Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Television Review: WHO AM I THIS TIME? (1982, Jonathan Demme)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 53 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon, Robert Ridgely (BOOGIE NIGHTS, EYES OF LAURA MARS), Dorothy Patterson (FRANKENSTEIN GENERAL HOSPITAL, SOAPDISH), Les Podewell (CODE OF SILENCE, GROUNDHOG DAY), Aaron Freeman (TEACHERS, IN THE SHADOW OF A KILLER). Music by John Cale (of the Velvet Underground). Based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and adapted by Neal Miller (THE ROOMMATE, RAISING FLAGG).
Best one-liner: "Uh, excuse me, have you, uh, have you ever... acted?"

Originally presented as an episode of the AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE series on PBS, WHO AM I THIS TIME? is based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut and directed by Jonathan Demme, whose work was beginning to diverge from his Corman-sploitation roots and was moving toward rustic, Americana-style character studies (MELVIN AND HOWARD, HANDLE WITH CARE). Focusing on the actors in a community theater troupe, the film fleshes out the creepy dynamics of these small-town milquetoasts and their insane on-stage alter egos- in particular, the insane on-stage alter egos of one Mr. Christopher Walken.

Demme presents the community theater realm with the mockery (and empathy) of someone who's lived it- from the alternatingly bored and tear-soaked audiences:

to overuse of the word "thespian" to the director- vastly impressed with him or herself- who mouths lines along with the actors from offstage:

to that one spear-carrier who's supposed to remain firmly in the background, but he JUST... WANTS... TO EMOTE!!! Yeah...I've been there, too.

Note the acting of the background priest as Walken's Cyrano tears up the stage.

Walken plays a socially inept dormouse...

...who happens to deliver fearless, unhinged, Keitel-style performances for the local stage. Susan Sarandon is a similarly timid traveling employee for the phone company. Haphazardly flung into the thick of 'acting,' Sarandon's "Stella" has a tremendous connection with Walken's "Stanley" (Yup...they do STREETCAR), but what will be become of their "relationship" after the play ends? Well, the answer to that question will likely bring a smile to your lips and possibly come across as a bit corny, but trust me, if you really start to think about it, it carries an undertone of almost existential terror.

Regardless, my favorite scene in this involves an extremely vigorous STREETCAR audition in the elementary school library. Walken and Sarandon feed off of each other's commitment, and the audition becomes progressively deranged as scripts are flung, the crazy gets turned up to 11, and Walken heaves one of those ubiquitous 60's-style children's chairs into a bookcase.

It's great. Four stars.

-Sean Gill

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