The Lenny Bruce Performance Film

  • 1968
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Comedy, Documentary

This statically-shot film of Bruce's next-to-last nightclub appearance at San Francisco's Basin Street West in August 1965 is an historic document, as it is the only visual record of a complete performance by the groundbreaking standup comedian. Bruce's performance consists of a mixture of reflections on his obscenity busts, recaps of the material he was...read more

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This statically-shot film of Bruce's next-to-last nightclub appearance at San Francisco's Basin Street West in August 1965 is an historic document, as it is the only visual record of a complete performance by the groundbreaking standup comedian.

Bruce's performance consists of a mixture of reflections on his obscenity busts, recaps of the material he was arrested for, and new insights about relationships, the nature of art, and the American justice system. He begins with a discussion of a peace officer who was required to reproduce his

act in court (noting that the officer's presentation was largely inaccurate and very unfunny, Bruce contends that "the irony is, I have to go to court and defend his act."). Bruce next sails into a routine about the tribal beginnings of law, and the need for a police force. He then begins to quote

from the transcipt of the trial that followed his April 1964 bust in New York; what follows is a sort of "greatest hits" resume of his memorable routines (performed in a somewhat rushed manner, with some of the routines quickly truncated). The material includes his bits about the prominence of

"tits and ass" in Las Vegas, selling out one's country, Jackie Kennedy's attempts to "haul ass" as JFK was being shot, Jack Ruby's killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, the intricacies of male-female relationships (and the male take on fidelity), the seemingly inexcusable act of urinating in the sink,

sniffing glue to achieve a high, old prison movies, and "How the Negro and Jew got into Show Business." Towards the end of the performance, Bruce goes over to a fire-exit and comments on passersby outside the club, announcing that "Dirty Lenny...the pornographer" will be appearing nightly. He then

ducks through the door, and the performance is over.

The general consensus on the PERFORMANCE FILM is that it is a major disappointment, and is in fact quite boring. Although filmmaker John Magnuson's decision to shoot Bruce's entire act in a medium shot from one fixed perspective is a lamentable one, Bruce himself is razor sharp, never letting the

ball drop as he segues effortlessly from topic to topic and communicates a number of uneasy, and quite profound, truths.

Magnuson was an educational filmmaker (he later contributed to "Sesame Street") who had been working on different film projects with Bruce. What emerged from these discussions was a top-notch cartoon short based on one of Bruce's routines, "Thank You Mask Man" (1968) and this record of the Basin

Street West engagement. The film's graininess was the result of Magnuson's using very low lighting and a fast film stock; according to the Albert Goldman biography Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! this was because Bruce's eyes were sensitive to the harsh movie lights Magnuson intended to use.

One assumes, however, that the restrictive camerawork was entirely Magnuson's own idea; this aspect, when combined with the darkness of the film, becomes a major obstacle to viewer enjoyment. Given Bruce's penchant for wandering the stage, it would've been more visually compelling if Magnuson let

his two cameras roam with their subject; during Bruce's frequent lapses into dialogue between characters, some quick-cut editing might have mirrored the kinetic nature of his stream-of-consciousness routines.

The other restrictive elements that have been noted by the film's critics are Bruce's sporadic readings from the transcript of the NY trial on camera, and the fact that he literally races through some of his most famous routines, effectively spoiling them for those who are unfamiliar with his

work. According to Goldman, Magnuson was responsible for the former, as he wanted Bruce to be quoting directly from the transcript of the New York trial. The second problem has more to do with the nature of Bruce's performing as a whole--he never liked to do the same bits in exactly the same way,

and also took to discarding his older material as the years went on. Given as he was to ponder his legal difficulties on stage in his last four years (since the events in his life comprised the raw material of his act), and given the fact that Magnuson's film stood for him as a kind of permanent

record of his act, it was only natural that he would be forced to dig out the notorious routines that got him into trouble--it was just as natural for him, though, to take his past glories and condense them, refer to them, and even use them as footnotes in his ongoing discussion. Interestingly

enough, the routines he does take the most care to perform in their entirety are the one that was the most personal to him (the discussion of divorce and male infidelity) and the one with the least emotional significance of all (the classic "prison break" movie parody).

However, in spite of the fact that newcomers to Bruce's universe are still best served by listening to the lengthier audio recordings of his concerts at Carnegie Hall or the Curran Theater, there is still a good deal of merit in the PERFORMANCE FILM. By the time the film was made, Bruce was a

battered, but not beaten, individual, who had become obsessed with his legal troubles; as a result of his various obscenity busts, he had been unable to work in most major American cities. His eagerness to entertain shines through, though, in Magnuson's film. His comic timing might be slightly

off, but that appears to be a function of how delighted he is to be performing again in San Francisco, the one city in which he was legally exonerated before his premature death. Far from being in decline, Bruce still proves to have a nimble mind, and demonstrates why he became the seminal

influence for the comedians who followed in his wake in the late 1960s and 1970s (Richard Pryor, George Carlin, et al), his willingness to tackle unpopular, taboo subject matter, and his ability to fashion humorous material out of painful personal experiences. One can also see that, in the words

of the obscenity law that Bruce was so fond of quoting on stage in his final years, his act did indeed contain much that was of "socially redeeming importance." Though technically pedestrian, the PERFORMANCE FILM stands as a testament to his talent. (Profanity.)

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