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For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close
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by Rob Gonsalves

"The Dungeonmaster."
4 stars

The current situation being what it is, I have no idea when you’ll get to see 'For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close' — it was supposed to premiere at the cancelled SXSW festival — but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s as worthy of its subject as any movie that isn’t completely shambolic and unconventional can be.

The improvisational-comedy master Del Close, who died in 1999 five days shy of his 65th birthday, is probably better known for the comedians he taught and/or inspired than for his own performing. Anyone who was anyone on Saturday Night Live (from the Belushi years to the Fey years), SCTV, and more passed through the turbulent gates of Close’s cracked guidance and wisdom. A guru to hundreds, he was also a self-destructive, self-mythologizing flaming wreck of a human, one who burned bridges while still standing on them.

For Madmen Only combines the usual talking-heads approach with tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. The skilled comedian James Urbaniak steps in as Close in the latter segments; it must have been as daunting a task as Michael Chiklis wandering into enemy fire to play Belushi in the awful Wired, but in this case it pays off — Urbaniak has a strong resemblance to Close in the first place, so he’s free to play an idiosyncratic but occasionally successful collaborator. The segments have to do with Close’s late-period project Wasteland, a short-lived cult comic book from DC, and that’s where I first heard of Close and the many tales, tall or otherwise, about him — his various drug trips, his brushes with Hollywood, his beginnings as a carny performer, or just surreal reveries with himself and sometimes his writing partner John Ostrander as hosts.

Around that same time (the late ‘80s), Close was wandering into major films — you may have seen him in The Untouchables, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the remake of The Blob. Once seen, he’s not easily forgotten; he had a leonine, authoritative presence. More and more over the years, though, he used that presence not to hit his own marks on the stage but to make a mark as a behind-the-scenes Svengali, directing youngsters like Stephen Colbert or Mike Myers to reach inside themselves, connect with their stagemates, and produce … well, laughless crap, some of the time. Some of the time, the result was brilliance you couldn’t tap into any other way. Forming his own theater, with longtime creative partner Charna Halpern, Close seasoned his students with a decades-old improv technique he’d developed and insisted on, known as “the Harold.” Despite reading about it on several occasions and hearing about it anew in the movie, I still don’t quite understand the Harold’s intricacies, but then I’m not an improvisational comedian. A comics and sci-fi reader, Close probably enjoyed a concept that enabled extended fantasizing within a context of rules; in that sense, he was the Gary Gygax of comedy, the dungeonmaster.

Close never rose to the level that many of his students felt he wanted to. He had the mind of a teacher but the soul of a performer, a renegade artist. If you know him, it’s from that brief window when directors like Brian De Palma and John Hughes were hiring him. That was him, probably, at his most presentable, the wizard a movie director could wheel out for hipster cred (and to add a few volts to a scene — Close brings avuncular menace to his reading of “You fellas are untouchable, is that the thing?”). Mostly, though, he was simply too unstable for even the unconventional employment of an actor. What this documentary underlines is that Close found his métier as a prophet and visionary, touching the faithful on their fevered foreheads and dispensing grace.

The shots of Close’s cluttered, dilapidated ashtray of an apartment square with the portrait I remember from the best two books about him, The Funniest One in the Room by Kim “Howard” Johnson and Guru by Jeff Griggs. In person, I gather, Close was the classical irascible old genius with an appetite for stimulation. This was a man capable of telling an interviewer (Bob Odenkirk) that he’d kicked cocaine and heroin, but of course still smoked weed and had a few hallucinogenic trips a year (“Those are health drugs!”). The movie’s mix of anecdotes, dramatizations and animation points up the subtitle — the stories of Del Close. For certainly such a crowded house of a man would not have only one story.

We finish with a pair of debunkings of Close legends, and Charna Halpern refers to the “jerky reporter” who broke one of them — the one about Close bequeathing his own skull to play the role of Horatio in future productions at a Chicago theater. Well, as the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33579&reviewer=416
originally posted: 06/08/20 16:31:16
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USA
  N/A (NR)

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Directed by
  Heather Ross

Written by
  Heather Ross
  Adam Samuel Goldman

Cast
  Del Close
  Bob Odenkirk
  Jason Sudeikis
  James Urbaniak



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