Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Richard Pryor: Here & Now

Richard Pryor: Here & Now (1983; dir. Richard Pryor) is the comedian’s last concert film. He talks to a New Orleans audience about how he's been off drugs and alcohol for seven months and the new perspective his sobriety gives him. He feels good about himself, but also slightly off balance. Pryor was especially effective handling hecklers. He ignored some hecklers. Others he incorporates into whatever bit he's working on: sometimes he belittles them. Sometimes you can tell that they bother him. There's a lot of give-and-take with the rowdy audience he's talking to-- people call out to him, ask him questions, one person reacts to something he says with a loud and angry “Bullshit!” and he takes all of these comments in stride.  He playfully makes fun of people looking for their seats.

Pryor had an uncanny knack for inhabiting the persona of characters he created. In this film he takes on the character of an old man talking about his experiences in California. He also inhabits the persona of a junkie. In the bit the junkie shoots up and reacts to the drug and then gives a monologue about life and talks with the imaginary person who apparently sold him the drug. In the end, the junkie shoots up a second time and falls down on the floor unconscious, maybe OD’d. It's an uncanny and disturbing performance. The audience is quiet and doesn't quite know what to make of what Pryor is doing.

Race doesn’t isn’t the central subject of Pryor’s comedy in this film, but it’s always an undercurrent.  There’s no overt anger towards white people, but, again, anger is a strong and implied undercurrent. The characters he creates are often the victims of economic or social oppression (the old man, the junkie). Talking about drugs, Pryor observes that white people don’t get upset about drugs in the black community, but the first time drugs impact one of their children, they start talking about drug epidemics.

I can't think of many comedians today who come close to being able to do this kind of comedy. It’s performance art as much as it is comedy.  Pryor was a great comedian but he was also an accomplished actor, mainly on stage in his own routines. He also seemed to me a fragile person on stage.  He leaves us unsure what is going to happen next. We don’t know whether he is going to break out in a furious rant, or fall to pieces. That explosive uncertainty was part of his appeal. It's easy to understand, as much as we can regret it, how he burned himself up not only literally, but psychologically. His loss was a real loss. This film makes clear how talented he was.

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