Unhappy days

Pub date February 23, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM Brother Theodore had a way with words. Possessed by a message he had to deliver, in monologue he’d refer to days of yore when his articulate charisma could cause “duchesses [to] laugh freely and dance like dervishes” and “the sick at heart, same-day cleaners, women’s clubs and horseflies [to follow] me in a whirlwind of ecstasy.” Those last three words, so pulpy they’re worthy of George Kuchar, are vintage Theodore. With his trademark guttural voice shifting from deep rumble to surface quake, he’d compare his sweaty skin to “rancid pork” and say he’d “rather be a contented pinworm than a tormented Brother Theodore.” But a tormented Brother Theodore he was, an E.M. Cioran-caliber comic of melancholy and misery who viewed life as a fatal disease.

Jeff Sumerel’s documentary portrait To My Great Chagrin layers performance footage of Brother Theodore (birth name: Theodore Gottleib) from different eras to create a baying chorus of Theodores: young ones, older ones, almost always sporting a furrowed brow and a silly mini-bouffant haircut. Sumerel also has small puppets mouth Theodore’s words, in a nod to the existential curse at the core of his subject’s dramatic philosophy — a philosophy born from life experience and unflinching intelligence. It turns out that the boy who became Brother Theodore played chess in a Vienna apartment with his mother’s lover, Albert Einstein, before the Nazis annihilated his family and changed his fortune from one of tremendous wealth to abject poverty.

To My Great Chagrin is at its best when it presents unfiltered — and even magnified — Brother Theodore. A fixture of the New York stage who in some ways presages performance art, Brother Theodore dedicatedly honed his monologues over the course of decades. His mid-’80s appearances on Late Night with David Letterman were such a revelation to me as a teenager that my first visit to Manhattan had to include a trip to see him perform in Greenwich Village. His hostility towards that fraternal show’s host (I remember him likening Letterman to a “fishwife”) paved the way for similar though less substantive TV stunts and pranks by the likes of Crispin Glover. In the YouTube era, those clips of Brother Theodore are beginning to find an audience again, but Sumerel’s movie provides a much fuller dose of the Teutonic titan’s towering, glowering torment. Through the wonders of recording, this fiery orator and cosmo-dynamic personality lives on, long past the prime of his senility.


Thurs/25, 7:30 p.m., $8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787