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THE COMPARATIST SUBLIME RUPERT AND BEAUTIFUL LENNY: AESTHETICS AND TEMPORALITY IN SCORSESE'S THE KING OF COMEDYAND FOSSE'S LENNY Nikita Nankov Being announces itself in the imperative. [. . J But being is not meaning. (Jean-François Lyotard1) The development of the culture industry has led to the predominance of the effect, the obvious touch, and the technical detail over the work itself—which once expressed an idea, but was liquidated together with the idea. (Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer 9) At the beginning of The King ofComedy (1983), a film directed by Martin Scorsese, there is a key scene, which, however, seems so trivial that it hardly attracts attention: Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a talk-show host, tries to get rid of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a pushy, aspiring stand-up comic who wants to become a guest on Jerry's TV show. Let us give an ear to Jerry's hackneyed recipe for how to become a star: [T]his is a crazy business but it's not unlike any other business. There are ground rules. And you don't just walk on to a network show without experience. [. . .] You've got to start at the bottom. [. . .] It looks so simple to the viewer at home—those things that come so easily, that are so relaxed and look like it's a matter ofjust taking another breath. It takes years, and years, and years ofhoning that and working it. Later, in one of Rupert's fantasies, Jerry expresses admiration after listening to his material: At least once in his life every man is a genius. [. . J it's gonna be more than once in your life for you, it's gonna be a number of times because you've got it. [. . J It's always gonna be there. Now, I know there's no formula for it. Ijust don't know how you do it. [. . .] It's humor based on you. No one else could do it but you. And, finally, let's hear one ofRupert's jokes toward the end of his monologue on Jerry's show—where he has arranged his performance by kidnapping and blackmailing Jerry: "But, you know, my only real interest right from the beginning was show business. Even as a young man I began at the very top [here Rupert makes a meaningful pause, to be discussed later]—collecting autographs." The first quote prescribes beginning at the bottom and moving gradually to the top. The second and third outline a different approach: starting right at the top. These two strategies to stardom are, in fact, a mise en abyme oftwo aesthetics with long histories in Western thought: those of the beautiful and of the sublime. The tension created by their coexisVoIi 28 (200V: 77 SUBLIMEKUPEKT ANV BEAUTIFUL LENNY tence in the movie may be perceived, in a broader aesthetic context, as one possible representation of the postmodern condition. Moreover, it is the relation between these two aesthetics in the film and in the viewer's cultural memory that makes this movie a comedy of a peculiar quality: on the one hand, one that represents a preposterous diegetic world but, on the other, a diegetic world that closely resembles our own real world and therefore a true one. My first task here will be to analyze The King ofComedy as a film about the aesthetics ofthe sublime. Then I will show in what sense another film about stand-up comedy, Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse (1974), belongs to the aesthetics ofthe beautiful. And my third point will be to plead that despite the fervor with which postmodernists and modernists each defend their positions, the two aesthetics as enacted by the movies have their own proper domains: They do not exclude but complement each other today. For the present I leave aside the banal meaning ofJerry's first quote (to which I will return in closing) and focus on the aesthetic paradigm that it suggests. I. The Beautiful and the Sublime According to the aesthetics ofthe beautiful, art presupposes artisanship —that is, rules, which need to be observed in order for a beautiful work ofart to be produced. Beauty is formal perfection measured...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 77-95
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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