Saturday, May 14, 2011

The king of (anti) comedy: Len Cella, cinema's truest auteur

Len Cella, both as himself and as a giant cat

Truffaut's to blame.
If you've ever wondered why movie critics spend so much time yakking about a film's director, as opposed to anyone else in the cast or crew, you can blame Francois Truffaut. Back in 1954, you see, Truffaut came up with something called the auteur theory which holds that a film's director is its primary author. ("Auteur" is French for "author.") This theory helped film be taken seriously as a legitimate artform, but it's problematic. Films are collaborations, after all. There are actors, writers, editors, cinematographers, and dozens of other artists and craftsmen involved in the production of a motion picture.

But what if there were a true cinematic auteur, someone who literally did it all, i.e. wrote, directed, starred, edited, the works? Might that individual be the ultimate cinematic auteur?

Such an artist is Len Cella.

What? You've never heard of Len Cella? He's directed literally hundreds of films, and his work has been seen by (no exaggeration) millions of people. Born in 1937 in Pennsylvania, Cella's first few decades of life were largely undistinguished. He dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania, attempted careers in sportswriting and advertising without much success, and by his mid-forties was living off the $500 a month he was making as a house painter. But all this time, he was still flogging away at his creative pursuits. Three novels went unpublished, and his attempt to start a humor magazine failed. But then in the mid-1980s, Cella got into filmmaking, specifically making ultra-brief homemade comedy films which generally lasted anywhere from 10 to 50 seconds. He called these dadaist creations Moron Movies, and they had self-explanatory titles like Jello Makes a Lousy Doorstop and Pea Abuse.

This, as they say, was the turning point.

There was no Internet to speak of back in 1983 and no sites like YouTube, Funny or Die, Daily Motion, or Metacafe where short comedy clips could find a ready audience. So Len Cella would show his absurd Moron Movies at a small screening room at the Lansdowne Theater, outside Philadelphia. These screenings were successful enough to warrant the release of two VHS compilations, Moron Movies and More Moron Movies. More importantly, though, they caught the eye of a television producer and were featured on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson from 1983 to 1985. From 1984 to 1988, Len's movies also turned up on another Carson-produced show, TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes, where they were redubbed "Len Cella's Silly Cinema" (a name Cella himself hated).

It was the Bloopers show where I first saw Len's work. The distinctive Cella comedy style is tough to describe but easy to identify and impossible to miss. The man himself plays all the roles, of course, so his face and voice will soon be familiar to any viewer. He looks and talks a bit like Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it's like Larry David has been lobotomized, shot up with Novocaine, and left in a freezer overnight. The only emotion Len Cella ever really displays is a kind of low-level, curmudgeonly crankiness. His humor at first seems to be utterly imbecilic, but it's the kind of pure, undiluted stupidity that only a smart-alecky nerd would ever come up with. This is only humor in the most abstract sense of that word. Each of Cella's little movies is like a sub-atomic particle of comedy, a concept so small it barely even counts as a joke. Here, watch a few:

You catch on pretty quickly to the Len Cella formula. A cryptic title card appears, then Cella himself deadpans some kind of absurdist half-joke directly to the camera (or manipulates some incredibly shabby props from off-screen), and then we repeat that process over and over. "Low energy" hardly begins to describe it. On The Tonight Show and Bloopers, these clips were made more "palatable" with the laughter of the studio audience and the selection of more conventionally jokey clips. But on their own, viewed one after another, there's a kind of eerie purity to it all. You start to notice just how much silence there is between Cella's "jokes," and how the man himself seems to have a hopelessly nihilistic view of the world. The clips themselves are generally very quiet and often static, so there's a kind of weirdly hypnotic quality to them. Watching Cella's work for a protracted amount of time is the comedic equivalent of transcendental meditation. Try for yourself:

So whatever became of Len Cella? Well, in 1987, he did use his marginal television fame to finally get a book published. It was titled Things To Worry About (In Case You Run Out), and it's been described as a collection of absurd phobias, which is in keeping with the utterly dour, paranoid pessimism of Cella's film work. As for the man himself, he's about 74 now and still maintains a marginal presence on the Internet. There's his Twitter feed, which consists of seven tweets from March 6, 2009, and absolutely nothing else. (Another example of Cella's minimalism?) He maintains -- and apparently still uses -- his MySpace page, which contains a darkly fascinating anecdote about Red Skelton among other things.

And in 2007, Cella released a new compilation of his short comedic films entitled Crap. He's older and crankier now and his thoughts are much more on sex and scatology, but otherwise the Cella approach has not changed. Here's a NSFW trailer:

The address given at the end at the end of the CRAP trailer appears to be a private residence, so I'd imagine that Cella is still living in Pennsylvania and distributed the film out of his home. If anything, his accent has gotten thicker over the years.

Len Cella in The Last Temptation o f Fluffy.

UPDATE: In 2010, Len Cella appeared as "Dave Priest" in a comedic sci-fi short entitled The Last Temptation of Fluffy, written and directed by Bob C. Cooke and Larry Dixon. It's the third film in Cooke and Dixon's so-called "Fluffy trilogy" about a cute but deadly alien invader. Fittingly, Len did all his scenes alone in an office. It would be wrong somehow to have cinema's loneliest loner share the screen with anyone else.

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