They’re All Going To Laugh At You, God Willing Case File #179: Carny
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On consecutive nights a few months ago, I watched Winnebago Man and Best Worst Movie, recent documentaries about a curious form of contemporary celebrity: the odd fame that comes with being laughed at by a devoted group of “fans” whose appreciation runs the gamut from quasi-genuine to wholly ironic. For the sake of codification, let’s name this strange process by which a filmmaker, actor, or musician—or, in the case of Winnebago Man, an RV pitchman—becomes an ironic camp icon. We can call it Wiseauification, after the writer, director, and star of The Room.
The Wiseauification process engenders complicated, contradictory emotions in audiences and the objects of their affection. Take, for example, George Hardy, the protagonist of Best Worst Movie. He’sa goofy dentist whose performing career might have begun and ended with peppering kids with terrible jokes at family dinners and testing the patience of his dental patients. But then he starred in the 1990 cult classic Troll 2, a popular favorite choice for worst film ever made. Starring in the worst film ever made is a strange form of fame not everyone would embrace, but it is a form of fame. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, that counts for an awful lot.
Throughout Best Worst Movie, Hardy’s good cheer and indefatigable optimism flag only during a dispiriting visit to a horror convention where his booth goes conspicuously unvisited. At a Troll 2 screening, he’s a geek-culture god, a king in his element giddily repeating favorite lines or hamming it up for the cameras. At a horror convention, however, he’s just an unknown guy who was in some weird bad movie ages ago. Within a very specific context, he’s a cult icon; outside of that context, he’s a dentist who dabbled in acting long ago. Throughout the convention, he wears an expression that implicitly says “Pay attention to me! Laugh at me! Do anything but ignore me!” He is a big believer in the concept that there is no such thing as bad press.
The other members of the Troll 2 cast and crew aren’t anywhere near as guilelessly excited about their place in the trash-culture pantheon. Claudio Fragasso, the fiery Italian director of Troll 2, and his wife, uncredited Troll 2 writer Rossella Drudi, view film as their life’s calling, not a quirky diversion en route to establishing a dental practice. They seem understandably offended to hear people crying with laughter over scenes meant to be both scary and socially conscious. (Bizarrely, yet gloriously, Troll 2 was designed as an anti-vegetarian screed.)
Jack Rebney, the anti-hero of Winnebago Man, has an even stranger claim to fame. Sometime in the early ’80s, he endured the trials of Job while filming a promotional video for RVs. As the shoot progressed and conditions worsened, seemingly by the minute, the Winnebago Man unleashed a furious torrent of obscenity at everyone around him. He’s a poet of profanity, unloading a sustained symphony of swearing.
Just as Troll 2 was hailed/mocked as the worst film ever made, Jack Rebney, a.k.a. Winnebago Man, wins a superlative of his own: The Angriest Man In The World. The Angriest Man In The World’s fame spread as “fans” disseminated outtakes from the Winnebago video far and wide, and the clips became a YouTube favorite.
A throwback to a manlier era, Rebney cycles through a remarkable set of emotions over becoming the subject of a documentary. He’s initially not at all happy about being famous for yelling and swearing, but he comes to realize that the documentary affords him an opportunity to change the dominant narrative of his life. The director, whom he all but chases off the project, has given him a gift: the power to present the Winnebago video in context, not as the sum of his being, but as a tiny footnote in the life of a complicated, accomplished, intense, charismatic man with strong opinions about politics, society, art, and everything.
In the end, Rebney seems at peace with his weird second life as a viral-video/documentary subject; sure, he’d rather be lauded for his writings, beliefs, or accomplishments rather than an epic temper tantrum, but the fans at a Found Footage Festival where he’s treated like visiting royalty or a minor deity are laughing with him, not at him. They’re enjoying what is ultimately a virtuoso performance. The real Winnebago Man can be found in the outtakes of the infamous RV promotional video: He’s an uncompromising, energetic dynamo rebelling against the pabulum he’s being asked to spout. His art is ultimately being himself. And no one does it better.
Rebney and Hardy have ultimately embraced their ironic fame. It’s a wise move. No one wants to be a post-fame Vanilla Ice coming on MTV to show what a good sport he was about having one of his videos included in a “25 Lame” countdown, then flying into a rage and destroying the set with a baseball bat after deciding, on second thought, he wasn’t cool at being laughed at by MTV’s carefully chosen panel of smartasses, and would rather register his unhappiness via a series of home-run swings at stationary objects. Vanilla Ice didn’t want to be our clown anymore, which was unfortunate, since that was the only role left to him, outside of Insane Clown Posse affiliate. (At the recent Gathering Of The Juggalos he performed a Juggalo-themed version of his “Ninja Rap” from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret Of The Ooze.)
It can be easy to forget at this point, but before a 1988 motorcycle accident that possibly caused permanent brain damage, Gary Busey was primarily known as an actor. That was a long, long time ago. For at least the last decade, he’s been known primarily as a crazy person. He lustily embraced self-parody to the point where he now seems to be playing his crazy “Gary Busey character” every time he appears in film or on television. It’s impossible for him to disappear into a role; no matter the costume or character, he’s doomed to be him.
The possibility that the major shift in Busey’s career from actor to space cadet might have been caused by mental impairment lends a disquieting element to his cult fame, just as the possibility that Wiseau is mentally ill makes The Room a little harder to enjoy ironically. Wiseau and Busey seem to enjoy their current fame, but they don’t entirely seem to understand it.
Craziness has become the core component of the Gary Busey brand. An entire short-lived television show called I’m With Busey was devoted to riffing on the cracked persona and warped mythology of the Buddy Holly Story star. He played himself extensively on Entourage. Rather than fight his Wiseauification, Vanilla Ice style, he’s become a Professional Crazy Person, a clown, a human freak-show. Busey grins goonily at us from the fringes of the fringes of pop culture, spouting aggressive nonsense and inviting our pity, laughter, or train-wreck fascination. Hey, as long as someone’s paying attention.
The 1980 film Carny, the 179th Case File and concluding chapter in Carny Month here at My Year Of Flops, anticipates the eccentric’s current place of prominence in the traveling freak show that is pop culture. Carny casts Busey as a dunk-booth clown who heckles carnivalgoers until they’re willing to pluck down good money for balls to hurl at the target that will send him from his cocky perch above the ignorant rabble and down to the filthy water below.
Carny opens with Busey methodically putting on makeup that will transform him from a toothily handsome young man—he was handsome, once upon a time— into a greasepaint-smeared ghoul. There’s something strangely sacred about the ritual; it’s the calm before the storm, the artistry before the agitation.
Once Busey enters his cage, literally and metaphorically, he undergoes a dramatic transformation. His voice devolves into a menacing growl, and he skitters around the cage like a monkey. He becomes feral, even subhuman. As he later explains to girlfriend Jodie Foster, when he puts on the greasepaint, he doesn’t become a clown: Clowns are funny. He’s scary. For Busey, the paint is a mask, a way of separating the character from the man, and the job from the life.
The dunk-tank-booth clown, like so many professions within the carnival trade, is an amateur psychologist. He has to be able to read people on sight, to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses based on the flimsiest clues. In his opening flurry of insults, Busey mercilessly pushes carnivalgoers’ buttons, mocking them for being poor and dumb and ugly until they’re so filled with impotent rage that they lash out at him in a deliciously self-defeating fashion.
Busey uses his carnival-honed intuition and powers of perception for personal as well as professional reasons; in this clip, he switches on a dime from seduction to shit-kicker mode when musclehead Craig Wasson angrily confronts Busey for chatting up Wasson’s girlfriend, 18-year-old Jodie Foster.
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Foster’s rudderless teen falls into a relationship with Busey more out of boredom than anything else; she follows him from town to town because she’s looking for any way out. In Carny, life is cheap and relationships are born of pragmatism, not passion. When Busey tries to get co-worker, roommate, partner, and best friend Robbie Robertson to let Foster travel with them, Robertson initially scoffs at having Busey’s “girlfriend” weighing them down. Busey casually tells him she’s their girlfriend, not his, though Foster hasn’t expressed any interest in Robertson, and Robertson has been eying her as a threat and an annoyance more than a sexual object.
It’s one of a series of chilling moments where the brutal pragmatism at the core of carny life rises to the surface. In another, Foster gets hired on as a burlesque dancer, only to have a resentful Robertson sabotage her by telling her bosses that she’s ready to handle the strong stuff—stripping and prostitution—instead of just sashaying about awkwardly in a corset. Foster catches on to Robertson’s duplicity but doesn’t call him on it; when things go predictably awry, she pretends that it was her idea to volunteer for the strong stuff to protect Busey from knowing that his best friend conspired against him and his girlfriend.
Robertson and Foster accept back-stabbing and duplicity as part of the rules of engagement for carny life, just as the carnival accepts that it will have to bribe officials in each new city just to open; the carnies simply accept that the city will try to fuck them over, and vice versa. And they deal accordingly. Sentimentality isn’t a luxury they can afford.
This is underlined when Robertson seduces Foster and Busey catches them in bed together. Busey is shocked for just a second—though he shouldn’t be—but then he snaps into all-business mode and tells Robertson about a kerfuffle on the midway that needs to be attended to. Then Busey goes into the dunk-booth, and for the first time in the film, genuinely seems to be operating from an honest, emotional place when he taunts the people outside.
Carny is fundamentally concerned with the way the carnival warps people. Busey has spent so much time in a cage of his own devising that he’s lost all self-respect. Robertson has spent so much time greasing palms and manipulating rubes that he no longer holds anything sacred, least of all his friendship with Busey. And Foster lets the carnival corrupt her as she moves steadily from small-town naïveté—Foster doesn’t do innocence—to worldly wisdom.
Foster’s character has been taught by the best and worst to use every tool at her disposal to separate suckers from their money. In this scene, mentor Meg Foster (who possesses the spookiest eyes in ’70s and ’80s film) coaches her to use her ripe Sapphic sexuality to rope some interested young women into playing a rigged game.
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Robertson and Busey corrupt Foster, but she proves an eager student. Foster—who had yet to realize her destiny as the director of beaver-puppet-themed dramedies starring vicious hatemongers—was the original creepily precocious child star; here, she plays a girl who becomes a woman very quickly in a man’s rigged world. Robertson is best known as part of The Band, and for being Martin Scorsese’s roommate at their height of their shared coke addiction, but he shows tremendous presence here as an actor. In a film about freaks and human oddities, he underplays smartly. In this lovely, lyrical scene, he conveys his character’s world-weariness and loneliness without much dialogue.
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Released at the dawn of the Reagan era and morning in America, Carny feels like a throwback to the ’70s. It’s an evocative character study with a firm grasp on its subject matter that may be traced back to Robertson, an ex-carny who also produced and co-wrote the story.
Carny loses that firm grip in a melodramatic climax that staggers in a number of confused directions before collapsing upon itself, but at its best, it has the unsettling quality of a waking nightmare. Busey traded in leading roles for character-actor craziness and then self-parody not long after Carny was released to deafening silence, but he illustrates here why he was once revered as an actor. The quiet moments and vulnerability really register; sadly, Busey conveys more battered dignity putting on his clown makeup than he has for the past 15 years of his career. Busey’s tragic jester in Carny can at least turn it on and off; Busey the camp goofball, alas, seems stuck in scary, sad clown mode permanently.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success