Funny Pages: Drivers of the Old Rock, by David Bax
Shortly into Funny Pages, director Owen Kline‘s feature directorial debut, there’s a brief scene set at a funeral. The eulogist, whom we only see for a brief moment, is portrayed by a man I immediately recognized, more from his voice than his face. Bob Cribbie, also known as “Avalanche Bob”–who passed away in late 2019–was a relentless and charmingly idiosyncratic self-promoter who released his first single, “Rockabilly Yodel,” in 1959 and spent the last years of his life putting his considerable energy into the invention of a new subgenre of movie, yodeled punk rock songs with lyrics that pertain solely to the topic of snowboarding. Funny Pages is in no way about Avalanche Bob–he’s only on screen for a few seconds–but I start with this digression to make it all the more impressive when I tell you that the movie is absolutely filled wall to wall with these one of a kind oddballs. Funny Pages is a character-driven movie in a whole new way.
Like many of those already familiar with Avalanche Bob, I first heard of him while listening to Jersey City, New Jersey-based radio station WFMU. That’s fitting because Funny Pages, the story of a headstrong, teenage wannabe cartoonist who drops out of high school and leaves his tony family life in Princeton to take odd jobs and toil away at his craft while living in a beyond crummy basement hovel in Trenton, feels like the most Garden State-centric movie since… Well, what do I know? I’ve never been to New Jersey. But Funny Pages makes me feel like I have.
Really, the whole movie feels very specifically East Coast with its lived-in, grimy mise-en-scène. That basement apartment, in particular, captures the way this oldest, most entrenched part of the United States has developed its own alternate, subterranean economy. Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), our hero, seems to keep his head above water (though below street level) by a series of handshake agreements that land him a not-entirely legally zoned place to lay his head and a not-entirely title-current bucket of bolts and wheels to drive himself from there to his not-entirely W2ed jobs.
Given how outside of the mainstream culture these characters are, it’s fitting that it’s actually hard to tell when exactly Funny Pages takes place. Sean Price Williams’ tactile 16mm photography certainly evokes an earlier era. But it’s perfectly possible that’s just a reflection of the backwards looking, Robert Crumb-glorifying worldview of Robert and his cohorts (there’s too much competition and bitterness among them to call them his friends).
Hopefully, Robert and his peers will eventually outgrow their oneupmanship and need to constantly compare themselves to one another and to their heroes. The optimistic read on this story of how Robert’s ambitions only bring him face to face with those who have failed at their own is that he will learn a lesson about what’s worth valuing. On the other hand, Funny Pages might just as well be forecasting a tragedy in which Robert succumbs to that same fate despite every warning. In either case, the movie is hilarious.