Gilbey on Film: Saturday night livewire

The comedian Maya Rudolph talks about working with Robert Altman and her new film, Bridesmaids.

It's absurd that the US sketch show Saturday Night Live has never had a continuous, dependable showing in the UK despite the talent farm it has proved itself to be over nearly four decades. (You know the roll-call by now: John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Chris Rock and Tina Fey among others.)

Sky Arts is currently showing the series in sequence, but is still way back in the you-really-had-to-be-there-at-the-time 1970s episodes.

Consequently, British audiences are unlikely to be too familiar with the 38-year-old livewire comic and former SNL regular Maya Rudolph -- daughter of the late soul legend Minnie Riperton, and partner of the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson -- unless it is for her straight(ish) work in movies like Sam Mendes's Away We Go or Robert Altman's swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. If that was all you knew of her (as it was for me), it would've been quite a shock to see her in the SNL spin-off movie MacGruber last year, in which she played a ghost who has energetic sex on her own gravestone.

SNL material is inaccessible to UK viewers even on the internet (though if you're in the US, hulu.com has a generous selection); but a quick perusal of what few titbits there are available of Rudolph's work -- such as the sketch in which she performs the US national anthem as a checkout clerk seemingly possessed by Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and every American Idol contestant ever -- is enough to prove how fiendishly inspired she can be.

Rudolph left SNL in 2007 after seven years. Thankfully she features prominently in the raucous new comedy Bridesmaids, produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Funny People) and co-written by its star Kristen Wiig (her former colleague at SNL and in the LA improvisational troupe The Groundlings). Rudolph plays bride-to-be Lillian, who in the approach to her wedding is torn between two of her best friends -- the down-at-heel Annie (Wiig), whom she has appointed maid of honour, and the glamorous and wealthy Helen (Rose Byrne), whose splashy, opulent ideas for Lillian's wedding rub Annie up the wrong way. I met a heavily pregnant Rudolph (she is expecting her third child by Anderson) recently in Los Angeles, where she told me about joining Bridesmaids, leaving SNL, and being manhandled by Bill Murray.

Lillian's an interesting character: she has to be loyal to Annie, but also enthusiastic about Helen's over-the-top wedding plans. Did that make her hard to play?
You know, it was pretty hard in that way. You have to decide when her bullshit meter goes off with Helen. She's under enormous pressure, because it's the toughest thing bringing together two very different friends who are both important in your life. My biggest concern with playing her was I didn't want her to seem two-faced. It's so hard to watch her interact with Annie, yet still see her being friendly with Helen and not notice Annie's discomfort. I didn't want her to come off like some vapid jerk.

How much of the film was improvised?
We were encouraged to improvise all the time, and to come up with our own stuff in a voice that sounded natural to the characters. By the time it's all cut together you really look great. I know the parts in Bridesmaids where it's been edited to cut away from people losing it; I can tell. You can still sort of see people starting to go, there's something in the eyes that shows they're about to crack. I love that. It's the best. There literally wasn't a downside to doing the film; you just get in there and play. You know, I met Bill Murray once and he said, 'If you're rehearsing something and the crew is laughing, you're doing something right.' It sounds obvious, I know, but it helped me. Oh, it was so dreamy meeting him, I can't tell you... He came into SNL one time when I was there, and he just started hanging out. He slung me over his shoulder for some reason. I don't know why. That's a whole other story. Thank God I wasn't pregnant; it wouldn't have worked. He was just dishing out advice, talking about his time on SNL, giving me tips like, 'If you need a good massage and it's 11pm and you've got half an hour before you do the show, go to this place down on 57th St, we used to do that all the time...'

Do you miss SNL?
I do. It's where I feel my heart is the most, the place I feel I gained the most confidence. It's a weekly show, so we had to create all these new characters every week; you really develop yourself there because you're constantly writing, figuring out your voice, producing these pieces. The choice to go was hard. I was raising a family, my daughter was very young at time, and it's an arduous schedule. You're writing constantly, then by the time Monday rolls around you're pitching new ideas, then writing them, blocking, rewriting 'til you get to Saturday, which ends at 1am, which is really Sunday, then it all starts again. It's hard on your loved ones. I think it'll be easier for me once my friends from SNL have left the show; it's hard when I turn on the TV and see Kristen or Andy [Samberg] on there, all the people I love.

How did the show's tight deadlines help you creatively?
It's the only way I ever get anything done. I was always the kid in high school who wrote my paper the night before it was due. When I joined SNL I didn't realise I'd be doing so much writing, and the only way to get me to do it is to say 'It's now or never.' I heard Lorne [Michaels, producer of SNL] say, 'We don't do the show because it's ready. We do it because it's 11.30 on Saturday night and it's time to go on.' Things aren't always finished; you just go on somehow.

People who don't know you from SNL might be surprised to see you in out-and-out comedy after, say, Away We Go.
It does confuse people, it's true. But I never used to look at it that way. When I first read Away We Go, which Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida had written, I thought it was a black comedy really, an acerbic take on how annoying people can be when you're starting a family. But when the film came out, the response I kept getting was completely unexpected; people would ask, 'So, have you left comedy now?' Comedy's my first love; it defines me. But when you get the opportunity to do more, it's so exciting. I think people want you to be what they know you as, or else it confuses them. But I can never imagine leaving comedy. It's who I am.

Is it the same thing doing comedy improv and working with Robert Altman, who also encouraged improvisation?
It is comparable, yeah. Bob loved people coming up with stuff. I was playing a stage manager in A Prairie Home Companion, so I got to be in everything, to be in every room, yet still to be sort of on the outside of it. You get to watch someone like Kevin Kline, who's the perfect example of a skilful improviser; Bob would encourage him to improvise and do more and we'd just watch him fly, coming up with all this insane, hysterical physical comedy, none of which was in the script. You'd always hear Bob say, 'Ah, that's great, let's keep going.' There were multiple cameras moving all the time, and everyone was miked at all times; he loved that organised chaos. Being with him was like being at the most fun party ever, with the best host.

Your partner Paul Thomas Anderson was a back-up director on the film.
Yeah, Paul called himself the pinch hitter, which is a baseball term. Bob was quite a bit older and he was sick, and while you'd think he could get financing for anything, the insurance company needed someone who could take over in case he, you know, died on the spot. By that time, Bob knew and loved Paul and asked him to do it.

And Paul dedicated There Will Be Blood to Altman.
He did. Wasn't that lovely? They really loved one another.

As a comedian, do you crave getting laughs off-screen too?
I probably do. You have to pick and choose. You don't wanna do it at the doctor's office when he's giving you bad news. You don't wanna be someone who takes a drum kit everywhere, you know, 'Badum-ching!' What's that called? I think it's rimshot. But it's good for cocktail parties. Good for those uncomfortable moments. It's helpful to have that ability in your back pocket.

Bridesmaids is released on 22 June

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue