Saturday, September 4, 2010

His Gift That Keeps on Giving

by Jason Pyles

Since 1976, Actor Stephen Tobolowsky has been in about 200 films and television shows. His work is prolific and exceptional. You might not recognize his name, but you definitely know his face. Perhaps his best known role is “Ned Ryerson,” the annoying guy who afflicts Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” (1993).

My personal favorite Stephen Tobolowsky performances are those he gives during his storytelling podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, hosted by David Chen and / If you haven’t heard any of those episodes yet, it is a must. While his acting talent is notable, Tobolowsky’s remarkable stories — real-life stories — are even better. (They are so remarkable, in fact, it’s difficult not to be suspicious of some embellishment here and there. But I am told they are completely true.)

The Tobolowsky Files are just an extension of the magic captured in “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” (2005), an usual documentary whose attention is fixed on a guy telling his life’s tales while preparing for his birthday party and his subsequent entertainment at said party. I realize that must sound boring, but it’s almost edge-of-your-seat engaging. And to me it is requisite viewing.

As a true, professional storyteller, Tobolowsky relays his narratives in a specific way. To describe any of the 17-odd tales he tells during the film would be to spoil them, so I won’t even attempt it.

I’ve thought about this film and the way it serves as a video diary, of sorts. Indeed, since these stories about his life are told on his birthday, it’s a fitting, autobiographical celebration of the man.

It seems odd to shoot a documentary where its subject stares at the camera and intentionally reveals his past, unfolding his life before the filmmaker and his audience. But when you consider that most people love the cinema precisely because of its narrative construction and explorations about the human experience, this documentary seems a perfectly natural addition to filmdom. It makes me thankful for May 30, 1951, when the world was given a gift. Happy belated birthday, Stephen, and thanks for inviting all of us to your party.

Note: The deleted scenes on the DVD are essentially a second film shot under the same circumstances. I guess they had three hours of storytelling footage, and they basically had to cut it in half. If you watch the deleted stories, they’re just as good as the film itself.

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