Punching the Clown

By Michael T. Dennis

 

Slamdance Film Fest 2009–We are so deeply involved in the digital revolution that it's easy to forget what a recent and remarkable trend it is.  Ideas, large and small, can be seen through to fruition by a filmmaker with limited resources or lack of marketability.  “Punching the Clown” is a film that could have been made no other way.  Following the fictional exploits of the real singer-comedian Henry Phillips, it gains tenable warmth from its handmade feel.

 

As a personal undertaking by Phillips and co-writer-director Gregori Viens, “Punching the Clown” never tries to be a broad comedy for a mass audience.  Instead, it probes deep into the character of Phillips (both on-screen and off) within a story that is nicely told but hardly unique.

 

At the end of a long line of roadside bars and pizza parlors, Henry Phillips decides to go for broke and bring his one-man act to Los Angeles.  Crashing on his brother's couch, he makes the rounds looking for a place to showcase his comedic folk songs and self-deprecating banter (think Adam Sandler but hugely insecure).  Small successes and big misunderstandings follow.  Through the Tinseltown grapevine Henry is wrongly identified as the driving force behind a popular musician, then promptly labeled a neo-Nazi after an incident involving some kosher bagels.  Record deals are dangled in front of him and withdrawn just as quickly.  It's all too much for a man who only wants to entertain, and Henry is faced with a decision about which direction to take his ambition.

 

Providing much of the humor that plays nicely against Henry's deadpan personality is the wacky cast of characters that could only exist in L.A.  There's Ellen, the buoyant talent agent whose unfounded optimism borders on delusional.  Closer to home is Henry's brother Matt, an “actor” whose unlicensed Batman birthday party performances are almost as pathetic as his bickering relationship with his breadwinning girlfriend.  Unethical journalists, insincere executives, and the Hollywood glitterati are in turn lampooned before it's all over.

 

Against these aggressors Henry is the victimized neophyte, but he is much more than just a lovable loser.  His honest charm and clumsy determination make him less the overt comic protagonist but all the more real.  This works in favor of the film's bittersweet tone, which at times borders on cynical.  By finding a place for humor in a real-life construct, “Punching the Clown” is like an antidote for the current wave of Judd Apatow-style laugher that employ the opposite approach, forcing a minimal story onto a long string of gags.

 

“Punching the Clown” was inspired by the longtime friendship between Phillips and Viens.  UCLA classmates in the early 1990s, they produced a short prototype using a documentary approach.  As high-definition video became widely available, the filmmakers saw their chance to turn an inside joke into a respectable piece of cinema.  Marketing the film on MySpace and co-promoting it with a Henry Phillips web series, they have accomplished this amidst the groundswell of digital productions, many of which flaunt their mere existence without regard to whether or not they were worth making in the first place.

 

With any new art form comes the need for new standards, and the question to ask about the video-films that dominate the independent scene today is, how have they taken advantage of the available technology?  Of course it is admirable that “Punching the Clown” was shot in 18 days, or that it was edited at home on a laptop, but what makes it a good film is the quality of the satire and candor of the storytelling.  It is ironic that the film's title, mentioned only in passing, is a euphemism for masturbation; self-indulgence is precisely what “Punching the Clown” is not, but what so many mediocre digital productions are.  As the digital revolution continues, let us hope it is a sign of things to come.

 

“Punching the Clown” may leave a lasting impression, at once funny and poignant, on its right audience.  Lacking recognizable stars and employing a no-frills production style (a matter of necessity in the truly independent filmmaking), it may not get the most laughs from the most viewers, but it should ring true to anyone who has struggled to understand the absurdities of dealing with the powers that be.

 

Cast

 

Henry – Henry Phillips

Ellen Pinsky – Ellen Ratner

Captain Chaotic – Wade Kelley

Matt – Matt Walker

Fabian – Guilford Adams

Becca – Audrey Siegel

 

Credits

 

Produced and directed by Gregori Viens

Written by Henry Phillips and Gregori Viens

Original music and lyrics by Henry Phillips

Assistant Director, Michael Breines

Cinematographer, Ian Campbell

Co-producers, Cory Wish, David Klein, Eric Klein, Ty Trullinger

Line Producer, April Wade