When I sat down to interview Owen Kline about Funny Pages—a funny, scuffed gem of a film about a teenage comic-book artist—I wasn’t expecting to learn about lineups from the 1950s variety show Cavalcade of Stars. But talking to Kline is like busting open a treasure chest of old shows, movies, comics, and New York culture. Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, The Joe Franklin Show, Drew Friedman, Billy Liar, Psychotronic Video, Pastrami Queen … the 30-year-old filmmaker has a lot to share and welcomes the same in return: “I’m pretty much interested in everyone’s analysis of anything. It’s interesting when people are committed to an art form and have an opinion about it.”
That sort of fervor is the lifeblood of Funny Pages, in which young Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) flees his parents for a basement steam-room apartment in Trenton, New Jersey—the better to devote himself and his pen to the grit and grunge of life. He’s naïve and sarcastic, a mix that Zolghadri gives a certain pathos to: “Whenever he says a thing, it’s almost like he’s trying to resist saying it. There’s this quality of lashing inward as much as outward,” Kline said.
Robert’s misadventures in the worlds of comic books and semi-employment lead him through a rogue’s gallery: playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis as an oversharing mentor, Matthew Maher as a severely dyspeptic cartoonist, and impressionist Michael Townsend Wright (“He’s known Joe Franklin since he was 11 years old!”) as the basement landlord.
That Cavalcade of Stars connection, by the way, is personal: Kline read the show lineups from a typewritten catalogue he pulled off a shelf at home. The program was the brainchild of Kline’s producer grandfather, Joseph Cates, a force of nature who shepherded talents ranging from Stiller to David Copperfield (and who vacationed with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft in Hawaii, where they made a home movie called “Sadist Thompson”).
If you’ve seen Kline’s name, it might be as a child of divorce in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, or as the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. Kline grew up in Manhattan, drawing cartoons (“I was kind of monomaniacally obsessed with having a comic strip run in the newspaper”) and haunting video stores like Alan’s Alley and the Video Room. “The second three o’clock hit after high school, I’d be going to Film Forum or BAM,” he said. Kline hung out at the dearly departed Brooklyn comics shop Rocketship and found his calling at Anthology Film Archives—one of many repertory houses he still frequents.
Funny Pages premiered in Cannes but took six years to make; Josh Safdie (Uncut Gems) eventually read the script, having worked with Kline before, and signed on to produce. The movie taps into the acerbic voice and sticky characterization of cartoonist Peter Bagge, but its rough-around-the-edges oddballs might remind viewers of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. I asked Kline what he thought of Zwigoff’s 2001 film, which wraps itself in the beautiful mess of what Kline called “no-brow” culture.
“I love that movie,” said Kline, who—of course—knows Zwigoff, a fellow record-head. “We’re actually going to talk on the phone this week about trading some 78s.”
Funny Pages is in theaters now
Nicolas Rapold is a New York–based writer and the former editor of Film Comment magazine