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[This piece was originally written for and published at the website The 500 Club: http://500.the400club.org/]

Behind the Candelabra, suitably for its subject, seems to proudly announce itself from the get-go. Read those three words aloud, let them roll off your tongue, and then tell me that they don’t form the title of the year. The first two words, which we know so well from so many tell-all entertainment industry TV specials—including one about Liberace himself—immediately sit us down in a familiar, well-worn genre. But with the unexpected, faintly absurd, and ostentatious “Candelabra”—itself a word that needs to be said out loud for the proper effect, of an arm waved to the side in the manner of a theatrical unveiling—we get a knowing wink and a smile which pledge as the movie’s plaything its very generic familiarity.

So it should be expected that the story in outline is a broadly familiar one. It’s that of an ingénue seduced and corrupted by the glamorous but depraved life of an older authority figure, with the power to transform, to bestow admiration and an impression of love. Matt Damon plays the young Scott Thorson, whom we meet in a gay bar, where he is picked up by Bob (Scott Bakula). Thorson works on the literal and figural outskirts of Hollywood, as a dog trainer and handler for cheap, pedestrian film productions. But through a trip to Vegas with Bob, he is introduced to Michael Douglas’s Liberace, who takes an immediate shine to the young man. Soon, Scott is made the sparkling new replacement for Liberace’s previous hot young male companion, who we see has become alienated, embittered, and resentful, providing an early—and perhaps too bluntly telegraphed—sign of things to come. Soon, Thorson is employed, or more accurately ‘kept’, by Liberace, the two of them locked together in a palatial but claustrophobic Las Vegas mansion, their co-dependency manifesting itself in Liberace’s slowly building, perverse desire for their complete convergence, in tension with Thorson’s smothered need for self-assertion and recognition.

Perhaps my initially underwhelmed response to the movie as a whole was because of how this story, and its setting in America’s tawdry 70s and 80s off-Hollywood entertainment world, invited comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s energising, generous, still-arresting Boogie Nights. And yes, Soderbergh’s movie is not as good as Anderson’s. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Candelabra for lacking the monumental ambition of the earlier movie. At one point when I was craving the same dazzling scope of imagination that is so astonishing from the young filmmaker who made Boogie Nights, I asked myself whether Candelabra was promising to transcend, or merely re-tread, its generic turf. It all started to seem a bit familiar, with the drugs, and the disillusionment, and the drifting away. There was pleasure to be had, for sure; Soderbergh is skilful, nothing falls exactly flat, or is spectacularly mishandled, but—particularly throughout Thorson’s spiralling fall from Liberace’s grace—nothing got its hooks into me either.

But I was looking in the wrong places. The broad generic strokes of the story work in something like the fashion of Liberace’s jewels and cloaks, and his beguiling keyboard trickery and showmanship, as a veil of glamorous distraction or deception. And what they conceal is a much more compelling shadow narrative. At the heart of the movie is, for me, a small, quiet scene tucked away somewhere in the middle. It’s one that does little to advance or contribute to the surrounding glamour and noise of the rise-and-fall story, but might help to make sense of the various details intricately threaded throughout.

Liberace sits at a table by a sun-drenched swimming pool, having a drink with his elderly mother. Their lack of free conversation is punctuated only by Liberace’s repeated offers of material help for his mother: “Is there anything I can get for you? Is there anything you want?” The gaudy pianist is uncharacteristically dressed in a staid blazer and bone white trousers, a picture of respectability. But even as Liberace tries to give an impression of leaning back in his chair in comfortable ease, Douglas brings a brittle quality to his character. The fingers that so nimbly dance across the keys in more public performance here skittle uneasily amongst themselves, the smile that is so strong beamed to hundreds now seeming forced as it tries too hard to strike a picture of familiarity in the company of one. The placement of his highball glass on the wrought iron table is in sympathy with the performance, strengthening its effect. The table itself embodies the tensions. Its decoration strives for the delicacy of lace, but cannot soften the implacably hard material from which it is built, and threatens to shatter the finery of the surely crystal glass. Liberace, who in two performances every night has on a string an entire ballroom of hotel guests, morphs before our eyes into a desperate concierge, supplicant to an enigmatically demanding mute, as if oblivious to the way his mother appears to bask serene under the sunshine.

Douglas is so arresting here precisely because up to this point he has inhabited Liberace as a man in fully confident command of his being, a skilled conductor of self-performance, his every gesture, word, and winking smile deployed to orchestrate the feeling and satisfaction of the people around him, gathering up those feelings and moods and powerfully directing them back upon himself, and abandoning to the darkened wings of his life-stage those players who no longer reflect his light with warmth. And so it is sitting by the pool with his mother that Douglas show us how Liberace is nowhere less at home than in the ordinary and domestic, those spaces and moods that, in a tiny moment of this scene, threaten, or require, intimate exposure on terms that are not his own. The moment turns around an eloquent gesture. Liberace’s mother tells him something to the effect that she needs nothing from him but his love. Douglas has Liberace respond to this invitation to shared intimacy, one based on mutual vulnerability between a son and his mother, by reaching with his right hand inside his jacket, as if to retrieve a wallet or chequebook, emerging instead with a silver-plated cigarette case, which allows him an opportunity to busy himself with its clasp, and to remove and tamp a cigarette before bringing it to his lips as if an obstruction to speech. An invitation to do nothing but enjoy with another person the light of the world that shines on them equally from above is met with a reflex that evokes the retrieval of cash, one in which the business of his fingers and their contact with the emblems of ostentatious wealth provide a distraction against his potential exposure, a display of calm collection that attempts to conceal a broiling discomfort within.

What should we make of this, in a movie whose drama elsewhere pivots around the offering, acceptance, pawning, and retrieval of rings, jewellery, and other props of self-display? In which the characters’ contacts with these ornaments provide them with material re-assurance of their self-worth, but they are so often and so often publicly strapped for cash? In our displays of self-performance, how do we know whether we are exposing or concealing ourselves, and from whom?

The Michael Richards episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee exemplifies the potential for aesthetic richness, delight, and maybe even profundity that Jerry Seinfeld and his collaborators have discovered in the disarmingly simple construction, and seemingly modest ambitions, of this Internet series. The brief, fifteen-minute instalments of this show represent Seinfeld’s most rewarding return to the screen so far since the conclusion of his star-making sitcom in 1998. Is part of the reason for this success the way in which Comedians in Cars can be seen to draw upon and work over what gave—and continues to give—Seinfeld its distinctive and enduring appeal?

As I’ve noted, the show is decidedly simple and obvious. The title appears to equip us with all the tools we need. Indeed, even the design of its font appeals to our sense of homespun, schoolhouse simplicity: each letter is delivered in a hand-drawn, white outline, filled in with messy shading, as if by a child clutching a stick of chalk before a blackboard mounted on a wooden easel.

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We have no need of slick or sophisticated graphics; this will be an endearing, almost naïve time of child-like play and leisure. But do we not also get, from the chalkboard analogy, a suggestion of education, that we might be entering something of a classroom? Across the episodes, this becomes something of an ambient concern, which Seinfeld traffics in through his casual conversations about comedy craft and its origins in the lives of his various guests. But any explicit idea that we might need to be alert to a moment of teaching are in each episode submerged, though, by the first moments of the action, which announce that we are entering a word of pure leisure. Each instalment opens with a brief exposition of the new vehicle of choice, delivered by Seinfeld over a montage of the vehicle being driven by him along streets in either Los Angeles or New York. After this vehicular exposition we hear a phone conversation, in which Jerry connects with this week’s guest comedian, and invites them to coffee: “Hi! It’s Jerry. You in the mood for come caw-fee?” The answer is, of course, always “sure,” or “yes,” or “sounds great— I’ll see you in ten minutes!” This is a world in which there are no impediments to hanging out, no obligations or responsibilities greater or more pressing than that of shooting the breeze while cruising around, and spending the hours of coffee and lunch. In this way it’s not unlike the appeal of Seinfeld in general, and the episodes of its earlier seasons especially, in which the mood seems to me one of generalised freedom and possibility, the story turning around the spending of time: sitting in a café and waiting for your friends to maybe pop in, someone always bursting in the front door. In this mood we don’t need to be alert to anything of great significance or importance: we’re just getting’ coffee, drivin’ around, feeling the sun on our shoulders and the leather of the diner booth on our backs. The hardest question the world could throw at us will be “What’ll you have?”

But the Michael Richards episode is already from the beginning liable to put us on an uneasy edge, to unsettle the show’s typical mood of a leisurely Sunday free from pressing responsibility. More than any episode of Comedians in Cars, this one carries a history with it, and it is one closely entwined with the place of Seinfeld in our lives. The idea suggested by the classroom chalkboard title design—that we might have something to learn from all this—is here heightened by the highly public shame that attended Richards’s racist outburst in a Los Angeles comedy club in 2006. This history, which is a strong if unspoken force throughout the first parts of this episode, is a key to the significant choice of vehicle on this occasion. At first I thought the role of the vehicles in the show was sheerly aesthetic, a reflection of Seinfeld’s wealthy station and interests, perhaps an opportunity for him to indulge his well-publicised love of motor vehicles, especially Porsche 911s. Are they just randomly chosen fetish objects, supplying sheer aesthetic pleasure to be taken from their embodiment of a luxurious capaciousness of lifestyle that Seinfeld possesses but of which most viewers could only dream? From this point of view, the rich details of the motor body that are presented in covetous close-ups (their wooden panels, vintage exoticism, and opulent horsepower) would be physical emblems of Jerry’s inaccessible fantasy life of New York City that some of us pined after in Seinfeld, the same kind of attraction to a life of luxury and freedom that is part of the appeal of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.[1]

But it was the Michael Richards episode, and later the David Letterman edition, that gave me pause regarding the role of the cars here. Until this point I had watched the first two episodes of the first ‘season’, the first featuring Larry David, and the second Ricky Gervais. Watching the videos on a lunch break while working on my thesis, I took them (in the way described above) as nothing to be concentrated on or thought much about, just as brief, pleasant, casually put-together diversions on a day otherwise occupied with more serious, more intended works, that don’t come across as slapped-together in the manner of an unplanned catch-up with friends. Seinfeld drives Larry David around LA in a Volkswagen Beetle, and Ricky Gervais about NYC in an Austin-Healey sports car. With Michael Richards, the chosen vehicle is an old Volkswagen flatbed truck, described by Seinfeld—in something of a distant, show-floor style—as being in “Dove Blue, Primer Grey, and Rust. The interior is grey vinyl, and duct tape.” Seinfeld tells us he is attracted to the wagon because it was used as a service truck for a Porsche repair shop. His voice also betrays a small pique of satisfaction in revealing the fact that, in addition to the flat bed and two rows of seats, it has “an extra door on one side.” Upon reflection, it seems unavoidable that the truck is in some way intended to represent those aspects of Michael Richards’s character and persona as a comedian and TV star that the episode will later mine and explore.[2] It is in this same way that the David Letterman episode features a Volvo station wagon given to Letterman by Paul Newman, an outwardly staid and unremarkable vehicle hiding within it a V8, supercharged race car engine, built by Newman himself, a jerry-rigged car prone to overheating and breakdown; it is surely not coincidence that it is this vehicle—out of all those owned by Letterman—that will be chosen for an episode that skirts around his ill-health from a failing heart, and that will gain much of its arresting interest from the relatively haggard, scraggily bearded face we see in contrast to the always bright and sprightly man on television, and the young chipmunk-like talent we are shown in clips from the archive of his youth. Similarly, the Volkswagen truck, with its visible layers of built-up and peeled-back paint, its wounded, barely held-together interior, and off-kilter, asymmetrical design, is quietly put to work as an emblem of Richards: a palimpsest of character and persona, our ideal of him as ‘Kramer’ rudely ripped apart one night in an LA comedy club, that now so obviously fictional exterior stripped away to reveal a more pathologically eccentric and manic psychology than we ever imagined was contained within the oddball onscreen.

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Early on, Richards says that being around Seinfeld will cause him to slowly change into “that crazy character,” Kramer, whose mannerisms of speech and gesture are shown—even this early in the episode—to be a substrate of Richards himself, an inescapable aspect of how he holds himself in the world, how he orients himself towards and around other people. This comes shortly after a segment during which, driving along the coast, Richards points out to Seinfeld the crumbling Getty Villa, perilously perched on the cliff above the freeway. We see how its walls are marred by ugly and threatening structural cracks, the swimming pool indeed having already collapsed down the cliff face, exposing an empty void that was once a place of spirited frolicking and enjoyment, now only a testament to inevitable ruin as the world itself gives way beneath us. (This becomes the topic of a sprightly ‘bit’ improvised by Richards to the incredible delight of Seinfeld, clearly enraptured by the company and performance of his long-time comic companion.) Unusually for the series, about a minute into the episode an onscreen title, in drab san-serif font, gravely announces: “Certain events in this episode seem set up. They were not.” This comes to refer to some outlandish coincidences: Richards’s plan for an unannounced visit to Sugar Ray Leonard’s house turns into a chance meeting between Jerry and an agent who featured in his 2002 documentary Comedian, who is indeed visiting the very house Richards takes us to, which turns out to in fact be the home of comedian and actor Jay Mohr; later, Richards dons a terrible blonde wig and dark sunglasses to avoid public attention, but, upon getting out of the car, spots a man unloading a truck who sports an almost identical hairstyle and sunglasses (“Life is a hideout!” Richards concludes, after posing with the man). I think we should take these as mere coincidence and chance, if only because the scenarios’ mildly amusing comic pay-offs hardly seem worth the effort that would have been required to orchestrate them. What does seem like more deliberate contrivance, though, are those moments that display the same species of artful design as that involved in the selection of the Volkswagen truck: one of discovering and working-upon associations between these men, their histories, and the documentary detail of the day’s events (from the grand scale of settings like the Getty Villa, down to minutiae of words and gestures) as they ‘just happen’ to pass by or pop up for the camera’s observation. One of these is the choice to follow the segment about the Getty Villa with a short reminiscence on Seinfeld’s pleasure of being able to work and perform with Richards all those years (“You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you”), and then to culminate this section with Richards’s sense that he will again become “that crazy character.” Are we not seeing the gradual discovery that this episode will be about exploring the role that Seinfeld’s comic performances and rhythms played in our lives by excavating the ruins of the Kramer persona within Michael Richards?

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This seems like an astounding and perhaps ridiculous or hysterical claim, some attempt to elevate what is only a minor and diverting bit of funny business, its fleeting demand on our attention only heightened by its placement on the Internet, that wasteland of meaninglessness and distraction. But how else do we account for the magic of the episode’s remainder? As Seinfeld and Richards finally sit in a Malibu café and talk, we are treated once again to the transfixing potential of Richards as a performer, storyteller, and alchemist of the human body and voice. A devoted and talented chess player, he tells Jerry a story about playing a game against a dishevelled homeless man on a street corner in Hollywood, who swiftly beat him twice, and refused to play again. Here we are reminded of Richards’s wonderful capacity to not only craft a performance of himself as he narrates his own past, but also to turn, in an instant, his own mannerisms and manic gestures in ways that allow him to convincingly and generously bring to life the individuality and essence of other people, and to inhabit them before us. This is an even more engaging one-man show than his great piece in the Seinfeld episode “The Fire” (5.19), in which he tells the story about driving the bus to take an amputated toe to hospital, but having to continue making scheduled stops (“They kept ringing the bell!”). It’s more compelling precisely because of the way Richards here deftly manages our point of view so that there is a gradual transformation of standing between he and the homeless man. His own initial superiority is slowly degraded moment-by-moment, until by the end he is left charging desperately after the homeless man, begging for another chance; Richards’s embodiment of the savant challenger and victor, on the other hand, expresses dignified self-possession, a conviction in his own place in the world, a distinct elevation from his starting position down in the gutter, the subject of Richards’s curious and superior gaze from above.

The episode cannot help but almost constantly remind us that this storytelling and performance skill is a nearly inbuilt quality of Richards as a human, because they imbue almost every gesture he makes and word he speaks, from the very moment he emerges from behind the door of his home. We are shown how these skills matter through the camera’s observation of his audience’s responses to them. The other half of the wonderful scene of performance in the café is of course the spectacle of Seinfeld’s unselfconscious rapture at his friend’s talent. Like us, he is in thrall to every move and beat and ebb and flow of the story, his face a register of the sheer arresting aliveness of the drama Richards is able to conjure, just here, beside a table and on the floor of a coffee shop. It’s the same intensity of involvement in witnessing a performance that we saw on Seinfeld’s face during the Getty Villa bit, which is itself the foundation of the respectful appreciation with which Seinfeld remembers the brilliance of the thought and craft with which Richards inhabited Kramer for so many years.

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Although Richards appears not to remember it at all, the bit that Seinfeld so fondly recalls is from the Kenny Rogers Chicken episode, “The Chicken Roaster” (8.18), when Kramer opens the door to the hallway and is snapped over backwards by the red light shining into Jerry’s apartment through Kramer’s window across the hall.

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Richards thought, and was able, to express with his body the sheer force and physics of the Kenny Rogers Chicken light; the brilliance of his gesture was to indeed imbue the light with a power it would otherwise not carry, to transform what we could see of it: through Richards we can feel the light with a  force its mere presence onscreen could never carry. As in Seinfeld’s fixation on Richards’s story of the television superstar’s run-in with the chess-playing savant, the gift of Richards as a performer is to make the world become more alive for us.

When Richards and Seinfeld first pull-in to the coffee shop parking lot, Richards is anxious about being in such an ordinary public place in this way, the unspoken memory of his last, so infamous public appearance pushing in on the episode to the point of discomfort. Yet, after his performance of the chess routine for Seinfeld, and following a brief but poignant discussion of his 2006 Comedy Club meltdown, we are shown views—now silent, scored by slow piano jazz evocative of retiring to one’s favourite chair as the dusk turns into evening—of Richards interacting with groups of people as he and Seinfeld leave the café and head back to their beaten-up old truck. Crucial to the point of these images is the way in which the Comedy Club disaster comes up after a discussion of selflessness as an ideal working state for the comedian, or actor, or performer, let’s say artist in general. After Richards rues not having better enjoyed his time on the sitcom, Seinfeld gently corrects him in an attempt to shore up his friend’s deflating feelings and to do away with his regrets: “Michael, that is not our job. Our job is not to make sure we enjoy it, our job is to make sure they enjoy it, and that’s what we did.” Richards mulls this, and concedes that his failure in the Comedy Club was one of selfishness. “I busted-up after that event, seven years ago,” he tells Seinfeld. “It broke me down. . . . Thanks for stickin’ by me. Inside, it still kicks me around, a little bit . . .” Seinfeld says only “It’s up to you to say ‘You know what, I’ve been carrying this bag long enough, I’m going to put it down.’” After a few beats of silence, Richards says only “Yeah . . .” Seinfeld sits back, and just watches his friend, his expression blank. Then we are shown the silent montage of them leaving the café and moving to the car. As they pay, a man recognises Richards as he reaches his beanpole arm across the counter, and a wonderful, child-like smile of pleasure and welcome spreads over his elderly face.

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As Seinfeld and Richards walk to the car, we see them greeted and enjoyed by passers-by. One group pose for photos with the pair, and Richards takes their camera, clowning for them, snapping his own close-ups, imprinting his personal stamp on these mementos of that moment they met Jerry and Kramer. If the episode announced its interests in the place of Kramer the character within Richards the performer by considering the ruins of a once-monumental villa crumbling into the sea, here we see the power of Kramer still alive inside Richards, still compelling the attraction and enjoyment of everyone he meets, the memory of all those episodes and moments of comic brilliance alive in this body. As Seinfeld and Richards drive back down the coast, we hear the last words of the episode.

Seinfeld: I do hope you consider using your instrument again, because it’s the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen.

Richards: Oh, Jerry— thanks, buddy.

The last image of the episode is of the Volkswagen truck driving into a tunnel, the darkness of which overcomes the screen.

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Why does the episode end this way? The sense we get is that Richards will not return to stand-up or to public performance, that something was forever broken in him and lost that night at the Comedy Club. But the episode has shown that despite this, what we cleaved to in Kramer and in Seinfeld is still alive in Richards, an inextricable part of his being, and so his gift remains to the world in his everyday passage through it, to anyone fortunate enough to be in contact with him. (If you doubt this, then you think that the old man’s smile does not matter, nor does any other, and that the world will be fine without them.) His performances captured in Comedians in Cars illuminate the darkness of the past seven years, showing us a key to his magic as a figure onscreen and in the world. These are the thoughts I arrived at as I re-watched that image of the truck and the screen almost engulfed by darkness, only a string of lights on each side of the tunnel (like a pair of comedians on each side of a truck) guiding the way for Richards and his dear friend as they move forward towards a light we will not be shown.


[1] For a more venal example, see: Entourage.

[2] Re-watching the episode to write this piece, I was amazed by my failure (surely tied up in my sense of the show as meaningless distraction) to initially register how explicit Seinfeld is about the resonance. Unveiling to Richards this truck chosen “especially for you,” he says to his friend, “This is you, Michael!”