**½/**** Image D/C Sound D/B Extras C-
directed by Kevin Booth
by Alex Jackson For anybody who reads a lot of my work, it may seem as if I can't get through an entire review without lodging this same complaint--but for the record, rebelliousness for the sake of rebelliousness should not be a characteristic of anybody's art. Once you become a full-time professional rebel, you'll eventually start telling the people who listen to you not to do so, and then what are we to do? You can't fulfill that request without violating it and you can't violate it without fulfilling it. Artists and us consumers of the arts need to come up with our own ideas of what's good and what's not. If these ideas happen to coincide with the popular consensus, then that's perfectly fine; and if they happen to go against the popular consensus, that's fine, too. The opinion of the popular consensus should not really come into play, period. The professional rebel, as you could probably surmise, is a distinctly adolescent creation, but I do not denounce him because I wish to distinguish my self from adolescents. I denounce him because he's vapid. He's all for show and not serious about arriving at any fruitful universal truths.
My fangs were bared well before I actually watched Bill Hicks: Sane Man. I had learned from preliminary research that two of his main targets were advertising and consumerism, rather disingenuous things for a professional entertainer to rail against, wouldn't you think? The "Hicksography" offered as an extra on Sane Man's DVD release provides samples of his comedy albums. On "Arizona Bay", he says that anybody in the audience who is in advertising or marketing should just do the world a favour and kill themselves. "You're Satan's little helper," he rants. Then he pauses and muses that every marketing person in the audience is saying the same thing: "He's going after that anti-marketing dollar. That's a huge market." Though Hicks acknowledges the conundrum of his ranting against the establishment while he is, on some micro level, part of the establishment, this doesn't mean that's he's overcome it.
I do have to give Hicks and his fans credit, however. Bill Hicks was not mainstream. The closest he ever came to selling out was appearing as a guest on "Late Night with David Letterman". Bill Hicks: Sane Man was taped in 1989 in a small Austin, Texas nightclub on spec with the hopes that it would get Hicks an HBO special. It worked, and he filmed a show for the network shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, bootleg copies of Sane Man itself began to spread across the country. This new DVD is distributed by the niche label RykoDisc and is Region-free. I gotta say, that's pretty goddamn underground. Owning this disc is a couple of steps up from wearing a Fight Club T-shirt.
There is a strange moment in Bill Hicks: Sane Man where Hicks sings "My Way" as Elvis. He takes items from the audience and smears "Elvis sweat" on them so that they have a souvenir. Hicks doesn't seem to have a very strong angle on Elvis, he's mostly satirizing the very fact of Elvis's legendary status as embodied by the idea that people would clamour to have their personal items swathed in his bodily fluids. Hicks is glibly dismissive of the idea that they would become souvenirs by having "Bill Hicks sweat" rubbed on them.
For the most part, Hicks avoids attacking celebrity itself in Sane Man. He hates Debbie Gibson and George Michael and loves The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. "These are our rock stars," he complains in reference to George Michael, "and they're selling Diet Coke." This is good. We are seeing him distinguishing between good celebrity and bad celebrity and developing a rudimentary system of values. Hicks views the popularity of Debbie Gibson and George Michael as an indication that our culture has become overwhelmingly feminized. Gibson is in no uncertain terms a "mallrat" and George Michael is a 'cock-smoking faggot.' No, it's worse: he's a "woman." Hicks views Hendrix as the perfect antidote to this. "This guy," he says, "had a dick." In one particularly hilarious/horrifying skit, he depicts Hendrix brutally raping Gibson, chain-sawing her body into little chunks of mallrat. The ultimate proof of Hendrix's masculinity appears to be that he choked in a pool of his own vomit. Hicks internalizes schoolboy markers of manhood early on in the routine. He smokes onstage and does a bit on how much he hates non-smokers. He then asks an audience member how much he smokes. Hicks returns he response--"a pack"--with an automatic and semi-surprised, "What a puss!" He then tells the smoker to put on a dress and smoke his "faggoty" pack while swishing around for us. Hicks sees your value as a man as being contingent on how much punishment you're willing to put your body through.
Commercialism plays into this, to be sure, but commercialism is not the central target. Feminity is. Our artists--specifically, our rock stars--are controlled by corporations seeking to reach the biggest possible market. The biggest possible market happens to be girly, imminently rape-able (i.e. socially, intellectually, and possibly even spiritually inferior) teenagers. These teenage girls are replacing real, hardcore, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll men as the principal segment of society that defines culture. What repels Hicks is how the ideal of masculine man has become obsolete.
It's worth mentioning that Hicks was eight going on nine when Hendrix died. He's essentially romanticizing a generation to which he never belonged. And it's poignant because we have indicators that although he's a spokesperson for this ideal of masculine man, he could never quite practise what he preached. Hicks is a bit of a baby-faced cherub and speaks with a slightly high-pitched Southern twang. Never in his routine does he indicate that he's ever had sex, or at least that he's ever had a satisfactory sexual encounter with another human being. The only time intercourse enters into his routine is when he is miming rape. Too, he's obsessed with lesbianism. There's a good section of his routine dedicated to critiquing hotel-room porn and getting caught masturbating by the housekeeping crew. I don't think Hicks is a repressed homosexual, exactly, but I do think that his misogynistic and homophobic attitudes are born of a disgust and frustration with his inherent boyishness and unfortunate androgyny.
I think Hicks's fans want to turn him into an "anti-establishment" comedian and focus on that rather superficial aspect of his stand-up because they instinctively know that it doesn't really mean anything to be "anti-establishment." They'll cheer his digs against Reagan and even his admittedly hilariously classist jokes about the Deep South. But it's the misogyny and homophobia that are genuinely explosive, genuinely divisive, and genuinely misanthropic. His material along those lines has a lot more punch than Andrew Dice Clay's does in Dice Rules, released two years later. Clay puts on a Dice costume and reminds you at every minute that it's all for show, but Hicks is honest and naked. The attitudes he espouses in Sane Man seem like they can be directly linked to his personal sense of insecurity and self-hatred.
I was never offended by Dice Rules, but I was offended by Sane Man. It's an interesting sensation, being offended. The first time, it's exhilarating. I couldn't believe what it was I was seeing and hearing. This guy was hilarious. After the initial shock wore off, I got to feeling deeply depressed. Clay's insincerity is less affecting and has considerably less artistic integrity, but at least it doesn't have that bitter aftertaste. It's all just ugly noise. Hicks, on the other hand, cuts himself open, exposing his blackened, festering insides, and it's not pretty. Bill Hicks is not the Antichrist, though he desperately wants to be regarded as such. He's more like a battered puppy nipping back at anybody trying to pet him. You kind of have to laugh so you don't cry.
Two performances of Bill Hicks: Sane Man were prepared, a 60-minute, HBO-ready version and a second, 80-minute one for the die-hards; both are included on the RykoDisc platter. It sounds sort of stupid to say so but the main difference between the two cuts is twenty minutes. The short version is more economical and plays a lot better, yet the extended version's extra material isn't entirely superfluous. Director Kevin Booth occasionally intercuts black-and-white, Super8 footage of Hicks, um, doing stuff that is somewhat related to the topic at hand. (When he discusses smoking, we see him riding a motorcycle and smoking. That sort of thing.) The cutaways have the curious effect of deifying Hicks: he isn't a comedian in Booth's eyes, he's the second coming of Christ--and you might get the feeling that Booth should just stop smothering the man with love and let him do his thing. The cutaways are relatively easy to ignore in the short version, but in the extended edition they have been fully integrated and at times cleverly appropriate the feeling of acid flashbacks. Let's call it a draw.
Video quality is another story. The full-frame 1:33:1 transfer of the 60-minute version is nothing short of awful. Fuzzy red flesh tones, fuzzy green shadows, and digital artifacts abound. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is hollow and thick with static. The extended version is a massive improvement in that it looks like first-generation VHS as opposed to third, and the image, while similarly washed-out and unremarkable, is passable. Sound (Dolby 2.0 mono again) is clear, full, booming, and altogether up to snuff.
There is far too much supplementary material for what is essentially a stand-up comedy video. Fanatical Hicks fans, the kind that collect items stained with "Hicks sweat," may possibly get something out of this, but it's overkill for those of us not already converted. "Outlaws Get Religion" (17 mins.) is footage from a 1987 show Hicks did as one of the "Houston Outlaws," a comedy troupe to which he and Sam Kinison belonged. Technical quality is poor, but it was included for its "historic" importance. Said historic importance basically boils down to a Liberace joke, material about Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and an early version of the guy-on-acid-trying-to-fly joke that Hicks did in Sane Man. You can also see him tell his famous joke about crucifixes being the very last thing Jesus Christ wants to see when he comes back to Earth. Hicks is pretty sloppy here. I don't think he was aware that his performance that night would be watched and scrutinized some two decades later.
Hicks's mannerisms suggest he was genuinely stoned when he filmed his set for "Benefit for Arthur" (32 mins.). Shot from the side of the stage in one unbroken take, "Benefit for Arthur" isn't quite as visually monotonous as it sounds, but between Hicks's inebriated state and the deterioration of the source material, it had me straining to make out the dialogue. Of particular interest is a nugget of relationship humour that sees Hicks cuckolded, prompting him to quip, "I'm 23, at my sexual prime and boy is my arm tired." He also tells his guy-on-acid-trying-to-fly joke, just in case you thought he was coming up with that stuff at the spur of the moment. "Odds and Ends" (11 mins.) shows slightly different takes of his Debbie Gibson rant and his closing remarks from Sane Man. There is some negligible early footage of Hicks telling redneck jokes. The chaser is surprisingly interesting backstage footage (in very, very poor condition) of Hicks relating an encounter with the "Arab mafia" during one of his shows. The aforementioned "Hicksography," a text based Hicks biography, and an article on Sane Man round out the disc. Originally published: March 29, 2006.