Tuesday, September 28, 2021

BILL MURRAY’S “CRADLE” AND ALL

July 19, 2021 by · Leave a Comment 

The final movie screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (out of competition) was not a movie at all. It was a concert video of a performance by Bill Murray and a trio of classical musicians headed by famed cellist, Jan Vogler. It resembled, albeit on a more imposing scale, one of those hip coffee-house shows of the ‘60s that featured poetry readings, songs, monologues, and stand-up comedy often accompanied by live musicians. This performance, however, was staged at the Acropolis in Greece with an audience of what appeared to be thousands  Clearly the audience in Greece and the audience in Cannes were taken with Murray’s aggregation of highfalutin literature, verse and song, presented under the highfalutin title of “New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization” — although it probably was not what they expected to see — something that Murray himself acknowledges in the film after his first poetry recitation. 

And it is a recitation, delivered in a monotone so like a high-school tyro and so unlike a professional performer that one expects Murray to plunge into comedic self-effacement at any moment. It doesn’t materialize. (A confirmed lover of classic poetry, he once famously recited some favorite verse to a group of construction workers.) In fact, there is little comedy presented by the comedian in “New Worlds,” but when it does come, it’s a relief. We’re grateful when he sings and prances through “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, but it’s an odd choice for his imposing collection of literary classics. Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics, once confessed that he regards them as so embarrassingly bad that whenever he’s present when the song is performed, “I just put my head under my wing and pretend I’m not there.” 

The other comedy bit that evoked boisterous laughter from the audience was Murray’s reading of James Thurber’s classic New Yorker piece, “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” Presented as if it were an eyewitness account, it perpetuates the slander that Ulysses Grant commanded the Union Army in a drunken stupor and just got lucky. That Murray breathes new life into the myth seems particularly unfortunate following Ron Chernow’s 2017 monumental autobiography of Grant in which he dispels that character assassination, which was generated during and after the war by his rivals and Confederate enemies. (Chernow does detail Grant’s resolute efforts to keep his alcohol addiction in check.) 

Murray, of course, is not the first funnyman to mix comedy and the classics on stage. It’s just that performers who preceded him, including the likes of Victor Borge, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, and Oscar Levant, have done it more enjoyably. Murray himself was seated in the audience throughout the screening and must have sensed the audience’s vibes because once the screening concluded, he joined the trio of musicians who appeared in the movie on stage at the Palais des Festivals and gratifyingly outdid — in spades — what the audience had just seen onscreen. Here at last was the Bill Murray that everyone had come here to see.

The movie had begun with scenes of Murray throwing long-stemmed roses to members of the crowd in Greece. At the end of his half-hour live performance in Cannes, he bookended that scene by throwing roses to the crowd in the theater. As the cheers continued and Murray ran out of roses, he began tossing out pieces of the wrapper that the roses had come in. It was the funniest bit of the evening.