Louis C.K. is an auteur, as much so as any filmmaker gracing the cover of Cineaste or Sight & Sound. His stand-up specials, routinely championed as the best of their respective years, express not just an attitude, but also a bona fide philosophy about the world (and parenthood and cell phones and jerking off). The FX series Louie, which C.K. writes, directs, produces, edits, and stars in, is one of the only completely creator-controlled programs on television. It’s maybe the closest that medium presently comes to a singular artistic vision, the equivalent of getting a weekly, unfiltered glimpse into one man’s brain. And because Louis C.K. is an auteur—as superbly defined by Andrew Sarris, some 50-odd years ago—it follows that everything he’s put his name on is of some interest, at least to those seeking to make sense of his entire body of work. Placed in the context of a whole career, every effort is compelling. Yes, even Pootie Tang.
Auteurism is probably the best, most flattering lens through which to view Tomorrow Night, the comedian’s feature directorial debut. The film, a black-and-white 16mm curio about misfit romance in the big city, premiered at Sundance back in 1998. After C.K. tried and failed to secure a theatrical distributor, it fell into obscurity (and a film can) for a decade and a half, unseen by any eyes in the interim. Yesterday, C.K. changed all that by making Tomorrow Night available on his website for a mere $5. To those who have already ponied up to watch this “lost” movie, it should be clear why its maker had trouble getting it onto movie screens. Set in Pittsburgh but shot in New York, the film plays like an ancient, primitive dry run to Louie, with a fraction of the laughs and maybe twice the degree of self-conscious awkwardness. The acting is wildly uneven, leaning toward amateurish, and the pacing is frequently sluggish. But for those already convinced of C.K.’s genius, this unearthed relic has archaeological value; it reveals a heretofore missing link in the evolution of his DIY sensibilities.
Chuck Sklar, who looks like a young John Turturro, plays the stiff, unfriendly owner of a camera shop. By day, he mans the counter, rudely dismissing the rare passerby who dares seek his services. By night, he indulges a strange sexual fetish, grinding his nether-regions into a bowl of frozen ice cream. (C.K. depicts this bizarre nocturnal ritual no less than four times, possibly even reusing the splattering-dessert “money shots.”) Through his frantic phone calls to customers, who have abandoned their developed photos without paying, Sklar’s off-putting protagonist meets his future love interest, a kindly old woman (Martha Greenhouse) trapped in a loveless marriage. Gradually, the margins of the film fill with supporting characters, including the woman’s abusive coot of a husband, her tart-tongued transvestite friend, and her grown, Navy-private son, whose letters home have been tossed aside by the mail room as a cruel, elaborate practical joke.
Some of Tomorrow Night is wryly amusing. Most of it—and especially the material involving the manic, cackling husband—is not. Louie fans will detect an early attempt at balancing the mundane and the surreal: One minute, the hero is enduring a gauntlet of discomfort on a first date; the next, a screaming man is devoured alive by ravenous stray dogs. C.K. wears his influences on his sleeve, paying tribute not just to Woody Allen—from whom he borrows credit fonts and a general spirit of New York neurosis—but also the early work of fellow urbanites Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and John Cassavetes. Those filmmakers started small, too, with equally scrappy NYC debuts. It’s interesting to think of the filmmaker C.K. might have grown into had someone actually released his fledging foray into cinema. Was a future Albert Brooks stopped cold in his tracks?
For many, Tomorrow Night will work best as a strange peek into the past, a New York City time capsule populated by future comedy stars. J.B. Smoove, Wanda Sykes, and Steve Carell (who’s barely aged a day in 16 years) all make appearances, trying out half-formed variations on their current shtick. C.K. shows up, too, in a funny wordless bit in which he sprays a very young, unresponsive Amy Poehler in the face with a garden hose. It’s maybe the movie’s most inspired gag, which points to what’s really missing here: the hangdog charisma of C.K. himself. He may not be the most confident of actors, but the performer has developed a persona—at once self-righteous and self-deprecating, defeatist, but triumphantly principled—that’s become key to his comedy. Tomorrow Night hails from a pre-Louie era, before its creator realized that the ideal star of a Louis C.K. project is Louis C.K.