“When a motion picture is at its best,” John Ford said in 1964, “it is long on action and short on dialogue.” By now this wisdom seems as etched and indelible as the low horizons and wide Monument Valley skies that Ford photographed. Not that anybody would presume to debate Ford—certainly at the time of his quote, Altman and Cassavetes had yet to hit their stride, and My Dinner with André was still seventeen years away—but by the early sixties had Ford not seen anything by Godard, or Bergman, or films like The Lady Eve or Double Indemnity?
Movies were wary of words from the outset—Show, the saying goes, don’t tell. As their medium has matured, filmmakers have striven admirably (and with varying degrees of success) to test the conventional wisdom that for a movie to be highly verbal is also for it to be inherently disadvantaged. To these ends, in the aftermath of September 11, two interesting events occurred: the British filmmaker Sally Potter conceived a fictional lover’s quarrel, in verse, between a Middle Eastern man and a Western woman, and the comedian Gilbert Gottfried brought down a house full of entertainers by telling an old dirty joke.
These episodes, otherwise unrelated, became the source material for two of this summer’s most discussed movies: Yes, an experimental narrative feature by Potter, and The Aristocrats, a documentary by comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. The former uses dialogue in rhyming iambic pentameter to explore the catastrophic cultural rift between the Islamic and Western worlds, while the latter is a digressive and cathartic elaboration of the filthiest joke in modern memory. Neither could be called laconic—in fact, the basic reason people are talking about them so much is that they are so remarkably talky.
It was at the New York Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, not long after September 11, 2001, that Gottfried launched into the now legendary telling of the Aristocrats joke. He’d tried a quip about the attacks but was jeered by an audience that thought it too soon. Instead, he schooled them with an irrepressibly raunchy old saw that’s been around since Vaudeville and has become a sort of institutionalized diatribe (though the joke is jaunty with improvisation) against the oppressiveness of taboo.
The setup—and to reveal it here spoils nothing—is this: A guy goes into a talent agent’s office, says he’s got a terrific act involving his whole family, including pets. The agent asks for a description, which turns out to be a narrative epic of gymnastic vulgarity. Sodomy, scatology, incest and bestiality are just the beginning; there’s also room for rape, murder, necrophilia, you name it. Naming it, actually, is the heart of the joke: When the agent asks what the act is called, the answer (and the punchline) is “The Aristocrats.”
For generations, the joke has been considered a “secret handshake” among comedians, something performers typically tell each other instead of an audience, competing in trying to stretch the yarn’s superlative length, breadth, and outrageous id-driven impropriety. Prompted by Gottfried’s transmutation of the bit into something more significant, Provenza and Jillette’s project is as structurally simple as the joke itself. They’ve documented the joke and the surrounding comedic subculture in its entirety, filming more than a hundred comedians (mostly, but not exclusively, male) telling it and talking about its rules, its history and its meaning. The movie happily goes way too far and is, accordingly, hilarious. It is certainly the most sustained obscenity ever captured in a moving picture.
Yes, too, is a tower of wordplay, albeit level with a higher brow. It is significantly less funny than The Aristocrats and more sophisticated. Potter’s main characters are referred to in the credits only as He and She: She (Joan Allen) is an Irish-American molecular biologist in a loveless marriage, and He (Simon Abkarian) is an exiled Lebanese surgeon now working as a London cook. The essence of the movie is their affair, highly charged by both passion and cultural disparity. The real substance, though, is the verse itself. Here they are in a heated moment, one of the film’s best:
SHE: Look, I'm an individual. I am me.
HE: Me this, me that. Each one of us is we.
We're not alone.
SHE: I know. Look, I agree.
I'm not your enemy. How did this start?
HE: From Elvis to Eminem, Warhol’s art,
I know your stories, know your songs by heart.
But do you know mine? No, every time,
I make the effort, and learn to rhyme
In your English. And do you know a word
Of my language, even one? Have you heard
That “al-gebra” was an Arabic man?
You’ve read the Bible. Have you read the Koran?
SHE: Is this the reason you're rejecting me?
HE: Rejection? No. I don’t reject.
But, yes, I do demand respect.
It is from this theme that the rest of Yesis extrapolated, and it does show occasional strain from trying to sustain itself at feature length—as surely as Provenza and Jillette’s film occasionally lapses into tedium and redundancy. But in both pieces, a self-conscious love of language goes a long way: Allen and Abkarian are as nimble in navigating Potter’s lyrical and sometimes lovely linguistic thickets as Andy Dick is in working his fantasia of Hitler wearing crotchless panties into The Aristocrats.
Certainly, the way people talk in these movies is not the way they talk in polite conversation. Yet each film makes an ardent case for its respective function of speech—as a way to turn bigotry inside out. Each, in deference to its limits in parsing the political, revels triumphantly in the linguistic.
There’s no telling what John Ford would make of Yes and The Aristocrats, but by being so provocative and curiously uplifting, each film is undeniably cinematic. It’s fitting that their successes will depend on word of mouth.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve’s film flaneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.