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Funny Ha Ha: Up close and personal with the comedienne Joan Rivers in A Piece of Work 

An article in the British Guardian newspaper recently claimed “U.S.

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An article in the British Guardian newspaper recently claimed "U.S. celebrities use reality cinema to fight power of gossip bloggers," noting that the release of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will be closely followed by films focused on Carrie Fisher and Billy Joel. In the world of journalism three is, they say, a trend, but this new genre of moviemaking would be better evidenced if Lindsey Lohan or Mel Gibson were to open their doors to a camera crew.

The reality format is fascinating, and feeds human curiosity in a far healthier way than the grocery store tabloid route. In A Piece of Work, Rivers sets a high standard, doling out thought-provoking insights and self-analysis with such plain honesty that it is, at times, grueling to watch. She displays her relationship with her daughter, the enduring impact of the suicide of her husband over twenty years ago and her daily round of neuroses. Yet this whole person is much more interesting than anything we can create, more intriguing than her media persona. It's easy to see how frustrating it would be dealing with decades of over-simplified and lazy public opinion that berates you for being angry, outspoken, female and old.

I was reminded of that expose of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, The September Issue, which in turn reminded me of all the fantastic films I have seen at the Regal Pilot Butte cinema. It's been a year since I started writing reviews for the Source. I've learned that there's a very good way to decide what film's worth your money: If it's at the Regal Old Mill give it a miss. The Pilot Butte line-up of films is brilliant for a small town, and it's a shame just three or four other people in the theater usually join me.

But back to this particular film, which shows Rivers' early appearances on The Tonight Show in the 1960s. Dressed primly with carefully coiffed hair, she cracked jokes that weren't just radical for then, but would have people bristling now. A joke about abortion is as taboo today as it was then - recently Fox banned an episode of Family Guy on this issue. She was told then that women shouldn't talk about such things, and the rough ride she's still getting proves not much has changed.

The film takes place over the course of a year, beginning with Rivers playing small, crummy bars and ends with her winning Celebrity Apprentice. If she can, she will insist on doing three or more shows a day, plus interviews and commercial shoots. A section of stand-up in which she maligns her household staff is juxtaposed with a shot of her writing checks to pay for her employees' children's school. From this we see that Rivers is no more or less complicated than anyone else, famous or not, but she's had decades on stage to figure out the most engaging way to talk about herself. Rivers appears funnier and more brilliant for revealing the context of her brand of comedy.

Tabloids deal in black-and-white basics - the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. It creates false movie-like narratives and character arcs for the lives of public figures. They are punished and redeemed, accepted and rejected. The writers tell us what to think, who to like and who to hate. As we become more media-savvy and participatory in the media culture, rather than just consumers, this system no longer works. Reality movies, however, definitely do.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

★★★★✩

Directed by Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg

Starring Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Melissa Rivers

Rated R

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