Sunday, March 05, 2006

Absurd Comparison of the Week:
Tyler Perry and Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Don’t watch something like Madea’s Family Reunion too soon after seeing something like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. With the doomed lovers in Ali still loitering in my thoughts as I sat down to watch Madea, I hallucinated some strange points of contact.

Now, what in the holy hell does the shaggy, self-destructive malcontent of the New German Cinema have to do with a clean-cut, entrepeneurial American crowd-pleaser whose masterstroke is dressing in granny drag?

Well now.

Despite his BET Gospel/Black History Month-style packaging, writer-director Tyler Perry is some kind of tough-minded visionary. Like most black Ho’wood films about family, Madea’s Family Reunion looks like a prolonged Kodak moment. But Perry depicts as many tangled, scabrous instances of social and familial breakdown as Fassbinder. Perry is just as cynical-sincere, just as prolific. (He continues to tour, tape and rework his eight stage plays that have raked in over $50 million in the last eight years; it ain’t Fassbinder’s 43 films in a little over a decade, but consider that Perry started out homeless.)

Well, Tyler Perry ain’t all that strange, but in a black culture that has become a homogenous corporate dumpster, he’s strange enough to stand out. Halfway into Madea Perry stops the festivities to have Cicely Tyson, Mya Angelou and a regal 90-something matriarch scold a crowd of Madea’s relatives assembled for the reunion. The elders basically gripe about all the selfishness and nihilism that have destroyed “our” communal traditions. It’s as naked an admonition as Emmi's nervous breadown in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Tyler’s ambition, like Fassbinder’s, is to represent in miniature the ways a person, a family, a people strive, fail, fall apart. Fassbinder’s desperation, palpable in his films, eventually killed him in a cocaine binge. He was 37, only a year older than Perry is now.
(Not to get all numerological, but it’s also interesting to note that Perry began as a playwright at the same age that Fassbinder started out as a stage director and filmmaker-- 18.)

But Perry’s gonna die rich and old, unless his cholesterol goes up or his private jet goes down. As an artist, he doesn’t draw from desperation but tickled exasperation; his Christian faith abides. He’s already through the fire, looking back. The Sirkian--indeed Fassbinderian--high point in Madea’s Family Reunion comes when a long-abused daughter (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) confronts her social-climbing, borderline sociopathic mother (Lynn Whitfield). Glamorous Mom often let industrious Dad molest the child because she wasn’t ready to give up the middle class lifestyle he provided. Now all grown up, the daughter intervenes as Mom attempts to pimp her sister (Rochelle Aytes) out to an equally reptilian investment banker (Blair Underwood)—again, to maintain a lifestyle she could not provide for herself. This chain of money-driven deceptions and cruelties is worthy of Fassbinder’s Fox and his Friends. But Perry’s belief in personal transcendence pulls his characters out of the mud. The daughter, for sanity’s sake, eventually forgives her mother in a scene of tortured reconciliation. Despite the glossy cinematography, Perry does not skimp on the “tortured” part. In their stand-offs and resolution, Anderson and Whitfield go to the place Shakespearean actors dream of.

Alright: Tyler Perry is important because, like Master P in the mid-90s, he’s an untutored outsider artist whose authenticity and marketing savvy drew millions of defectors from Ho’wood’s trough. Cool. Despite shape-shifting comic instincts similar to Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, Perry is not simply a brilliant entertainer. He is aware of his audience’s undivided attention and he directs it to statements of genuine consequence in a ravaged people. Trouble is, as a Christian millionaire, he can’t help but represent many of the forces that keep us in chains. But, unlike Fassbinder, he’s still here, wrestling with the contradictions; the possibility that something truly miraculous will come out of this struggle is electrifying.