Mar 21, 2014

Retro Grading: Tomorrow Night (1998)

Chuck Sklar
Welcome to Retro Grading: a sporadic column that looks at forgotten cinema released before 2000. The main objective of this column will be to highlight films that time hasn't treated as well as the classics. But these are all classics in their own way and while all of the subjects won't be gems, they are all small flickering signs of ingenuity that in some ways rival their competitors. Retro Grading will attempt to highlight these films and hopefully fill your Netflix queue with alternative programming. 
Nowadays, it is impossible to see Louis C.K. as anything but one of the grand masters of comedy and marketing. Consider the success of his Emmy-winning special "Live at the Beacon Theater," which was released on his website for $5 and went on to have a substantial profit that revolutionized the business model. It helped to pave the way for self-released digital platforms for comedians such as Tig Notaro, Todd Barry, and Jim Gaffigan. Because of the innovative techniques that C.K. has brought to audience marketing, he seems to be a powerhouse unlike any other. Add on that his multi-hyphenate job on his TV series Louie has also resulted in success and it is impossible to ever see him as anything but a genius who bluntly, sometimes even offensively, analyzes our foibles and churns out literally award winning material almost every time. Then consider C.K. as a filmmaker. Yes, he has had a slew of shorts that reflect a younger, more anarchic voice that stole ice cream from kids. However, until this past January, his only readily available directorial film credit was Pootie Tang: a film that was so strange and so marred by the studios that its only success comes from cult audiences spouting lines such as "I gots to say na nay no" and other gibberish. For a voice that was rising in the stand-up realm in ways that placed him alongside the greats such as George Carlin, he wasn't really able to translate as a filmmaker in an accessible way until Louie premiered in 2010.
With all of the success he had built, C.K. finally decided to release his directorial debut: the black and white, low-low-low budget Tomorrow Night, which starred a cast of familiar faces including the more prominently used Steve Carell and J.B. Smoove. Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Robert Smigel and even C.K. make brief cameos as well in the film that runs a brief 87 minutes. Along with the fact that of the very few theatrical showings that the film made was at Sundance, it seems weird that it took so long to finally see the light of day. In fact, C.K.'s selling point is that he owed people money seems to be the prime motivator in this scenario.
Whether or not you appreciate Tomorrow Night, it is a fascinating look at an artist who was in the rawest form. At 30 years old, the film seems like a far cry from Louie, if just in its tangential nature and lack of focus. It isn't that the film is a mess, but the humor feels overtly subversive and meant to confuse you more than to connect a hilarious zinger. To say the least, there are several moments in which protagonist Charles (Chuck Sklar) receives some sort of sexual satisfaction by sitting on a bowl of ice cream while music plays. The angles are perverted and the overall experience runs like a gag instead of a character trait. Either way, it is really, really weird.
As a whole, there's more to appreciate about the film than enjoy. The narrative structure winds multiple stories into quite possibly one of the strangest gatherings of people imaginable involving a soldier (Greg Hahn), photo developer Charles, and an elderly woman (Martha Greenhouse). At first, nothing makes sense. It plays like David Lynch-style absurdity in which everything is funny, but it is not known to the audience.  In fact, many characters' trait is that they laugh at everything. It is a little on the aggressive side, but when taken as a surreal challenge to the audience, it kind of works. Add in hints of Woody Allen (think Stardust Memories era) and even former Retro Grading topic Putney Swope. It may lake the commentary that made these films classics, but there's a sense that C.K. is going for something beyond the laugh. Even from the opening moment where a man (Barry) runs through the rain only to get rejected from the shelter of Charles' shop, we are introduced to a universe of odd little people who overreact at every turn.
While it may be its most enduring trait, the lo-fi production essentially also hurts it at points. A lot of the cinematography seems to blur out the background, making it feel like a home movie. Despite having a cast that has since established itself in impressive ways, there's also the sense of some performers not quite rising above amateurish overacting. By the end, it all ebbs together in a disturbing flow that makes this universe feel like C.K.'s tribute to Lynch (who also appeared on Louie in 2012), even if only in the loosest terms imaginable. He basks in the strange and takes risks that don't entirely makes sense. Of course, it is impossible to take too seriously someone who has characters named Nick (Nick DiPaolo) and Lola Vagina (Heather Morgan). 
Even for all of its misses and amateurish qualities, it does feel like necessary cannon to understand where C.K. evolved to over 15 years later. He may remain as strange as ever, including all of his penchants for dirty jokes and absurd situations, but they feel more personalized than homages to his catalog of influences. An average episode of Louie, which usually plays as weekly short videos, has all of Tomorrow Night's elements, but maybe benefits from a bigger budget and a more "mature" C.K. who has control over his product. There are still the tangential moments, but they all feel more grounded and well acted.
Maybe it could just be that C.K.'s troupe honed their skills. Maybe he needed the experience. It could also just be the change in time. Consider the lo-fi of the 90's to the 00's. In the 90's, the films most relevant to Tomorrow Night were that of the D.I.Y. aesthetic that produced the likes of Clerks: a film in which people stand around a convenience store talking on a shoe string budget. In the 00's, the D.I.Y. aesthetic became, for a lack of better word, mainstream enough with more accessible and visually pleasing technology that produced the likes of Mark and Jay Duplass' loose-formed active films.  The talking and standing around were still there, but they were now presented in a far more effective way on significantly low budgets.
As a whole, Tomorrow Night is not the greatest directorial debuts of the 90's. If anything, it is a promising starting point for the film career of C.K., who hasn't done too much behind the camera since Pootie Tang. Maybe with the success of his website, incentive will continue to arise and there will be a story that is worthy of a feature-length narrative. Then again, with Louie set to return very soon, that isn't likely to happen this year. However, along with phenomenal turns in two Oscar nominated films last year (Blue Jasmine and American Hustle), this is the era of C.K.. It is wildly unpredictable, but he mixes the grotesque with classic cinema in ways that are at times surreal, but mostly succeed as authentic narratives. This debut is one that will not likely convince you to hop on the bandwagon, but for fans, it will give you a sense of how far he has evolved.

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