Late to the party as ever, I am currently cultivating a minor obsession with Louis CK

The perfect film role for this daring funny man is out there somewhere - but he hasn't hit the mark just yet.

Late to the party as ever, I am currently cultivating a minor obsession with the comedian Louis CK. Even describing him as a comedian feels unfairly restricting. His stand-up specials—Chewed Up, Live at the Beacon Theatre, Oh My God—are meticulously crafted dramatic monologues that just happen to be raucously funny, not unlike the work of Stewart Lee (though in a very different register: CK plays with and subverts an Ordinary Joe persona that makes his most poisonous gags obscurely palatable).

He is the star, writer, director and editor of his own FX sitcom, Louie, which is three series old and getting ready for a fourth. His vision is absolute. And the tone of that series is also too amorphous and perplexing to fit under the catch-all heading of comedy. Two episodes I saw recently, one with Chloe Sevigny as a book-shop assistant who is creepily over-enthusiastic in her efforts to help Louie (Louis CK) track down an old flame, and a double-episode in which David Lynch plays a coach preparing Louie to be a possible replacement for talk-show host David Letterman, wandered so far into the comedy of silence, tension and general unpleasantness that it was possible at times to forget one was watching a comedy at all. There were enough skew-whiff line readings and quizzical top-notes to act as reminders of the genre to which the show nominally belonged, but only just.

Film being my primary area of interest, I am excited to see if he will make his mark cinematically. You can’t watch Louie and not feel that he has a great, dangerous movie in him. He’s dabbled: he co-wrote two screenplays with Chris Rock (Down to Earth and I Think I Love My Wife) and is credited as writer-director of another Rock comedy, Pootie Tang. He has had small roles in films, some good (Role Models), others less so (The Invention of Lying), and recently starred in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine as the man whom Jasmine’s sister (Sally Hawkins) picks up at a party.

My feeling is that no one who exerts such control over his own appearances (and works so hard at disguising the precise calibrations in his apparently off-the-cuff stand-up routines) is going to grab the first leading role that comes along. Sure enough, he was unreceptive to the idea of playing the male lead in the new (and rather wonderful) romantic comedy Enough Said, which opens today. “I wrote it with Louis CK in mind,” said the film’s writer-director, Nicole Holofcener. “CK wouldn’t give me the time of day, thank goodness.” (That “thank goodness” is to acknowledge rightly the brilliance of her second choice, the late James Gandolfini.)

Appearing in Enough Said might have been disastrous for CK. It is a rich and delicious part, but it is also entirely sympathetic. For him to play such a character would be the equivalent of Tom Hanks being cast as a cannibalistic child-killer who doesn’t believe in climate change. It would go so violently against the grain of the persona he has spent his career constructing as to amount to career suicide. Sure, we like Louis CK while we are watching him, even when he is in the flow of his most depraved and sexually taboo monologues. But if we were to cease scrutinising the disparity between his repugnant material and his prosaic persona, the comedy might lose one of its choicest elements. What I’m saying is that I love Louis CK and I like Enough Said very much, but they would not have been a happy fit. A part in David O Russell’s forthcoming crime drama American Hustle seems much more his bag. And a movie that CK crafts for himself is an even more tantalising prospect. I’ll happily kill time re-watching Louie or his stand-up routines while I wait for that.

Louis CK and fellow comedian-and-actor Will Arnett at an ice hockey game in New York. Photograph: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.

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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage