*** (A must-see)

Directed by Lynn Margulies

It’s a little sad how quickly the world has forgotten Andy Kaufman in the years since his death. When he died in May 1984 of lung cancer, to many he was just the amusingly weird, nonspecifically Slavic Latka Graves, of the TV series Taxi. To a rather younger and hipper audience, the Saturday Night Live crowd, he was an unfailingly straight-faced purveyor of a peculiar, highly conceptual brand of comedy who rocketed across an uncertain firmament in the late 70s and early 80s. But the extremes to which he took his act, on both TV and the stage, made him difficult to like. One of his bits involved reading aloud from The Great Gatsby for half-hour-long periods; another was turning over the act to an alter ego, the extremely offensive nightclub singer “Tony Clifton.” And of course everyone was repulsed by his long-running series of wrestling bouts with women, which Kaufman would accompany with bruising sexist commentary. Kaufman, it was invariably said, “went too far,” a charge to which he matter-of-factly copped.

In a way, Kaufman called into question the very idea of having “fans”; his object, it sometimes seemed, was to alienate people–an object that could be deemed successful considering the unprecedented Saturday Night Live viewers poll taken in late 1982. The vote was called to decide whether Kaufman would ever appear on the program again, and he was handily banished. It was getting so he wasn’t much fun to watch. Nowhere was this truer than in Kaufman’s ever-growing infatuation with wrestling. Unpleasant enough to begin with, it took a gruesome turn when he finally agreed to get into a ring with a male wrestler. Few who saw the footage of their match will ever forget the stomach-turning sight of Kaufman being bounced to the ring floor headfirst, or his subsequent TV appearance in a cervical collar, his entire face black and blue.

Certain articles about Kaufman, notably regular coverage in Rolling Stone, charted his peculiarities and even gave some hints of the philosophy driving his act. But after his death he was almost forgotten, save for two recurring rumors–one that he was an early victim of AIDS, this apparently stemming from his professed fondness for friendships with prostitutes, and another, more insistent one, that he hadn’t died at all, that this was just another far-out act. But there was little in the way of memorials or tributes. He was just too difficult to think about clearly.

I’m From Hollywood, a new hour-long documentary about Kaufman’s wrestling fixation directed by his longtime friend Lynn Margulies (and showing at Facets this weekend), only compounds the problem. It’s a Chinese puzzle box of a movie: you peel back layer after layer, and what you finally get is not so much a surprise as a confrontation. In this sense, it’s a perfect testament to Kaufman’s scorched-earth policy on the subjects of acting, stardom, and comedy.

The film begins with a brief–too brief–introduction to Kaufman the comedian. Kaufman always took pride in not being a stand-up comic; “I’ve never told a joke in my life,” he’d say. It’s a marvelous Kaufmanism, because while the statement is probably true in the sense that he never told a joke the way a normal comic would, there’s no question he was putting joke telling through a savage, deadly wringer. In one of his routines he portrayed the character of a naive young comic who earnestly recites joke after joke, all of them bombs. Close to tears, with sweat running down his face, Kaufman would say, haltingly, “Wh-wh-why do all of you boo when I tell a joke, but then laugh when I don’t want you to, like right now?” Another character did tell jokes–but they happened to be in Czech or something. It didn’t matter what the incomprehensible language was, because the meaning behind the routine–from the banter with the audience to the punch lines–was entirely obvious. The subject of both routines was the loneliness of the long-distance comic: the naked pleading for love via comedy, the falsity, banalities, and cliches of the transitions and setups and shticks.

In hindsight, we can see that Kaufman’s one and only subject was performing itself; he was keenly interested in the preconceptions and expectations that the audience and performer bring to their meeting, and he examined their pressure points like a dentist sticking a probe into a succession of teeth. What if I read The Great Gatsby onstage? What if I charter some buses and take the whole audience out for cookies and milk after the show? What do I have to do to get people to watch me play bongos for 15 minutes? And (most important), how obnoxious can I be before the audience rebels entirely?

Kaufman’s work in this area reached a pinnacle in an extremely strange one-hour show he did for WTTW’s late and lamented Soundstage, filmed in Chicago the year before his death. The Andy Kaufman Show (available on video) is a surreal, subversive talk-show parody, complete with guests, studio audience, and sidekick (a marionette playing Clifton). In the show, Kaufman posits himself as a sort of host from the dark side: he sits at a desk ten feet high and gazes serenely down at his visitors, the first played by real-life ex-girlfriend Elayne Boosler, with whom he immediately engages in some debilitating emotional-scab scratching. The next guest is a guy plugging a baldness remedy, whom Kaufman and Clifton quickly expose as a fraud. There are a number of other scathing segments, including a “has-been corner” (featuring a singer who’d had but a single minor hit, in 1959) and, significantly, a “going too far” bit, ending with a pair of cops pulling Kaufman in front of a judge, who bans him from TV and exiles him to a strange two-dimensional netherworld. (Kaufman is superimposed onto a crude painting of a desert island.) At this point, the picture switches to a crotchety old couple watching the show in their living room. “What’s he doin’?” asks the wife. “Aw, he’s just playin’ with the medium,” responds her husband.

Not too shabby for 1983. The Andy Kaufman Show provided Kaufman with a palette large enough to accommodate his prodigious ambition. His earlier routines, while ambitious as well, always came up against the same obstacle: context. Take his bombing-young-comic act. Kaufman was an amazing actor (his one major role in a feature, Heartbeeps, playing a robot alongside Bernadette Peters, is a sweet and sophisticated surprise) with an almost superhuman ability to keep a straight face; his portrayal of the earnest, desperate comedian is a bravura performance. Yet watching the bit now (you can see it on an early HBO comedy video) you notice that the audience is not taken in: it’s a comedy club, after all, and they know–or surmise–that it’s only a joke. It must have been frustrating for Kaufman. He had grandiose, magnificent ideas for comedy, yet they would always, ultimately, fail: the audience always guessed it was just part of the act.

As his career went on, he did his best to break some of these bonds, notably a couple of bizarre TV appearances. One week on Fridays (an ABC Saturday Night Live ripoff), Kaufman interrupted a (live!) skit in which he was participating, saying he “felt stupid”–and then the following week, looking slightly insane, appeared to give a rambling apology. He pulled a similar stunt on the Letterman show, babbling into the camera with his face smeared with some gross-looking substance, and convincing the audience that he was a maniac. He tried other experiments with “realism” on film, too. My Breakfast With Blassie (on the bill at Facets with I’m From Hollywood) is a loopy, hour-long My Dinner With Andre spoof that watches Kaufman having eggs and bacon at Sambo’s with George Blassie, an aging and eccentric wrestler. Their apparently improvised conversation is a sort of banal poetry, particularly on the part of the wrestler, who’s apparently been thrown to the mat a few times too often. Despite its oddities, the film is more than halfway believable: it’s plain that Kaufman’s pulling something (you can see him gently prodding Blassie’s hand-washing fixation), and once you learn that some of Kaufman’s friends (his writing partner, Bob Zmuda, and Lynn Margulies herself) are at neighboring tables, you realize that the clientele is in on the joke too. But is Blassie? You can’t tell.

I’m From Hollywood appears to give a relatively straightforward account of Kaufman’s lifelong obsession with wrestling. (He had always said he wanted to be a professional wrestler.) His wrestling “act” was surely one of the strangest performances put on by anyone at the time: declaring himself “intergender champion of the world,” both on TV and at in-person appearances, Kaufman would offer some sum of money to any woman who could pin him within a set period of time. In the documentary Kaufman explains the reason he limited his work to women: if he wrestled men, he’d get beaten. The film details his skill at angering and humiliating the women he faced with contemptuous, hoarily sexist proclamations (women belong in the kitchen, why don’t you just go home and bake something, and so forth), and his habit of ending a match with a final kick to his vanquished opponent’s backside.

Pro wrestler Jerry Lawler, the man who gives Kaufman his comeuppance, gets into the act by intervening as Kaufman dispatches a female opponent at a show in Memphis. Kaufman goes nuclear (“I am a star from Hollywood! Don’t you dare touch me! I’ll sue you for every penny you own”); the film is full of his ripe ravings about Lawler in particular and the south in general. (In one astonishing scene, Kaufman carefully explains to southerners the uses of soap and toilet paper.) The pair trade barbs publicly until Kaufman finally agrees to the fateful match. What happens when Lawler finally gets his hands on Kaufman provides both the opening and climax of I’m From Hollywood: the shocking, sickening sight of Lawler raising Kaufman into the air and slamming him to the ring floor headfirst. Kaufman seems barely conscious after this, but Lawler drags him around the mat by his head and continues to maul him until Kaufman is removed from the ring on a stretcher. The movie also includes some news footage of Kaufman, in traction, uttering the deathless lines, “I always thought wrestling was a fake, but I guess this one wasn’t.”

From there on in, the film traces Kaufman’s increasing obsession with Lawler, and charts a succession of less-publicized grudge rematches. Here the film brings its theme (the destruction the obsession wrought on Kaufman’s career) to a fever pitch, with Kaufman looking increasingly irrational, and friends and colleagues–Robin Williams and Taxi costars like Marilu Henner among them–testifying to Kaufman’s irrationality and increasing withdrawal.

I’m From Hollywood is slick, funny, involving, scary (during the first Lawler fight), and convincing. So slick is it, in fact, that it’s not until the movie ends that the questions in the back of your mind come to the surface. Wrestling is fake, isn’t it? And doesn’t that series of rematches conform exactly to the standards of the genre? Once this line of thought starts going, the enormity of I’m From Hollywood’s deception becomes clear. The seemingly genuine brutality of the original match notwithstanding, it’s plain that the rematches, at least, are choreographed. And Kaufman must have made some sort of business arrangement with Lawler, hardly the kind of thing you’d do with someone who broke your neck. Perhaps Lawler didn’t actually exact as lethal a punishment as it seemed. Kaufman always said he wanted to be a real pro wrestler, which is to say, an unreal one. Maybe he became one.

Modern-day all-star wrestling–which had its first TV hero in Gorgeous George and stayed shoddy and regional with the likes of Lawler until the World Wrestling Federation and Hulk Hogan went platinum with the concept in the late 80s–is predicated on cartoony, outlandishly exaggerated characters, each displaying either “good” characteristics or “bad” ones. Not to put too fine a point on it, it gives the typical wrestling fan something to root for or rail against. In a typical matchup, Hulk Hogan or the Ultimate Warrior is the all-American “good” character; the Undertaker, or (in a very racist characterization) Colonel Mustapha, is the bad one. (A lot of energy and attention also goes into various characters’ having “turned” good or bad.) Kaufman’s blasts at Lawler and screeches at the south are nothing but a typically brilliant Kaufmanian twist on this time-honored practice–and the utter rage evoked in the crowds at Lawler and Kaufman’s matches show how effective this was.

There have always been rumors (none of them, conveniently, making their way into the press) that even Kaufman’s female wrestling was a setup, that he wrestled only women planted in the audience. (Kaufman used plants like he was running a greenhouse–particularly when appearing in the guise of Clifton, who regularly abused, sometimes physically, members of the audience.) If you think about it, it would be inconsistent with his entire performing philosophy if the women wrestlers weren’t plants. Kaufman wasn’t interested in taking chances per se: he was interested in pulling off effects. Think about that portrait of the young, perspiring comic. It didn’t work because the crowd knew it was a joke. The joke Kaufman was looking for–the act, I think, he eventually perfected–was the ultimate comedy act: the one that the audience doesn’t even know has occurred. The setup merely involved the destruction of his reputation–only when he was no longer viewed as a comic could he pull the joke off. He began the female wrestling, declared himself the “intergender champion of the world,” and generally acted like an asshole. He established a habit of going too far, cut his deal with Lawler, and the joke was set up. The south thought he was a devil; we thought he was a jerk.

I’m From Hollywood is the proof that Kaufman pulled the whole thing off. In retrospect, you can identify the clues. Robin Williams sighs that there was nothing he could do about Kaufman’s descent into wrestling hell: “How do you tell a friend that he can’t wrestle anymore?” he says. “It’s hard.” The movie has some other signals as well. I like the recurring shots of feral Memphians raging at Kaufman in the ring; they look just about as dumb as Kaufman says they are. There’s also a marvelous moment when a guy on a porch swing says, “Heck, we know what soap is!”

But the film is straight-faced and unblinking to the end. Like Kaufman, it leaves you guessing. How much was real? How much was shtick? And once you start that line of thought, Kaufman has got you where he wants you. Is he dead? In the end it doesn’t really matter. Our wondering is the joke. In an early Rolling Stone article on Kaufman, David Hirshey described an early example of Going Too Far: Kaufman takes over an early-morning stage at the Improv to sing–in its entirety–“A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Kaufman, wrote Hirshey, “has stumbled onto a secret of comedy: the unexpected is funny. And what could be more funny than a comedian coming out for ten minutes and not being funny at all? The problem becomes what to do next time, when everyone expects you not to be funny for ten minutes. Kaufman’s solution to this problem is not to be funny for twenty minutes, and then for forty minutes. But it doesn’t take a profound comic mind to see where that is heading. Only Kaufman doesn’t seem to notice.”

Oh, but he did. For Kaufman the ultimate joke was one that wouldn’t be funny for months or years, and he pulled it off. And his death, real or no, raised the theoretical possibility that a joke could go on forever. It was the ultimate punch line.