"The life of a part-time wrestler is no laughing matter." These are the first lines of Andy Kaufman's peculiar hour-long 1983 film My Breakfast with Blassie, an oddball send-up of My Dinner with Andre in which he meets up with retired wrestler "Classy" Freddie Blassie at a Sambo's restaurant in Los Angeles (yep, there was still one left) for breakfast and awkward conversation. The new "commemorative edition" DVD is being released, according to the box copy, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Kaufman's "(supposed) death," though it also lines up with Criterion's June DVD release of My Dinner with Andre. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way it goes, it's a nice bit of symmetry.
The film itself, a low-budget, shot-on-video affair, was conceived and directed by rockabilly musician/filmmaker/wrestling manger Johnny Legend and Linda Lautrec. While all of the dialogue was improvised (and sounds like it), certain encounters were set up in advanced and staged for the camera (although Blassie appears to be in the dark about them). Kaufman was in the midst of the strange period in which he reimagined himself as a wrestling supervillain, taking on women (and only women) for wrestling bouts during his act and pronouncing himself "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World." This led to an extended faux-feud with pro wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler, and the famous Letterman appearance, and the pile-driving--well, look, I'll assume that if you're reading this review, you're familiar with all this background (and if not, see Man on the Moon).
In Breakfast, Kaufman (still wearing his reportedly unnecessary neck brace) and wrestling legend Blassie discuss breakfast food (Blassie recommends turkey), autographs, germs, and herpes (when they're distracted, Kaufman brings the conversation back with the priceless rejoinder, "Yeah, what about herpes?"). They discuss Kaufman's wrestling, his broken neck, and the Shah of Iran. Blassie reminisces about his career and his friendship with Kaufman's idol Elvis Presley ("I don't believe all those things they say about his drug habit," Blassie insists. "They'll never convince me about that").
Kaufman takes on a deferential tone with Blassie, who is certainly an interesting presence--growling, grouchy, and occasionally ugly. His tender tone with their pregnant Asian waitress gives way to a cringe-worthy comment about her child going on welfare. When Kaufman begins to taunt a nearby table of female autograph-seekers, he begins spewing sexist rhetoric; it's part of the wrestling persona, but Blassie eats it up and cheers him on. In those moments, the film resembles an early prototype for the Sasha Baron Cohen faux-docs; they place Blassie into a situation in which his ugliness is allowed and encouraged. Or was he in on the joke?
The encounters with the other diners are also awkward and uncomfortable--again, we know (now, at least) that some of this is set up, but how much? And how far will Kaufman push it? We know from the films and books about him that this was the place he liked to go to--the comedy of discomfort, in which conventional notions of professionalism and likability are beaten to a pulp. As "Latka" on Taxi, Kaufman was lovable and charismatic; he had to puncture that image, first with the downright strangeness of his nightclub act (featuring his horrifying lounge-act alter ego, Tony Clifton) and other television appearances, and then with the turn to outright hostility that he both presented and brought out of his audience with the female wrestling.
So Breakfast with Blassie is interesting as a social experiment and as part of the broad psychological portrait of its star. But does it work, on any level, as entertainment? Not really. It is intriguing to watch the first, on-camera meeting of Kaufman and future girlfriend Lynn Marguiles (played by Courtney Love in Man on the Moon); she's billed as "Lynn Elaine" in the credits, since she's billed under her real name as a production assistant and co-editor. And there are funny lines here and there. But when the encounter with Marguiles and the other women escalates, it degenerates (as improvisations often do) into clumsy messiness and unintelligible overlapping dialogue (everyone's trying to get in on the action); by the time Kaufman's partner-in-crime Bob Zmuda shows up, playing a repugnant fan, it turns to gross-out humor and just plain runs out of gas. There's something strangely fascinating about My Breakfast with Blassie, but it's ultimately an oddity, a novelty, and little more.
Shot on notoriously ugly early 80s analog video, Blassie looks pretty awful. The full-frame image is littered with the expected artifacts: color and light bleeding, chroma noise, occasional tape glitches, Gibb effects on titles, and bad overmodulation on the restaurant's window shades. The picture is soft and washed out, and there are tracking lines on the lower quarter of the image that get progressively more noticeable throughout the running time (seeming to indicate that they were present on the film's analog master). I know that the project's low budget equals a situation where the image "is what it is," but it's still not pretty.
The film's low budget affects the 2.0 audio track as well; in Kaufman's opening voice-over, for example, you can hear the popping "P"s of a cheap, overmodulated microphone. The two-person conversation scenes are mostly clear and fairly audible (if a bit tinny), but it gets awfully muddy in places, especially when the other diners start chiming in. The filmmakers clearly put some work into increasing the audibility of the on-the-fly recording, but it's still more than a little murky.
This re-release of Blassie includes an abundance of special features, all of them dominated by director Legend (who even does the FBI warning himself). First up is "Lost Footage: Andy In The Raw" (50:49), which Legend introduces as a "fascinating cinematic tableaux"--but anyone who has ever watched a film's raw footage knows there are few duller things in this world. Some flashes of raw footage might have been interesting, but they apparently threw in everything they found (do we really need a full two takes of Andy and Blassie walking wordlessly to their table, complete with the clunky resetting of the camera between takes?). Some of Andy's coverage (including a deleted meta-conversation about My Dinner with Andre) is interesting, but a little of this goes a long way.
"Bonus Footage: Blassie Graffiti" (15:31) is a fairly engaging montage of Blassie's archival TV footage; most of it is in black and white and shows interviews and matches from his heyday. The kitsch appeal of this segment is undeniable, and wrestling fans should thoroughly enjoy it. "Home Movies: Legendary Graffiti" (18:16) is less enlightening, in that the spotlight is on director Legend--he's seen talking about Kaufman an interview (from what appears to be a cable access show), shown in home movies with Blassie and other wrestlers, performing and engaging in matches, etc. It's a yawner.
Next up is the "Film Premiere Footage" (7:39), which shows us some home video from the film's big premiere; a few familiar faces are there (including Harold Ramis), while Kaufman shows up looking, strangely, like Travis Bickle. "Lunch with Lautrec" (34:27) is a more recent two-person chat between Legend and co-director Linda Lautrec discuss the origination and making of the film. Finally we have a viewer-controlled "Photo Gallery" of "vintage 60s photos" of Blassie.
The disc's bonus features suffer from serious content overload; there's some valuable stuff here, but it's all buried in such an avalanche of material (nearly an hour of dailies? A directors interview that's over 30 minutes?) that it's not worth the trouble of digging out. The effort is appreciated, but sometimes quality is more important than quantity.
I'm a Kaufman enthusiast, and am glad that I finally had the chance to see My Breakfast with Blassie. But it's more a film that you experience than one that you actively engage in. The box copy for calls it "a classic piece of performance art." I'm not enough of an expert on the form to speak to the accuracy of that statement. But what I can say is that like most performance art, even that which draws you in or works on its own specific level, it's nothing that you'll probably want to sit through more than once.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.