"Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night" (120 minutes) premieres on PBS' "American Masters" at 9:00pm Monday, May 14th (check local listings). The film will also be released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 17th.
As I reflect on my life, I grow increasingly grateful for having witnessed the greatest half-century in the history of the United States. Consider just a few of the crucial events that have shaped us during the past 50 years: The civil rights movements for African-Americans, women and the disabled; the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK; the war in Vietnam and its domestic fallout; landing on the moon and exploring the outer reaches of the universe; the global trauma of AIDS and seemingly perpetual threats of war and terrorism; and, perhaps most important, the emergence and meteoric rise of the digital age, exemplified by the Internet and social media with the power to literally change history through an exponential expansion of human connectedness.
If you've witnessed these decades through the multicolored lenses of popular culture, the rewards have been astonishing. Consider the careers we've seen in that time: Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Springsteen, Madonna, The Clash, U2, Nirvana... Don Rickles, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey... Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Werner Herzog... We could all make our own long lists and we'd all arrive at the same conclusion: The past half-century has been nothing short of phenomenal.
And one way or another, it all comes down to "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
Lars von Trier, maker of calculating horror comedies, is a shrewd showman -- if not exactly in the classic Hollywood tradition then at least in the Barnum & Bailey one. He pleases his audiences by teasing, taunting and testing them, keeping his tongue in his cheek. I picture him as a dancing, grinning little prankster on the fringes of world cinema, alternately flaunting a streak of astringent sadism and hiding for safety behind a shield of facetiousness.
He's also, in "Antichrist" particularly, a thudding literalist whose mock-academic ideas and images are so over-rationalized and in-your-face that (like the mysterious cry of a baby placed too far forward in the sound mix to be haunting or ambiguous) they don't have much room to resonate. When they ought to be harrowing, they're obvious and over-explained, which cuts them off from genuine emotion or experience. Nevertheless, "Antichrist" is a serviceable, sometimes atmospheric horror movie, until the last chapter-and-a-half when it just goes flat. By then it's already gotten a little too much of a charge out of commenting on its own giddy morbidity, and whether the audience is laughing at it or with it doesn't matter. Either way, the laughter is dismissive.
It's easy enough to tell a filmmaker what you liked about his movie. He nods and agrees and discovers you're quite a perceptive fellow. But when you start talking about what you didn't like...
The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, Anthony Newley called it, and after the final curtain call of "The Odd Couple," backstage, all Dan Dailey wanted to do was get out of his makeup and into a dressing gown. This night was to be an occasion, the birthday of Joe Jamrog, an understudy who had just played Murray the Cop, and there was a pot of coffee and a birthday cake in one of the dressing rooms.