Tuesday, February 12, 2013


This has been my best Sketchfest experience yet, in large part because I've done more events than in previous years. The last weekend rounded out with two very different programs: Army of Darkness and Celebrity Autobiography.

Army of Darkness was held at the Castro Theatre. This is an awesome movie theatre of the old-school design: it seats over 1400 people, and is absolutely gorgeous, with ornate walls, an elaborate ceiling with a grand chandelier, and a Wurlitzer organ that ascends before the program to play for our amusement. Even with the big capacity, the event sold out more than a week before the program.

The main feature was a conversation between Bruce Campbell, the star of Army of Darkness and the best B-movie actor of his generation, and possibly of all time; and Patton Oswalt, noted comedian. Patton revealed that he first heard of Bruce Campbell in a Fangoria review of Bruce and Sam Raimi's first movie, Evil Dead. He immediately went to the video store to rent the movie, and was transfixed by what he saw. It was the most terrifying movie that he'd seen in his life, but he kept thinking, "Who is this handsome, handsome man, covered in blood and screaming?" Fast forward thirty years, and Patton landed a recurring role on Burn Notice, a cable drama co-starring Campbell. Patton had to overcome his horror-fanboyish-mode, so he asked if he could see Bruce. He went into the trailer, and thought "Who is this handsome, handsome man... covered in blood and screaming?"

Bruce wore an incredible white suit. Patton "was dressed like Bruce's groundskeeper," to use his own words. They sat on two chairs in front of the screen: Bruce would frequently spring to his feet and stride forward to directly address the audience, perhaps gesticulating as he made his point. Patton lounged insouciantly in his own chair; he was technically interviewing Bruce, but there was a lot of back-and-forth, and Patton seemed largely content to sit back and let Bruce continue when he got going on one of his rants.

Their interplay was really fun. Bruce had a much more acidic wit than I had expected, which was hilarious: he described all the awful aspects of making the movies, the ignominies of life on the road, the unsettlingly banal conversations one enters whilst attending a fan convention. I felt like he was probably playing a character, a sort of parody of himself, but that he also had a deep well of material to draw on. He unabashedly preferred interacting with the female members of the audience, cheerfully insulted everyone, and insulted himself as well. Patton would drop in with periodic quips or one-liners or insults of his own, or would run from the set in tears when Bruce said something hurtful. "Payton," Bruce said. "It's... Patton" Patton whispered, before arising and fleeing the scene of his embarrassment. Seizing the opportunity, Bruce jumped over into Patton's vacated seat, adopted his lounging pose, and did a brief but hilarious impression of Patton's horror-nerd interviewing style.

Patton described how incredible it had been to watch Evil Dead 2: "So you basically took the original movie, which is arguably the darkest, scariest movie of all time... and you made a parody of your own movie as the sequel. I don't think that's ever been done before!" Bruce leaped on that, ranting about the inanity of the situation: Crimewave had bombed ("Nobody here saw it!"), and so they had to do Evil Dead 2 to make money. But they couldn't get the rights to the footage from their own movie, so they had to re-shoot the flashback scenes. And on and on. I actually found this incredibly informative, just because Evil Dead 2 is such a confusing movie to watch: it starts off seeming like a sequel to Evil Dead 1, but at parts feels like a remake instead, and obviously the tone is very different.

After maybe a half-hour or so of conversation, they took questions from the audience. First, they asked if anyone had a cool Evil Dead tattoo to show. A pretty woman (of course!) came up to show off hers, a skull on her upper arm. "How much long did that take?" asked Bruce. "Eight hours," she said. "And how much did it cost?" "Five hundred dollars." The crowd gasped, then applauded. Bruce dug in his pockets, and pulled out a bill. "Here: that's such a great tattoo, I want to pay back one percent of what it cost you." She hugged him, and descended "the dangerous, OSHA-condemned stairs". Patton stage-whispered, "And, if anyone had a tattoo of a cake, I might have a Ben Franklin for you."

Someone yelled out something about Karo syrup, prompting Bruce to go on yet another entertaining rant about how awful the filming of Evil Dead was. He described how, after a night of shooting on location, he wasn't able to take off his costume because the caked syrup had bonded it to his skin. So, he had to sit in the back of a pickup truck while Sam and the rest of the crew drove back into town. Of course, it was Sunday morning, so the people coming out of church stopped and stared at this bloody, wounded, ghastly horror of a man coming through their streets. When he got back to the hotel, he stepped into the warm shower with all his clothes still on to try and soften the syrup so he could change his clothes without ripping his skin open. So, yeah... thanks for bringing up such great memories!

At one point, Patton asked, "Have there ever been moments when you've had to do something in a film, and you know that it's going to suck while you're shooting - it'll be painful, or difficult, or whatever - but you know that it's going to be awesome in the final movie?" Bruce responding, ".... yes, in, like, every movie I've ever done." He explained that the movies that are hard to make are the ones that end up being incredible. "And, when you're able to relax on the set and joke around with your friend Patton, well, you probably aren't making something wonderful that will keep people excited for years."

There were tons of other anecdotes and stuff that came up... Sam Raimi's car, the forward to "If Chins Could Kill," the un-sexiness of chainsaw hands, the tiny fraction of money that Bruce makes as a producer of Evil Dead ("If you see that movie a thousand times, I'll make twenty cents"), the difference between a cult movie and a mainstream movie ("A mainstream movie, fifty thousand people see once; a cult movie, one person watches fifty thousand times"), doing effects in pre-ILM days, the tiny (but growing) number of women at horror conventions, the relative attractiveness of various females in the audience, and on and on. At last, they said their goodbyes, dropped the lights, and brought up the movie.

Oh! I almost forgot: before Patton or Bruce arrived, the theater showed the new red-band trailer for the remake of The Evil Dead. (Hyperlinks deliberately omitted.) I have to confess that I couldn't watch it, and did the think where my head faced the screen but my eyes look down. I'm actually pretty ambivalent about horror movies in general... some of the best movies I've ever seen have been horror movies (The Shining, Psycho, The Haunting, Silence of the Lambs, Dawn of the Dead, The Orphanage), but I have absolutely zero interest in slasher films, or torture porn, or 95% of the other horror movies that come out. (Which is part of why I love stuff like Tim Brayton's Summer of Blood, which lets me learn about horror movies in an entertaining way without needing to actually watch them.)

So... yeah. Army of Darkness itself was really fun. I don't think I've seen the movie for nearly a decade, but I could remember every single fight scene, every single one-liner (and, heck the movie is basically a nonstop string of one-liners). Army of Darkness is my favorite of the trilogy: I don't want to ever see the original Evil Dead again, I would be willing to watch Evil Dead 2 if viewing with others, and I would be glad to keep watching Army of Darkness. While the original Evil Dead was pure horror, and Evil Dead 2 primarily a horror movie with a surprisingly strong comedy component, Army of Darkness feels primarily like an adventure movie, sort of a swords-and-sorcery mini-epic, with minor elements of horror and comedy tossed in.

What was really fun, though, was seeing it in this sort of environment, with over a thousand other hard-core fans of the movie. There wasn't a lot of audience participation - this isn't something like Rocky Horror Picture Show - but everyone knew the movie, everyone knew its beats, and seemed positively giddy at enjoying it with other people, laughing and cheering at all the appropriate parts. (It was particularly fun to see the scene where Big Ash was chasing Little Ash; early in the program, Bruce brought up a "large-breasted" woman from the audience to act out the shooting of this scene, which Sam Raimi had insisted he perform backwards.)

So, that was awesome! I hadn't had any idea what to expect, and was very happy with how it went.

Next, Sunday night was the finale of Sketchfest. We got a large group together to see Celebrity Autobiography. This is a program that's been running for about a decade; it has shown in LA, and on Broadway, and they've done a movie of it. During that time, the material regularly changes and the cast rotates frequently based on who's available. For the San Francisco show, they had a wonderful lineup of female comedians, including Rachel Dratch, Janeane Garofalo, Maria Bamford, and Laraine Newman. They were scheduled to have Fred Willard as well, but unfortunately he'd had to fly back to Los Angeles earlier in the day; they got a replacement who did an incredibly impressive job, especially considering that he probably had had very little time to prepare.

Oh, yeah: the concept behind the show is simple, brilliant, and hilarious: funny comedians read from the autobiographies written by celebrities (or their publicists). We heard dozens, including people like Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Ivana Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nancy Reagan, and Mr. T. In the early part of the program, a single person would read a large chunk of an autobiography: my favorite was probably Rachel Dratch who did an amazing job with Ethel Merman's autobiography.

Everything was great, and I was impressed at how differently each person approached the same concept. It seemed like the SNL alums were particularly good at doing impressions: Dratch's Merman used dramatic gestures and her distinctive speaking cadences to totally sell you on the character; Newman's Cher was a dead-on impersonation of her voice (and the hair worked well, too!). Other times, they would just let the material work for itself. When Janeane Garofalo read from Britney Spear's "Crossroads" diary, she didn't try to imitate Britney's voice, but delivered it with the perky vacuousness we connect with her. And, more so than other performers, Janeane enjoyed giving little cues that showed when it was okay to mock the subject.

Similarly, sometimes comedy was made by fully inhabiting and enhancing the absolutely bonkers nature of the material: Miley Cyrus writing about getting her period while she wasn't carrying any tampons, or football player "The Boz" writing about how much he enjoys inflicting pain on other people. ("It isn't that I want to mess up someone's knee or something like that. I would never want that to happen. I just want to hit them so hard that, when they're back in the huddle, they don't know what city they're in any more.") Other times, they used intonation to create new meaning from the text, or even invert it. A selection of passages from Tiger Woods that's talking about putting becomes something extremely dirty when matched with a certain reading style and our new knowledge of his marital infidelity. And the Cher passages are meant to talk about the joys of eating well, but Newman brilliantly undercuts the end of each sentence, making it sound as though Cher is resignedly, halfheartedly trying to convince herself about how delicious vegetables can be.

After the single-reader performances were over, they moved to the celebrity mashups. These were organized by theme: sport (Schwarzenegger, Woods, Boz, etc.); Mother's Day (Nancy Reagan, Ivana Trump, Kardashian, etc.); living well (Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow, Celine Dion [Maria Bamford with an awesome French accent], etc.); catching your first big break in acting (Mr. T, George Takei, Beyonce, Elaine Page, etc.).

The finale was a tour-de-force that described the same story as seen from three separate autobiographies: the tale of the Richard Burton / Elizabeth Taylor love triangle. They gave it the phenomenal title "Rashomon and On and On." This was incredible: it has all the funny elements of the other Celebrity Autobiography projects, but the concept of revisiting the same story from multiple (highly flawed and skewed!) perspectives felt very fresh, and they put a lot of work into the staging of this. Most of the rest of the show had the actors at their microphones; there was much more movement here, with people receding to the background or walking to the foreground (or, in Richard Burton's case, staggering forward). Pretty much everyone was involved in this, too: I initially thought that Janeane wasn't in it, but at a couple of points she would dart onto the stage, deliver a brief piece of dialog from a random character ("Say, Debbie doesn't know, does she?"), then leap back off again.

It was wonderful. The crowd loved it!

The show was excellent. The actors were all wonderful, across the board. If I had to pick one favorite, it would probably be Rachel Dratch: she did such a good job, and could bring so much to the performance with even little things like a sudden dart of her eyes or a perfectly placed pause. Plus the incongruity of watching this tiny woman read the words of Mr. T was wonderful.

So, that was Sketchfest 2013! I can't wait to see what next year brings us!

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