Lenny Bruce

Without Tears

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Love him or hate him, as Fred Baker's documentary Without Tears (1972) underscores, the insights and exploits of Lenny Bruce would not be ignored. There is an anachronistic surrealism to the way the information is presented. To modern eyes and ears, it may at times seem as dated and flawed as its subject. However, considering the original audience was the early-'70s counterculture, the film was a revelation to those whose interest in Bruce was fuelled by rumor, hype, and salacious headlines. Even though the juxtaposition of news footage with live Bruce performances may at times seem alternately heavy-handed or excruciating, it never forsakes the underlying message. Baker provides the film's central narrative structure and there are clips featuring Bruce on the burgeoning medium of television -- including his controversial appearances on the Steve Allen-hosted Tonight Show, where he introduces Bruce as "...a shocking comedian, the most shocking comedian of our time...." The artist then goes on to talk about the semantics behind the concept of "what is offensive" -- going so far as to mention words that offend him (Bruce) include Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, segregation, and even taking a poke at the medium itself by adding that "night time television offends me. Well, some night time television...the shows that exploit homosexuality, narcotics, and prostitution under the guise of helping these societal problems." Other vintage nuggets are taken from John Magnuson's infamous Performance Film that captures an edgy stage presentation shot in the intimate confines of a San Francisco club just months before he was declared a pauper -- having been blacklisted at most respectable venues while spending what money he could scrape together on his legal defense. On a lighter note, the scenes of a debonair Bruce as a guest on Playboy's Penthouse is worth the price of admission alone. Other "talking heads" (read: onscreen guests) of note include Bruce's fellow satirists Mort Sahl and Jean Shepherd, as well as renowned First Amendment activist Paul Krassner. Certain excerpts will inevitably stay seared in viewers' memory -- be it of journalist Nat Hentoff's one-on-one with the man, who is a mere shell of his former self. Or perhaps it will be the news footage tracing the tasteless aftermath of Bruce's overdose. Regardless, Without Tears can be compared to watching a train wreck that one can't turn away from. Since its cinematic release in the early '70s there have been several audio and video documentaries and compendiums that include more complete material in a decidedly less "arty" presentation. Namely, the aforementioned Performance Film (1967) and Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth (1998).