Last year when Louis C.K. released his 1998 feature film debut Tomorrow Night, it seemed like a move that didn’t quite add up. Here’s this guy, A-list comedian, has his own cable TV show – suddenly he’s putting out this black and white art film. Why? His show now isn’t necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s certainly a different kind of thing than Tomorrow Night. That’s like Lars von Trier showing us all a HBO half hour from 20 years ago. How did this happen?
Well, if you’ve had the time to comb through old comedian interviews over and over at your job like I have, you’ll notice that Louie has had quite an important relationship with experimental film throughout his entire career.
Like Chris Rock, Louie started comedy basically because he wanted to be Woody Allen. On his episode of Unmasked with Ron Bennington he talks about getting a job at a local TV station lugging around big camera packages, so he could then shoot short films with them on the weekends. We can assume it was around that time that he was learning how to use and repair the editing machines that he mentions on that famous WTF episode. There’s also an episode of a radio show in 2009 where Louie is criticizing a guy’s amateur film and talks about helping a guy named David van Vacter make an avant garde film that’s just him reading poems and then holding up a jar of his piss and saying, “Look, it’s my piss.”
In his WTF, Louis also talks about a period where he was a young comic in New York where he would be doing tons of sets and coming home with just pockets full of cash. At least some of that money, in addition to gold coins and boats and stuff, we can assume was going towards cameras and lenses. A lot of his short films were made mainly as camera tests, including this one, made with a Bolex 166mm camera and, interestingly, is the only thing ever to have his ex-wife in it.
Of course, a few years later he would write and direct Pootie Tang, which isn’t overly experimental in its finished state, but certainly was intended to be. In tons of interviews he’s talked about how the studio “took the movie away from” him and gave it to fellow Chris Rock writer Ali LeRoi to partially reshoot, add the VO narration, and edit into what it is now. He and LeRoi were on non-speaking terms because of this, although I’m guessing now it’s water under the bridge a la Marc Maron. Anyways, here’s a trailer that represents the original vision for the film, based closely on Robert Downey Sr.’s avant garde Blaxploitation film Putney Swope.
Louie’s obsession with cameras and lenses comes up constantly in interviews. In the DVD commentary for Louie he’s self-conscious about boring the viewer with too much technical talk about the master prime lens kits they had to buy and, frankly, he’s right – it is pretty boring. Or maybe it’s because he’s like eating chips the whole time and stuff. But another really good clear example of him being super interested in photography is his now-deleted travel blogs from when he drove from New York City to Los Angeles with his dog because they didn’t want to put her on a plane. I don’t know why he deleted these blogs, but they were pretty great and he talked a lot about cameras and stuff. Also, he wrote about performing on the USO Tour in 2006 and what cameras and lenses he brought to shoot in the sand and bright sun. The USO episode of Louie was based on this. I don’t know why I’m including this other than to lend credibility to the other stuff, and also they’re deleted now so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Okay.
The most substantial instance of Louis C.K. talking about his philosophy of experimental film, however, is an episode of radio from 2009 where he critiques a feature film made by this guy Paul O. Reading about experimental film is always kind of boring, at least in my experience, because it’s kind of a non-starter of a topic, just in that it’s a label you can apply to so many wildly different things. There seems to be no satisfying set of common characteristics, so when you talk experimental film, you don’t really know what you’re getting. Like, it seems weird to compare Maya Deren’s The Private Lives of Cats and William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One or that thing where Andy Warhol shot the Empire State Building for a whole day or whatever. There’s no real satisfying common thread.
Enter Paul O. Paul O is a film critic for the Tampa Bay Examiner and a long-time recurring guest/character on the Ron & Fez satellite radio show. In the mid-to-late 2000s, he raised money to make this feature length found footage-style movie called Gap. The conceit of Gap is that it shows a serial killer abducting, torturing, and killing a victim, but the film itself is made by the serial killer (i.e. art directed, edited, sound mixed, etc.) This is a pretty ambitious premise. It’s like twice as ambitious as any other found footage movie and as it is, people seem to tolerate those at most.
Anyways, Louie and the hosts watch his movie from the beginning (with Paul O there in studio) and really tear it apart. It’s great. It’s pretty mean, but also 100% accurate. Louie’s rigorous “tough love” approach reminds me of a story where the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein got in trouble a lot as a teacher because he’d be like, “Why are you taking this class? You’re not good at this and that’s fine, go take a class on how to fix cars.” Except Louie’s version is more like, “This is shit. If you brought this to a porn company, they wouldn’t hire you to swab the cum off the floor, that’s how bad your instincts are as a director.”
But this is the real insight for me: all these criticisms boil down to the filmmaker being lazy and making the easy choice, or making no choice, and then trying to retroactively justify it up with, “I was trying to be weird there, you just don’t get it!” This should hit a nerve with anyone who’s seen student films, or really been involved with any kind of creative venture in any capacity. It’s so cool to be “weird,” but at the same time it’s so easy to use that to justify being lazy and bad. At one point Louie sums it up with:
The whole idea of experimental film is, you’ve got this idea that you’re burning to do as a filmmaker, that’ nobody’s really done before, but you’re willing to try it as an experiment to see if it’ll work. The thing isn’t to go, ‘I want to make an experimental movie, so what kinds of things are experimental?’ You’re supposed to start with an idea for a movie that “this is a movie I really want to make, I think this would be cool. Even though it hasn’t been done, I’m wiling to do the experiment.” You’re starting with, ‘I want to do something weird. How about changing the aspect ratio so it will hurt people’s eyes?’
Another takeaway from this conversation is that with any creative thing, you just have to let the thing speak for itself. You don’t get to sit there next to everyone in the audience and explain the thinking behind it. God knows I’ve written enough sketches that bombed where I wished I could just say to everyone, “No, see, this is why that was funny!” But you don’t get to do that. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but it takes so long to realize that.
So that’s kind of how you can put the square peg of Tomorrow Night in that round comedian-shaped hole. And a lot has been written about this, but the show Louie continues to be informed by that same outside-the-box approach filmmaking. Same with shooting an hour-long special yourself and putting it up online. It seems like a pretty easy thing that anyone can do, but you also have to know what kind of lenses will work best in the theater, and you have to know how to light it, you have to know how to direct the camera people while you’re on stage doing standup, etc. You can’t just have this weird idea and throw it together and then be like, “look how weird this thing is.”