care about more, and for me, one of the things that I have always felt strongly about is stand-up comedy.
I took a shot at it early on in life, and very quickly realized that it wasn't for me. As much as I admire the craft, the lifestyle was simply not something I would have survived. There were a number of reasons, but it was a very basic decision when it came down to it. I had something else I loved more, and I can't imagine putting yourself through everything it takes to become a truly great stand-up if you don't love it above and beyond anything else.
I'm still friends, though, with a number of stand-up comics, and I have spent so much time watching it live and also listening to pretty much every comedy album or podcast I can get my hands on that I feel like I could offer up a pretty solid history of the form if I was asked to do so. Even so, when I sat down to see Bobcat Goldthwait's remarkable new documentary “Call Me Lucky,” I confess that I had no idea who Barry Crimmins is.
There's a term that gets thrown around sometimes, when someone is described as a “comic's comic.” What it typically means is someone who makes other comedians laugh, but who may not connect with the general public. As Goldthwait's film illustrates, Crimmins is spoken of in hushed terms by many comics, and he holds a key place in the history of modern stand-up, especially when it comes to the explosion of talent that came out of Boston. I know many of the guys who show up being interviewed here about Crimmins, and I feel like they've all been keeping this secret from me. How have I never heard of this guy? That's the thought that kept going through my head for the first half of the film.
Here's the thing… you can go read about Crimmins right now, and you'll immediately understand why I might not have been familiar with his work as a comic. His life story is not an easy one, and one of the strengths of Goldthwait's film is the way it gradually reveals the details of that story. There came a point where they started to drop hints about what was coming, and I felt this knot start to form. That was nothing compared to the actual punch in the stomach once all the information is finally laid out, though. There have been a number of films here at the festival that have affected me in strong emotional ways, but this one caused the most prolonged response from me, and the most complicated one.
There is an anger that was part of the comedy that Crimmins does, and for part of the film, he sort of heads down a Lenny Bruce-style rabbit hole where the anger starts to bury the humor in his act, and it is hard to understand what's happening to him. Goldthwait, who met Crimmins back when he and his best friend Tom Kenny were just starting to realize that they wanted to be performers, lived through this story as someone who knew Crimmins, and it feels like the way the film is structured mirrors the actual journey that Goldthwait went on in terms of how things were revealed to him and when. There's never that one big moment, the single reveal. Instead, it's a steady stream of new information, and so there's this steady drip of dread that builds and builds, and when Goldthwait finally turns over all of the cards, it completely changes who Crimmins seems to be.
If it sounds like I'm talking around things, I am, and for anyone who wants to walk into the film as cold as possible, you can simply stop here. It's a beautifully made movie, with fantastic archival footage, sensitive and empathetic interviews, and a general sense of film craft that is impressive. At this point, I trust Goldthwait as much as I trust any working filmmaker. He continues to display new sides of himself as a director, and what struck me most about “Call Me Lucky” is how deeply, powerfully felt it is. It's the kind of film you can't just shake off when you walk out of the theater. There are images and ideas here that I won't forget, and I found myself laughing, crying, and just plain amazed as the story unfolded. “Call Me Lucky” is not just a great film… it's a truly beautiful human document about what we can bear in this world and how we bear it. By telling a story as specific and as unusual as “Call Me Lucky,” Goldthwait has tapped into something deeply universal.
For those still reading, though, there is more to discuss here. 2014 was a year where I felt like I finally turned a corner in my own understanding of what it takes for victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse to come forward with their stories. One of the things I believe now is that it is essential for us to treat each victim with support and belief up front. We cannot make them feel like it is impossible for them to find justice, and we cannot make them feel that they will be unsafe if they tell their stories. There are many factors to what we call “rape culture,” but one major component is an atmosphere in which every report is challenged and every victim is re-victimized by the very people they're asking for help.
I saw a film recently that is still embargoed that is pretty much nonstop rape jokes, and I sat through it dumbfounded. Sure, the jokes are all about men being raped, so that makes it okay, right? Well, actually… no. We have to realize that these are not funny situations. There's nothing about it that is okay. The only people who have the right to find humor, however dark and awful, in these situations are the people who live through it, and when Barry Crimmins talks about the sexual abuse he survived, he is able to find some dark but genuine humor in the way he approaches those conversations.
What I find most remarkable about Crimmins is not that he was a victim, nor is it that he found the courage to speak about it eventually. I find him remarkable because he is not defined by this one thing. Instead, Crimmins has spent most of his adult life fighting for people who genuinely need his help, engaged in remarkable and complex political situations. Here is a man who has every right to whatever anger and violence possible, but he takes all of that, and he channels it into work that has an actual chance of changing things and saving other people and, above all, creating something positive. We are genuinely better for having people like Barry Crimmins in the world, and now that I know who he is, I hope to learn more about him and even to meet him, and to help him in the causes that matter to him.
“Call Me Lucky” inspired me even as it pulverized me. It is a truly great movie, and while I've really enjoyed Goldthwait's work in the past, he makes a jump forward here that gutted me. From “Shakes The Clown” to “World's Greatest Dad,” with its brutal and beautiful Robin Williams performance, Goldthwait has done a great job of dealing with the “sad clown” archetype in film, but with “Call Me Lucky,” he's made his masterpiece.
“Call Me Lucky” is currently seeking distribution, and I hope the right company picks it up, understanding just what a special movie this is, and just how much it will mean to the right audiences.