Stephen Colbert elevates ambiguity to an art

Comic's schtick confounds and invigorates

Those comrades of comedy, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, are reveling in the noise of a presidential campaign that has provided them with juicy comedic material and lofty ratings. Even Leno and Letterman are looking over their shoulders as the latenight audience shifts toward Comedy Central.

Not content with one campaign, however, the ever-opportunistic Colbert is also ubiquitous on the talkshow circuit, hustling yet another new book. In so doing he is holding fast to his deliberately ambiguous guise — a professed conservative whose message is liberal, a sporadically serious satirist who seems more comfortable playing the clown.

The Colbert book, titled “America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t,” reads substantially like a rerun of his latenight material. It comes replete with 3D glasses to decipher the photos (which are mostly of Colbert). It is the only book I’ve read that begins with a two-page legal agreement barring readership among illegal immigrants or citizens of Iran and North Korea. Book buyers must also pledge not to reuse the material, apparently since Colbert has already reused it.

In true Colbert fashion, the book asks, “Are America’s best days behind us?” His answer: “Of course they are,” adding ” We have the greatest history in the history of history.”

While all of us by now are familiar with the Colbert guise, it may be time to ask: Will it have staying power?

Stewart, quirky and ideosyncratic, is a serious guy with a comedic gift whose schtick is followed by probing interviews with everyone from Bill Clinton to the King of Jordan. But who the hell is Colbert?

He seems most comfortable being clownish. As one of TV’s most inept interviewers, when Colbert asks a “serious guest” like science writer Jim Holt, “Why does the world exist?” he will typically cut to commercial before there’s time for a response (Holt’s book is titled “Why Does the World Exist?”)

When an academic like Prof. Sophia A. McClennen of Penn State asked Colbert to sit down and articulate his attitudes toward political satire, he promptly declined to see her. She wrote a smart book anyway titled “Colbert’s America,” in which she argued that Colbert’s satiric barbs are “invigorating the political process.” In her 200-page treatise, McClennen developed the thesis that Colbert has developed a form of “public pedagogy” that is educating viewers “outside the space of the classroom.”

Noticing how suspicious Colbert seemed toward her, McClennen decided that “Colbert is in conflict between being a satirist or a being showman.”

Translated, that suggests that the fiercely ambitious Colbert is keenly aware of the old show business maxim that “satire closes on Saturday night.” At this moment in time his act, with all its curious shadings, seems to be playing. But whenever he gets insecure about it, he resorts to clowning — which basically describes his new book. It’s basically as bogus as his 3D glasses.

“People ask me how I can write two books in one year,” Colbert said on his TV show. “They don’t understand that I use the same words.”

Now that’s straightforward, anyway.

N.Y. Film Fest sharpens focus on awards circuit

The New York Film Festival has had its memorable moments during its 50-year run. A famously grouchy 85-year-old Bette Davis accepted her award one year by looking around the room and declaring, “What a dump!”

Despite the presence of many illustrious international filmmakers, however, the event has occupied a somewhat fuzzy role in the geopolitics of the festival circuit — not as prestigious as Venice, not as exciting as Toronto.

When I dropped by the festival last week, there were distinct signs that it was repositioning itself for a more imposing presence. There are more major world premieres (four this year), more theaters (expanded from two to five) and a bigger star presence (a Nicole Kidman tribute). While the Lincoln Center-based event does not aspire to be another Cannes, it’s clear that the major distributors are now eager to acknowledge its importance in promoting their award-worthy films in an atmosphere devoid of the competitive frenzy of Toronto.

All of which raises some questions: What role does the festival itself want to assume? Which constituency should it serve?

Rose Kuo, the fest’s able director, emphasizes new programs of Convergence, focusing on the relationship of film to the new media, as well as other outreaches to the young audience. But she and her colleagues (including a restructured selection committee), while committed to “serious cinema,” are also keenly aware that New Yorkers covet their movie stars and even (grudgingly) their Hollywood premieres.

Hence with new theaters and a excellent slot early in the awards-circuit schedule, Hollywood expects the New York Festival increasingly to encroach on Toronto’s role in sounding the opening bell of Oscar Season.

The interesting question: Is this a role New Yorkers wish to accept?

Those big sponsorship bucks loom large, even to the avid auteur.

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