I spent a couple of days last week at the AFI Fest in Hollywood, which is a film festival right here in Los Angeles, with a lineup of some of the year’s greatest films. I was able to catch a documentary called “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond−With a special contractually obligated, mention of Tony Clifton.” It’s a Netflix original production, and in fact I just noticed that it’s already up on the site! The film is constructed with a blend of behind the scenes footage of Jim Carrey for the 1999 film, “Man on The Moon,” a biopic about Jim’s comic idol, Andy Kaufman (directed by Milos Forman), intercut with a present day interview of Carrey himself, looking back on the whole experience.
If you remember that film, or if you were around for the career of Andy Kaufman, then you will know that Kaufman tended to push the boundaries of what most people would consider “performance” and “entertainment.” Famously, Kaufman would construct what many would consider elaborate pranks on his audience, like making it seem like the reception on the television was bad during one of his shows, or refusing to break character with certain performative personas once the cameras stopped rolling (such as a feud he carried on off-screen with a professional wrester). The most telling of these “performances” was an ongoing, elaborate joke involving a character of his named Tony Clifton. To embody Clifton, Kaufman would wear large glasses and a mustache, and take on a crass, alcoholic, sort of seedy Las Vegas nightclub persona, out of which he would often insult, belittle, annoy and generally wreak havoc on his audiences. In public, Kaufman would refuse to acknowledge whether or not he was Tony Clifton, and “Tony Clifton,” for his part, would pretend he knows very little about Andy Kaufman. Venues might book Andy Kaufman for a performance, only to be surprised to find that Tony Clifton would show up.
Jim Carry, meanwhile, at the time of the production for Man on the Moon, had become one of the most famous movie stars in the world, and was perhaps looking to do something new that would push the boundaries of comedy and performance in the vein of Andy Kaufman. So he chose not to break character for the entire duration of filming, much to the frustration of the director, producers, the studio, crew, production staff and the like. When Jim was playing Andy, he was Andy all day, and when he was playing Tony, not only was he Tony all day, he engaged in Tony Clifton−like behaviors, such as crashing his car against a studio wall, passing out drunk on the pavement, and insulting anyone and everyone in sight.
The emotional, psychological and physical toll for everyone involved must have been enormous; and if that process is all the documentary was to be about, it would have been interesting enough. But the present day commentary provided by the bearded, subdued, and somewhat wizened Jim Carrey of today in reflection offers a nice touch, and an invitation to unpack a number of themes. Of course the questions raised by the performative actions of Kaufman are there, as they were surrounding the original release of Man on the Moon: Why should a performance stop when the cameras stop? In a world filled with twenty−four−hour media coverage of events, coupled with a blend of news and entertainment (emerging in its infancy in Kaufman’s day, and coming to fruition, for good or ill in Carey’s heyday), why shouldn’t the performance extend to the news, to the street, or to the whole world? Who should be in on the “joke,” or perhaps who are jokes for? For Kaufman, it often seemed as if he was setting up these elaborate rouses for his own amusement, and he didn’t care if his audiences got them or not. As I said, these are interesting questions in their own right. But Carey’s career (and life) has taken a turn towards the philosophical in recent years, and the updating or continuation of the culture of showmanship, the creation of multiple public personas and the elaboration of those tendencies being made available through the proliferation of technology (social media perhaps being the most prominent example) has led him to what seems to be a very different and perhaps unexpected place.
There is a sense in which Carey now rejects the social and psychological need to create public personas for one’s self. If we all tend to develop a quasi “brand” of ourselves, to be cultivated for the purpose of garnering adoration, respect, love or success from others in life, then it would seem that we are forever hiding some portion of our true self from others, because, fundamentally, we care about what others think of us. If there are any two performers from the past two generations that embody the stretching of that paradigm, it’s Kaufman and Carey, perhaps to the point in which it was actually broken in some sense. At one point, Carey confesses to the camera (and to us) that he felt as though he completely lost “himself” in the process of becoming Andy, a breaking down (or perhaps a death?) of his persona so to speak, leaving a void where his old personality was. Thematically, all of this lines up very will with the work that Jim Carey had previously done as an actor over the years.
For example, in “The Truman Show,” he played a human lab rat, living in a completely fabricated world constructed as a reality television show for the entertainment of others. By the end of the movie, his character sought to escape “the dome,” and stepped out into the great unknown, leaving the comfort of all that he had known in search of a more genuine existence. Meanwhile, in Jim Carey the actor’s “real” life, he was cultivating a similar performative persona, designed and tailored to amuse the masses, however in this life, there is no escape, from the paparazzi, the throngs of people who recognize him but he does not know, his face plastered on billboards, busses and buildings everywhere, as well as in tabloids, infotainment and the television set. Perhaps for Carey, the descent into the persona of Andy while working on Man on the Moon was the only way to truly escape “the dome,” a way to step out of his old life and into a new reality, a reality that Carey describes as completely free, free from concern, worry and anxiety. Indeed, he claims to have stepped through the void, jettisoned his old self, and found true freedom.
This is, of course, a quasi−Buddhist conception of “no−self” or the detaching of desire from the notion of satisfaction or happiness. If desire creates suffering (and in Carrey’s case, it was his desire for respect, love, adoration, attention and the like), then the only freedom is in letting go of these desires. There is a moment in the film when the director, Chris Smith, asks present−day Carrey if he ever misses himself−as−Andy, to which he responds very quickly, “No!” He doesn’t miss anything, doesn’t regret anything: he might as well go on to say what he means, that he doesn’t desire anything anymore. This is the Buddhist philosophy.
This isn’t really the right space within which to engage in a philosophical critique or reaction to this philosophy of life. Regardless of whether or not there is any real ontological connection between desire and suffering, it seems we can conclude that the Jim Carrey of today has found a healthy balance in his life that really does provide him with relief, no doubt helped by the facts surrounding his enormous financial and acclamatory success in his career (it’s not hard to say you have no desires when all your needs are provided for and then some). For the rest of us, the film provides an excellent platform form which to explore our own sense of self, the question of the masks we wear for the purpose of pleasing others, and the need to let go of that vision of life to which we cling, white−knuckled, not realizing that happiness may indeed lie in another direction.
All in all, the film is a complex and rewarding journey, filled with comedy, wonder and thoughtful insight, the depth of which I’ve only hinted at. I highly recommend a viewing of your own, and welcome your thoughts on what you find!