Diane Keaton's Clown Paintings

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:07

    We all have creepy clown stories to tell. Lord knows I have plenty. Coulrophobia is the official psychological term given to the irrational fear of clowns. I suffer from it, and face it?so do you. And what's more, I don't happen to think that there's anything "irrational" about it at all. People are afraid of heights and airplanes and drowning for perfectly logical reasons, too.

    People were afraid of clowns long before John Wayne Gacy, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Out of the Dark, or that rash of "phantom clown" attacks throughout the 1980s. It was around long before Laugh, Clown, Laugh, or He Who Gets Slapped or Poe's "Hop-Frog"?even before that murderous, knife-wielding clown in Pagliacci.

    The history of clowning as it's known today?with the death mask makeup and the funny clothes?can arguably be traced back to the Romans, where clowns evolved out of the freak shows. Sometimes, instead of waiting for some three-legged man to show up, it was easier to have someone dress up like a corpse and mince about.

    So yeah, the fear of clowns?or at least the recognition that clowns are creepy by nature?has been around for as long as clowns themselves have. Something, though, just makes that fear seem much more pervasive these days.

    While researching this particular phenomenon more than a decade ago, I interviewed a dozen or more clowns, and even attended the International Clown Convention in Seaside Heights, NJ. I asked each clown I encountered about the negative reactions they received from people. The response I received from every clown was inevitably the same: No one had ever reacted badly to them, they told me. They are beloved by everyone. No one had ever expressed fear, no one had ever started crying at a birthday party when they walked in the door. They all seemed genuinely confused that I'd even ask such a thing.

    I found that kind of sad.

    It's a point Diane Keaton brings up in the introduction to her new book, Clown Paintings (Lookout/Powerhouse, 128 pages, $29.95). No matter how many times you tell a clown you hate him, he'll always react with surprise. And it's that look of surprise?what she describes as "that bounce-back, sweet wonder in the face of an oncoming train"?that's found in nearly every clown painting ever produced. And it's that look, she says, that initially attracted her to the genre.

    You think of paintings of clowns, you think Emmet Kelly. My dad used to terrorize me (albeit unknowingly) when I was young with Emmet Kelly paintings, which is probably why I become so disturbed around them to this day. But Kelly is nowhere to be found in this volume, a selection from Keaton's own collection of flea market clown paintings.

    It's interesting, though. Even though most of these paintings are from flea markets, and many are labeled "Artist Unknown," quite a few have the look and feel of professional work. Maybe they were created by people with real talent who were ashamed, in the end, to admit that they'd spent an afternoon painting a clown portrait. Other works in the collection, of course, were apparently painted by fourth-graders?or by drunk and bitter men who lost their legs in the war and are now trying to take it out on the rest of us.

    So you have your happy clowns and your sad clowns, your confused clowns and sly clowns. Hobos, white-face and Auguste clowns. Some seem pensive, while others seem to be teetering on the brink of murder, while still others appear to be in pain of some sort. There's a morose Bozo in there, and more than one Death's-head clown.

    The styles, as I mentioned, vary wildly?from the hyperrealistic to the paint-by-numbers. In several of the paintings, the clown in question appears to be melting, a la the climactic scene from The Devil's Rain.

    But these 60-some full-color plates are, most likely, not the reason you'd want to own Clown Paintings. I mean, if you're like me, you spend a little too much time every day trying to avoid clowns, so why would you want to bring a bunch of pictures of them into your home? (Except maybe to frighten the neighborhood children.)

    No, the reason you'll want to pick up Clown Paintings is because Keaton?whose documentary film, Heaven, as well as her earlier book of tabloid news photos from the 40s and 50s, prove that she has a dark and twisted sense of humor?has snagged a bunch of famous comedians to contribute short essays concerning their feelings about clowns.

    So you've got Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Paul Reubens, Bobcat Goldthwait, John Waters, Woody Allen, Eric Idle and Jerry Lewis?along with a few dozen others?all writing about clowns. She even asked a few people who aren't funny at all?like Whoopi Goldberg and Chevy Chase?to write about clowns. Anything at all about clowns. Some recall childhood traumas, others contemplate some small part of a clown's anatomy (nose, gloves, wig) and others take a close look at a single painting. Some contributors write poetry or fiction. Most of them rant. And all but a few agree that clowns simply aren't that funny at all.

    I was surprised by the range and the quality of the results. Not all of them are stellar?I'd heard the Robin Williams bit elsewhere, and Ben Stiller's essay is pretty dull-witted?but a lot of them are surprisingly good for, you know, celebrity-types.

    Carol Burnett's account of her first visit to a circus ends: "They weren't funny. They were scary. There was something wrong with them, and I was the only kid in the world who was onto them."

    It's a common sentiment, especially for this collection. What makes her comments unique, though, is that she breaks through a very clear generational barrier. Other older comedians?Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts, Phyllis Diller?all love clowns the way we're supposed to love clowns. They wrap themselves in the name and carry it proudly. They love clowns with a misty-eyed nostalgia. And there's nothing wrong with that. But for the most part here, the younger the essayists get, the deeper and blacker their clown loathing becomes.

    After a while, I admit, it almost becomes a relief to read something here that isn't about how scary clowns are. I also must admit to being a little surprised that Jerry Lewis never mentions The Day the Clown Cried.

    There are a few others who break the pattern. Reubens talks about growing up near Ringling Brothers' winter headquarters, and his subsequent youthful appreciation for the clowning art. Danny DeVito (who transcribes the phone call in which Keaton tried to convince him to join the project) insists that he loves clowns.

    Come to think of it, that's pretty much it, insofar as sympathy for clowns is concerned.

    Woody Allen writes a bitter, hilarious screed about how he was never afraid of clowns?he just hated everything they did. Michael Richards is philosophical and opaque. Dan Aykroyd (who hasn't been funny in some time) explains how much he loves the American usage of "clown" as an insult. The essay by Harold Ramis is actually thoughtful?he traces modern clowning back to the court jesters of the Middle Ages, and berates modern clowns for being soft, toothless shadows of what they used to be.

    Monty Python's Eric Idle analyzes his desire to physically hurt these paintings in some way, and Goldthwait, whose film Shakes the Clown got him in loads of trouble with the clown community, comments that we get uncomfortable around clowns because "clowns give off this vibe that they are going to make you touch their penis."

    For my money, the funniest of the lot is Gary Shandling, who?after admitting that he's quite certain clowns are really good and decent and human deep down?takes a sampling of 10 paintings from the collection, and with a single line explains exactly what went wrong with each of these people along the way. "Straight and angry about it... Fell in love with a woman who turned out to be his mother."

    All in all, Clown Paintings is a pretty clever idea for a coffee table celebrity-concept book, and whatever you may think of Diane Keaton, she's pulled it off quite beautifully. I think the world's been hungry for an anti-clown clown-art book for some time. And though I may have trouble bringing myself to actually look at the pictures themselves, it's certainly a nice thing to have around, for some reason.