Man on the Moon (1999)


By Mike Ward

You Have All Just Participated in a Happening

Far be it from me to accuse Hollywood of wishful thinking. But as the closing credits for Man on the Moon roll under Andy Kaufman’s (Jim Carrey’s) timid gaze, it’s easy to think the film has been seduced by its own notion that a life of sufficient celebrity can offer freedom from the mortality that afflicts ordinary souls. You see, Kaufman has spent the film’s final half-hour succumbing to a terminal illness. Then, in the closing frames, there is a half-made suggestion that he has come back from the dead to travel among us incognito.

My saying this would count as a spoiler if Man on the Moon‘s finale were conclusive enough to be spoiled. But in a certain sense the movie’s conclusion is revealed in the beginning, as a ghostly Kaufman — peeping in on the opening credits — protests that the movie we are about to watch actually isn’t going to be any good because in it, “all the most important things in my life are mixed up and changed around.” That said, he tells us that the movie’s over and turns the opening credits into closing credits by playing climactic-sounding music through a tiny record player (the sort used in elementary schools at around the time Taxi — the tv series that made Kaufman-as-Latka famous — was in first run). Almost immediately, then, the film is suggesting that its Andy will control aspects of this representation of his life, aspects that you might not expect him to control.

And lest anyone in the audience doubts the seriousness of Andy’s intention to shut the movie down two minutes in, when the credits finish rolling, there is a blackness and silence long enough that you might actually consider filing out of the theater, hoping that next time Hollywood will have more respect for your seven hard-earned dollars.

Andy asks a wise man if there is a secret to being funny. The answer? “Silence.”

So yes, I broke the cardinal movie-critic rule and gave away the ending. If you still don’t think that’s okay, rest assured that if Carrey’s, and director Milos Forman’s, Andy had been a movie critic, he would have given away the ending every time. Andy is the ultimate unprofessional, happiest when getting F’s on his report card, a comedian who doesn’t do jokes. In other words, Andy’s guiding principles are a refusal to obey the rules of society that most of us follow without question, a disregard for the typical censure of “eccentric” behavior, and a rare recognition of free will’s sweeping possibilities. Which is to say, he has no guiding principles as the people around him would understand them.

Now, I don’t know if the real Andy Kaufman was this way, but Carrey’s certainly is: an actor who has made a career out of taking his parts to the verge of chaos, Carrey gives us a Kaufman who is an inveterate and often habitual saboteur. But even Carrey has never courted the irrational quite so doggedly before — he’s more “serious” in Man on the Moon than his earlier comic outings but even he has never tried to shut down his own movie. Carrey’s Andy does whatever he wants. It’s hard to know — from this film, anyway — whether his lack of impulse control is due to a narcissism that makes him forget about his audience, or an obsession with stirring something hidden by confronting his audience with the irrational. Andy certainly traffics in the irrational, and not only the irrationality of silence. You see him peppering his acts with great, awkward chasms of dead air, yes, but also fiddling with the vertical hold so that viewers will think there’s something wrong with their tv’s, pounding on bongos while chanting gibberish, and launching into spontaneous and complete readings of The Great Gatsby, all for no apparent reason.

Sometimes this behavior makes the people around him mad. When he breaks character on Fridays, a live sketch comedy show, a furious fellow castmember snatches his cue cards and dumps them into his lap. Up to a point, people who vent their rage at Andy only play into his hands: by tossing the cue cards into the tv camera frame, the angry castmember is only exposing the mechanisms that make television work, and thus unwittingly assisting Kaufman in his subversive performance. But ultimately and repeatedly, Andy is brought back into the industry fold. A network executive who’s watching the Fridays event disarms Andy’s sabotage by telling the audience they “have all just participated in a happening,” and technicians manage to catch Andy’s fusillade of the word “fuck” and censor it from The David Letterman Show. Though Kaufman likens his project to that of “punk rock” — anarchy, one presumes — he is thwarted specifically where the Sex Pistols once succeeded.

Even in his reading of Gatsby — a punishment for an audience who demands he rehash all his old material — Andy corners himself into confessing the futility of what he’s doing. For the punishment to work, he has to read the whole book, thereby closing his act by echoing Nick Carroway’s lament about being borne ceaselessly into the past.

The movie suggests that Andy’s wife Lynne (Courtney Love) has as many problems getting to the real Andy as Nick Carroway has trying to uncover the real Gatsby. But it might be too simple to say, as seems popular, that there is no real Andy to get to. The couple briefly discusses the problem while lolling about in bed, in an exchange quoted for the film’s trailer. Andy tells Lynne, “You don’t know the real me,” and she reminds him that “There isn’t a real you.” “Oh, yeah,” he agrees. “I forgot.” For an instant it’s funny, but the question lingers: what does it mean to forget that there isn’t a real you? It’s hard to say. In this age of mercurial subjectivity, the closest we may ever get to personhood is in momentary lapses of our presentational selves.

Even if you don’t know the “real” Andy Kaufman, you know how his story ended. Here you see that when Andy contracts a freak case of lung cancer, he tries to prolong these lapses in his presentational self at least long enough to get anyone other than Lynne to believe him when he says he’s dying. But, having already been duped when Andy once faked a neck injury after a brilliantly staged professional wrestling bout, no one will take him seriously. Even when a doctor explains his predicament to his family, they still doubt Andy’s sincerity — a fact that both makes his impending death seem sadder and demonstrates the extravagant extremes to which he goes in misleading his audience.

For his final, extravagant performance, Andy wants to realize a childhood dream — playing Carnegie Hall — and wants to cleanse his act of what his agent (Danny DeVito) describes as “negative energy.” That is, he wants to stop tricking people. But he can’t resist. During the Carnegie Hall show, he has an elderly woman fake a seizure while riding a hobby horse. Everything’s okay, though — he then resurrects her to the surreal accompaniment of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Magical resurrection is Andy’s central vision in the movie’s final half-hour, and his soul’s imminent dissolution ironically begins to give coherence to what is otherwise an elusive and grandly performed personality. Andy has made a career out of doing what he wants, and he does not want to die. When the movie hints at resurrecting him as it shows him resurrecting the elderly woman, it is part-serious, part-comedy, like the gaping silences that make his audience laugh and wince in equal measure. But it’s a joke only so long as those silences are eventually broken.

In the beginning of the film, it’s a joke when Jim Carrey as the resurrected Kaufman pipes in to inform us that the movie has gotten everything in his life wrong. Lately, we take such inaccuracy for granted in films pretending to be based on true stories, and we also take for granted that any biopic is, in a facile way, a cynical kind of resurrection, made for profit. But by the time Man on the Moon ends, it has asked whether those who live their lives breaking all society’s rules can outmaneuver the most unshakable law, that of death’s inevitability. Somehow, the movie seems to believe, they can. It implies that, instead of being permanent, maybe even that blackness and silence go on just long enough to fool you into thinking they will last forever.

I imagine we’d all like to participate in that particular happening. But filing out of the theater, for good this time, we know better. For all the jokes, the real Andy is now, permanently, silent.

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