Friday, February 10, 2012

Mime Bashing

Marcel Marceau
[post 242]

I suppose I could write a post about the virtues and limitations of mime training, but this isn't it. Sure, I took a smattering of classes, studying with Reid Gilbert, René Houtrides, Tom Leabhart, and Moni Yakim (and salivating over Children of Paradise), but I never really took to mime. (Translation: I sucked at it.) So instead of a treatise, just a few hopefully amusing snapshots of mime's public image over the years.

There was a time back in the day, following on the first wave of Marcel Marceau's popularity, that an aura of bold creativity was associated with mime.

And then there was the backlash.

Maybe it was all those white-faced pantomimists who thought being trapped inside an imaginary box was a profound statement on the human condition. Maybe it was all the Shields & Yarnell wannabees,  mimicking people on the street for cheap laughs. Or maybe it was all Woody Allen's fault.

In A Little Louder, Please, a 1966 comic piece for The New Yorker,  Allen pointed out the obvious: much of the audience just didn't get it:

The curtain-raiser was a little silent entertainment entitled Going to a Picnic. The mime... proceeded to spread a picnic blanket, and, instantly, my old confusion set in. He was either spreading a picnic blanket or milking a small goat. Next, he elaborately removed his shoes, except that I'm not positive they were his shoes, because he drank one of them and mailed the other to Pittsburgh. I say "Pittsburgh," but actually it is hard to mime the concept of Pittsburgh, and as I look back on it, I now think what he was miming was not Pittsburgh at all but a man driving a golf cart through a revolving door — or possibly two men dismantling a printing press.

And so on and so forth. You can read the whole selection here.

Not only were mimes confusing, they were annoying as hell. Before you knew it, mime bashing had become quite acceptable. If you couldn't make derogatory jokes about minorities, women, or gays, you could still put down mimes and — ha ha — not worry about them talking back.

This had been going on for a long time already when Bill Irwin was recruited to play an annoying mime ("worse than Hare Krishnas") in the 1991 movie, Scenes from a Mall, co-starring (guess who?) Woody Allen. (In fairness to Woody, he didn't direct this one, Paul Mazursky did.) Here's a compilation of the annoying mime scenes:

I hadn't thought much about mime lately, at least not about traditional illusion pantomime, until last month when I had two pantomime sightings. The first was Brooklyn clown and mime Jeff Seal, who decided to make a video based on all those Shit __ Say videos so popular on YouTube today. (Shit Girls Say; Shit Boyfriends Say; Shit Hipsters Say; etc.) You guessed it: Jeff did Shit Mimes Say. It turns out so did several other people, but I'm happy to report that his is by far the best:

So far mimes aren't looking great in this post, so let's go to my second pantomime sighting: Billy the Mime. Friends encouraged me to see his show at UCB (Upright Citizen's Brigade), a home for up-and-coming stand-up and sketch comics. How would a mime do there, especially one who wore the traditional costume and whiteface, and communicated through placards and silent illusions?

Quite well, actually. His show sold out and the audience laughed a lot; there was no mime bashing from that crowd. His technique is good, but what separates him from a lot of mime is his weighty and at times sensationalist subject matter. A lot of the content is sexual, and he does not hesitate to mime a variety of sexual acts in graphic detail. If anything, he can be faulted for sometimes being lewd and outrageous just for the shock value. Still, many of the pieces are quite good. First his publicity trailer:

And A Night at Monticello:

Somehow I can't quite imagine Marceau performing that one!


Jonathan Lyons said...

I wanted to share this with you, and since mime bashing occurs, this seems like a good time.

Jimmy Slonina said...

While I'm not the HUGEST fan of street mime, mime as an art form can be extraordinarily beautiful. I do agree that mime-haters mostly just relish in a sort of communal-hate of an easy target. Saying they hate mimes does not make them interesting. Whatever the reason or cause, it seems like we've lost mime as a dead art form in Western civilization. What REALLY saddens me is that it seems the same fate is befalling on clowns. "Coulrophobia" (I put the word in quotes cuz I don't really believe in it) and clown hating seems to be spreading like a disease for the past few decades. I feel like its the same problem. Lazy, uninteresting people thinking they'll win over the party conversation by talking about their brush with a scary clown. And the art form starts to dim. Yes, I'm a clown so this subject speaks to me directly. But I would love to see an article written here REALLY dissecting coulrophobia and clown-bashing in an educated way. Not like this dipshit's article:

jt said...

I agree, Jimmy. Both attitudes are trendy and stupid, but (if I can generalize) I do think put-downs of mimes tend to be based on actual mime performance, which at its clichéd worst can be cutesy, uninspired, and — when used to make fun of others — quite smug. The costume and movement are seen as too precious, and no doubt by some as outright effeminate. Obviously the art of mime goes way beyond that.

The clown "hating" seems to me more fear than hate. I think some people actually were scared by clowns when they were very young. I actually remember visiting Mexico City when I was five or six, watching a parade, and being "urinated" on by a clown in the parade. It was no doubt just a squeeze bottle full of water, but at the time I didn't realize that and was upset by it. I still remember it, but it certainly didn't traumatize me for life.

What fuels a lot of this negativity about clowns is not the actual performances by clowns, but a lot of the horror movie take-offs on it. If clowns are supposed to personify wholesome goodness, how clever to make a movie where the bad guy uses their makeup to conceal horrible crimes. Unfortunately, this has happened in real life; witness John William Gacy.

But my point is that people don't seem to be coming away from circuses or variety stages or street performances saying how much they hate or disrespect clowns. It's more of a mass media imagery phenomenon.....


Stu K said...

I wonder if many of you out there remember that fantastic street mime David Littlejohn, who used to perform in front of the 42nd St. Library back in the late 60's or early 70's. He could imitate anyone and brightened up hundreds of people's lunch hours.
If you're still around David, thanks a million for the many laughs you gave us.