Cinema Verité is one of those movements that can appear more interesting than entertaining. There’s nothing wrong with narrative or visual ambiguity, there needs to be some measure in any film for it to be worth watching. But Verité’s willful, stubborn, European seeming denial of standard film conventions -the lack of heroes, the listless plots, the sparse dialogue- can make it a challenge. It’s also what can make it such a bummer. Oddly enough, a new success in Verité is coming not from an auteur in the style of Godard or Cassavettes, but the 42 year-old Comedian Louis C.K, whose FX show Louis is now streaming on Netflix and Hulu.
The show gives a rough approximation of his every day life as a comedian and a divorced father of two. Like the Chapelle Show, it intersperses bits of C.K.’s stand-up routine with skits from his life. But whereas Chapelle’s skits jump into the realm of fantasy, with surreal flashbacks to a fantasized 1980s, or imagined racial drafts, Louis is best when focusing on the mundane struggles of a middle aged divorcee searching for meaning in a life he’s finding to be loveless, and maybe pointless.
It’s a funny show definitely, but the non stand-up sections of the show go way beyond skits, and offer wincing narratives of C.K. struggling with a mom who can’t tell C.K.’s brother she loves him, or the alienation of C.K. trying to enjoy a night out at a club where the women won’t look at him, and it’s impossible to hear. The way these bits grab you is pure Verité: their naturalistic style, their refusal to spell out a clear moral, and their simmering critiques of institutions- whether it’s family, the city, or in other episodes, religion and body image.
It’s funny enough, and at points incredibly so. But the humor is secondary to C.K.’s torment, which is just personal and particular enough to address the universal. Louis is an odd hybrid, squeezing human subtleties and frailty from comedy, that bluntest of performance tools.
Television has become “better than the movies” in the last decade, borrowing the sophistication and production values of film and applying them to a longer form. So it’s no surprise that it would continue to raid cinematic history for innovation. But who would have predicted the next auteur would be a red headed Boston comic? Louis is a sitcom for sure, but what it’s accomplishing is no laughing matter.