Review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work – New Fest 2010

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Seth Clark Silberman (PhDJ) is a NYC DJ and writer. For almost two years, he was Sherry Vine's DJ at the now-closed DTox in the East Village. His first NYC residency was at Boys Room, where he DJ'ed for Amanda Lepore, Cazwell and Gio Black Peter. He has also spun at The Cock, Eastern Bloc, Posh, Vlada, Arrow Bar, Lucky Cheng's and Formika's F Word party when it was at Club Rebel. Seth was the first junior faculty hired to teach lesbian and gay studies at Yale University. He has been widely published on literature and popular culture. His writing about music has been include in VIBE and Paste magazines as well as Creative Loafing Atlanta. Seth also goes by his photographer alter ego, Richard Appedon. https://soundcloud.com/phdjsco

By Seth Clark Silberman

Being Joan Rivers is no joke. The now 76-year-old comedienne is here to work. She has been for the last four decades, even during the lean times, as she jokes, when she wore sunglasses to check her appointment book because all the white space blinded her.

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Good thing that directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s uproarious, inspiring documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will make sure that Rivers’ appointment book will sport a lot of ink—at least until next year’s Oscar’s. Rivers knows that you can never count on how long you will stay in the media spotlight. That is why she has been “supportive yet not encouraging” about daughter Melissa joining the family trade. According to Rivers, the entertainment industry is “the one business where you’re mud your whole life.”

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Rivers has a talent for molding that mud into material. Or, as she explains: “The minute you’re not angry about something, what are you talking about?” Her comedy has always presented her life writ large. The documentary masterfully does the same. It balances a tribute to an artist who pushed the boundaries of “feminine respectability” in comedy like Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and LaWanda Page did before her with a backstage view of a working comic on tour. Rivers is hardly ready to retire. She turns down no gig. Despite what she has accomplished, she is not comfortable being your path-breaking, door-opening icon. Tell her that and she will respond with a hearty “go fuck yourself.”

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You can see that Rivers wanted to hurl that kind of love to the other comics at her Comedy Central roast that documentary was fortunate to include. The roast encapsulates Rivers’ ongoing career tussle. As expected, the invited comics lobbed plastic surgery and age jokes her way. The network’s grande dame vision of Rivers was equally out of touch with her life’s work. When the roast director second-guesses her every move at rehearsal, worrying that what she has planned will not work, Rivers is left to protest, “I’ll do something funny because I’m a funny person.” Indeed. The rest of the documentary, with ample clips from gigs across the country, attests to just how funny Rivers still is.

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Giving someone else access to frame your life how they see fit is always daunting. Directors Stern and Sundberg followed Rivers for a year and present her life in close-up—not just as they do with the tight opening shots of Rivers face, wrinkles, plastic surgery and all, receiving its daily make-up. The Rivers portrait they paint is frank, funny and even endearing. In the question and answer session after the documentary’s screening at the New Fest, Michael Musto joked that it may ruin her career because it presents her being so nice.

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I was happy to see someone so comfortable, finally, with her own discomfiture. Rivers worries that “age is the one mountain you cannot overcome”; but I came away invigorated by seeing the gift of perseverance and by hearing the wisdom that only age bestows when she talks about her experiences. Whatever her ambition, the events of her life and the rigors of a fickle industry may have wrought, Joan Rivers remains more than ready for the next 20 years or so: “I could stop and live carefully but that’s ridiculous. I don’t want to live carefully.”

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By Seth Clark Silberman

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Seth Clark Silberman (PhDJ) is a NYC DJ and writer. For almost two years, he was Sherry Vine's DJ at the now-closed DTox in the East Village. His first NYC residency was at Boys Room, where he DJ'ed for Amanda Lepore, Cazwell and Gio Black Peter. He has also spun at The Cock, Eastern Bloc, Posh, Vlada, Arrow Bar, Lucky Cheng's and Formika's F Word party when it was at Club Rebel. Seth was the first junior faculty hired to teach lesbian and gay studies at Yale University. He has been widely published on literature and popular culture. His writing about music has been include in VIBE and Paste magazines as well as Creative Loafing Atlanta. Seth also goes by his photographer alter ego, Richard Appedon. https://soundcloud.com/phdjsco
avatar

Seth Clark Silberman (PhDJ) is a NYC DJ and writer. For almost two years, he was Sherry Vine's DJ at the now-closed DTox in the East Village. His first NYC residency was at Boys Room, where he DJ'ed for Amanda Lepore, Cazwell and Gio Black Peter. He has also spun at The Cock, Eastern Bloc, Posh, Vlada, Arrow Bar, Lucky Cheng's and Formika's F Word party when it was at Club Rebel. Seth was the first junior faculty hired to teach lesbian and gay studies at Yale University. He has been widely published on literature and popular culture. His writing about music has been include in VIBE and Paste magazines as well as Creative Loafing Atlanta. Seth also goes by his photographer alter ego, Richard Appedon. https://soundcloud.com/phdjsco

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