Some thoughts on Arthur Penn's Penn & Teller Get Killed
"You know what I'd like? You know what would be great? I wish someone were trying to kill me. ...I mean, wouldn't it be great? It'd give focus to your life. All that excitement. All that James Bond secret agent stuff going on -- It'd be great. I wish someone were trying to kill me." - Penn, in a heavy-handed moment of foreshadowing (note who's doing the killing, above.)Chicago, late 1980s, in the basement of the Nazarene parsonage, I flipped the family set over to PBS and caught the last half of Penn & Teller Go Public. It was the sort of serendipity that only happened pre-internet. I was fascinated by what I saw, and the names (and that ubiquitous ampersand) were seared into my memory. I tore out to our neighborhood Hollywood Video Store not long after, desperately seeking what I just saw on videocassette. Hollywood had a huge section devoted to "Special Interest" titles -- mostly documentaries, nature shows, and gay/lesbian fare. There were some live performance videos, and a whole lot of faded boxes with "PBS" on the front. Surely I would find Penn & Teller smiling back at me from those shelves.
I was shit out of luck. I must have searched those shelves five or six times, sinking into a further depression with each look.
We moved to Wyoming shortly thereafter. No Hollywood Video in Laramie, but we had a rather bitching high school library. I began searching out articles on Penn & Teller, printing out whatever I found in the (surprisingly) extensive microfiche archives. I still have those articles hanging around somewhere. In one, Teller gets teary eyed recalling his childhood. In another, Penn talks about how they got their start in Renaissance faires. One article talked about their current tour: Penn & Teller Go To Hell, and how it was an appropriate name for a tour that followed their motion picture debut, Penn & Teller Get Killed.
A motion picture. About Penn & Teller. Starring Penn & Teller.
After a few months in Wyoming, we moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we lived for a couple of months. Then it was on to Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was able to finish out my sophomore year in high school. Along the way I picked up a copy of their book, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends and a used copy of Penn & Teller Get Killed on VHS.
(Today a few minutes with Google turns up all the above and more. Maybe I'm just becoming a curmudgeonly Gen-X'er, but knowledge about something seemed to mean more when you really had to work to get it.)
"Bang! Bang! Bang! Does that make your empty, godless lives more worth living?" - Chris Durang as a crazed pastor, quoted from memory.I watched the hell out of that VHS tape. I still have it, and it's in really bad shape at this point. Sound is horrible, picture is ... well, about what you'd expect for a twenty year-old VHS tape that has been watched over and over past the point of memorization. Some people quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I can recite Penn & Teller Get Killed in my sleep. Subsequent viewings opened up all sorts of things I missed when I was younger and dumber: playwright Christopher Durang playing "Jesus Freak". Jon Cryer in the briefest of cameos. Tom Sizemore in a bit role. James Randi in a bit role.
The movie closes with thick dramatic irony: a slow helicopter shot pulling back from Penn & Teller's final resting place and the sound of a continuing parade of suicides as Robin Gibb sings "I Started a Joke." A perfect cinematic moment just about ruined by Penn's voiceover.
"Now we've actually killed ourselves and there's no taking that back. And this whole pullback, this is not us going up to heaven. We're just dead. I mean, those are suicides, frowned upon by every major Western religion." - Penn, in the unnecessary closing voiceoverOnly, they were not both suicides. Teller killed Penn. And he deserved it.
If you don't know, the movie is basically an escalating duel of practical jokes between Penn & Teller, beginning with a scene in the airport:
"Here! Take my underwear! I will go to Philadelphia naked!" - Penn, blowing a gasket.It's not long before the practical jokes begin touching on Penn's deathwish from the opening scene in the movie. Teller stages an elaborate long con (which gives the guys an opportunity to debunk psychic surgery in a major motion picture) culminating in a manic monologue of ... well, of Penn Jillettian grandeur:
After this grand and cruel practical joke, we know Penn is going to hit back, right? Teller has unleashed not just a simple gag involving putting things in and taking things out of Penn's pockets, but a vast conspiracy involving Penn's girlfriend and a number of actors who are completely in on it. Logic -- particularly storytelling logic -- demands that Penn completely outstrips his partner's practical joke.
And so he does. Arthur Penn does a pretty good job of hiding the strings here, to a teenage version of me at least. I went along with the ride. I took the storytelling at face value, and figured that a psycho had indeed set his sights on Penn. Now, much older and perhaps a little wiser, it seems obvious what is really going on.
Which makes this bit of dialogue especially troubling, after a gunman fires (and misses) at Penn:
"Let me tell you something mister. That had better be a blank at that window, and a squib behind that mirror, because if you hired someone to fire off a real gun between us, I don't think that's funny. Actually a even a blank and a squib is only mildly funny. This is not a knee-slapper. This is the end of the joke."
As it so happens, it's not a blank and a squib. Point of fact: Penn HAS hired someone to fire off a real gun between them!
The end of the joke, indeed.
At the end of the movie, when Penn reenters the "psycho's" apartment in a party hat, carrying a cake -- at that moment, Teller is perfectly justified to shoot. He's in fear for his life. And you know what? After orchestrating an over-the-top scenario that results in the psychological torture of his partner, Penn deserves it.
(How over-the top? The "psycho" details in throw-away dialogue how he booked his role as an acting gig like no other, one that required him to literally become the "psycho," keeping Penn's hair style and the one red fingernail even when off the clock. How much do you suppose that sort of job pays? Penn pulled out all the stops.)
It slowly dawns on Teller. He pulls a bag over his head and, laughing gleefully, says "No hard feelings" before blowing his brains out. A suicide, I would argue, that was essentially engineered by Penn.
The joke voiceover at the end is completely unnecessary. Penn has created the James Bond secret agent stuff that he wanted, and he gets killed by his closest friend. In a way, it's a happy ending for Penn. And Teller's suicide is the punchline to the darkest joke imaginable.
"I started a joke, which started the whole world crying. Oh, but I didn't see that the joke was on me." - the BeeGees, poignantly.