The Reeler

Recent Comments


A Girl and a Gun
Ain't It Cool News
Alliance of Women Film Journalists
Anne Thompson
Art Fag City
Better Than Fudge
Big Picture Big Sound
Bitter Cinema
Blank Screen
Brian Flemming
Bright Lights
Celluloid Eyes
Chutry Experiment, The
Cinema Confidential
Cinema Eye
Coming Soon
Cool Cinema Trash
Cyndi Greening
Dark Horizons
Drew's Blog-O-Rama
Esoteric Rabbit
Film Detail
Film Experience, The
Film Journal, The
Film Journey
Film Stew
Film Rotation
GreenCine Daily
Hacking Netflix
Hammer to Nail
High Sign, The
Hollywood Elsewhere
House Next Door, The
IFC Blog, The
In the Company of Glenn
IndieScene Movie Marketing Blog
indieWIRE Blogs
Jay's Movie Blog
JoBlo's Movie Emporium
Kaiju Shakedown
Like Anna Karina's Sweater
Last Night with Riviera
Light Sleeper
Long Pauses
Masters of Cinema
Matt Zoller Seitz
Midnight Eye
Milk Plus
Mind Jack
Movie Blog, The
Movie City Indie
Movie Hole, The
Movie Poop Shoot
New York Cool
NY Post Movie Blog
News of the Dead
No More Marriages!
Notes From Underdog
Out of Focus
Persistence of Vision
Queer Film Review
Reel Roundtable
Screen Rush
Screener (Film Journal Int.)
Screening the Past
Self-Styled Siren
Short Sheet, The
Slant Magazine
Slant Magazine Blog
Still in Motion
Stranger Song, The
They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Tisch Film Review
Vince Keenan
World Film (at
You Know, For Film

The Reeler Blog

Doc Fortnight Closes to Great Chagrin

A still featured in To My Great Chagrin, screening Saturday in MoMA's Documentary Fortnight series (Photo: MoMA)

By Rich Zwelling

As its annual Documentary Fortnight series winds down on Saturday, MoMA features a repeat screening of its popular opening-night selection, To My Great Chagrin: The Incredible Story of Brother Theodore. Directed by South Carolina filmmaker Jeff Sumerel, this 70-minute tribute takes an unconventional look at actor-comedian-philosopher Theodore Gottlieb, whose self-proclaimed “stand-up tragedy” was a bizarre, angst-driven synthesis of monologue, black comedy, philosophical inquiry and nonsensical wordplay.

If the audience atmosphere following the initial screening is any indication, viewers will be in for a rare treat. That night the mood was one of palpable joy and bittersweet reminiscence; Sumerel fielded questions from a thoughtful audience that included Dick Cavett, Eric Bogosian and Sandra Nordgen, manager of the 13th Street Theater, where Gottlieb performed every weekend for more than 40 years -- well into his 80s. A major influence on entertainers such as George Carlin, Woody Allen, Joe Dante and Penn Jillette, he’s been compared to Dali, Picasso, Stravinsky, Miles Davis and, by his own assessment, Winnie the Pooh.

Born in Germany in 1907, Gottlieb grew up as an aristocrat but was sent to the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. After being released, he escaped to the United States with the help of family friend Albert Einstein, eventually working as a janitor at Stanford University. He eventually moved New York, and in the 1950s he began a one-man show that drew on his wartime experiences and a love of Edgar Allen Poe.

His monologues varied wildly between the absurd and the morbid, the quotidian and the profound, the innocuous and the taboo. He ranted about his obsession with a young woman’s teeth, the (non?)existence of God and bouquets of broccoli, always with a distinctly Jewish flavor of irony and self-deprecation: “The only thing that keeps me alive is the hope of dying young.” He went on to television appearances with Cavett, Merv Griffin and David Letterman, among others. He retired from performing in the late 1990s and succumbed to pneumonia in early 2001.

Sumerel captures the versatility of Gottlieb’s eccentricities through a judicious selection of archival footage and interviews, plus some oddly poetic puppetry sequences in which a marionette Gottlieb gestures over audio clips of the comic’s voice. The director especially succeeds in capturing the delicate balance between the hilarity of Gottlieb’s stage persona and the unabashed seriousness of the life behind it -- particularly his twisted view of existence and his willingness to engage audiences in challenging, sometimes unpleasant metaphysical ruminations. Despite his fatalistic, bleak view of humanity, Gottlieb was nonetheless generous and warm with friends and family. “He was totally different in person,” his son Thomas said during the Q&A on opening night. “If you knew him and went to see his act, you’d never know it was the same guy.”

To My Great Chagrin: The Incredible Story of Brother Theodore screens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at MoMA; visit the museum's Web site for more information.

Posted at February 29, 2008 3:09 PM

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Search The Reeler
Join the Mailing List

RSS Feed


Send a Tip