Sunday, April 17, 2011

Humor Risk

Wild Target (2010) is rather a standard issue British black comedy, an aesthetic which posits death as the ultimate cosmic joke. Based on a film by French people, who first discovered black comedy and then wrote long boring essays about it quoting Hegel, who, you should know, is not funny at all. But then humor is not funny to the French, or else they would not admire Jerry Lewis, who makes movies that look as if they might be funny, or are planning to be funny in the near future, but somehow never quite get there.

Anyway, Wild Target is rife with stray bullets and inconvenient dead bodies and is funny like a mousse is tasty. Really enjoyable right now, but it just doesn't stay with you. Everybody involved does a good job until some git insists that the story have "an emotional through-line" which is an idea usually confined to Hollywood development executives. So we are meant to care about the heartaches of a middle-aged hitman, and only the fact that the role is played by the estimable Bill Nighy makes it tolerable.

But the worst failure is the failure of nerve over the central joke - we all die - and the compounding joke that our death doesn't matter to anyone, other than a very small core of family and friend. Our death will do nothing to stem the vast tides of life washing over everybody, and our greatest responsibility upon dying is to get the hell out of the way. But those who die in Wild Target are either unknown or of no consequence, which completely vitiates the power of the joke. So all the film earns is a few quick gasps of surprise at the outset, and then it settles into an everyday screwball romantic comedy, surrendering any claims it had to being audacious or unique.

Moreover, the film asks us to accept that being a hired political assassin can be a long-term occupation, handed down from one generation to the next and permitting a quiet upper middle-class existence, which might be intended to increase our identification with the central character, whereas the sheer unreality of the idea has the opposite effect.

Four Lions (2010), on the other hand, dares all and reaps the reward of that risk. Although the principal characters are ethnic Arabs raised and living in London (and don't all Americans love seeing brown and black people with those cute London accents?) they are people with jobs and families and in one case, hopes for his children. They seem to have drifted into jihad in order to find greater purpose in their lives and, most importantly, to form fraternal bonds that root their lives. That is, the film is coated with a surface of political satire, but at its heart it is, as its director describes it "The Hangover with bombs."

Some of the humor follows traditional British verbal satirical tropes, as in the character of Barry, a non-Arab former reactionary who has (mis) read the Koran, converted himself, become radicalized in much the manner of Life of Brian's People's Front of Palestine. Here's Barry making a video:

But, as it must in a comedy about terrorism (those are odd words to type), the joke has to go past words. Here's our first inkling of things to come:

The would-be bomber, Faisal, undergoes some cosmic justice for this insult to the animal kingdom. In fact, this very joke keeps spiraling up and up, finally past the point of humor, which is, ultimately why Four Lions might be called transcendent. It is not afraid of how big a joke it's making, and sees it to its logical conclusion; although not in a joking way. After all, these men do have real lives, real families and real grievances, though they be clueless as to how to address those grievances, both politically and practically. The mock-doc style -- improvisation-type acting (although reportedly there was little real improv on the set), jittery camera work, sharp editing all bolster the film's roots in reality.

Personally, it's a mode I think comedy should always aspire to -- you laugh and laugh and laugh until you are made uneasy about what you've been laughing at. Because laughter is distance, and by implication, cruelty and condescension.

Which is a natural attitude to adopt toward K. Roth Binew, the central character of The Living Wake (2007). This may be the most deliberately eccentric movie of the first decade of the century -- it certainly seems to be aiming for that distinction.* And in pursuit of that goal, the risks it takes are tremendous, the results mixed, but not without some successes.

Binew is a self-proclaimed artist who is about to die of a deliberately vague fairy-tale movie disease and spends his remaining time settling scores and preparing his own send-off. His concept of creativity is to hand-create a terrible morbid story "for children" and then insert the book onto the shelves of the local library, where he delivers the story itself in person:

The film takes place in some odd made-up New Englandy world in which no one lives but the characters in the story (a hallmark of ultra low-budget filmmaking). But whether or not it was an economic necessity, the strange Mr. Binew is deprived of any sort of context. Yes, he is part of a small circle of lunatics, including a bitterly hated rival (played by the immortal Eddie Peppitone) who rides by flinging slices of ham steak to demonstrate his contempt for Binew. The isolation is unnerving. (There is a scene with a psychic that looks as though the shots had been grabbed when the crew discovered an abandoned shack.)

The result is reminiscent of those well-intentioned low-budget film versions of plays such as Godspell or works of the American Film Theater in which film adaptation consists solely of taking the sparsely populated closed universe of the play and putting it against a grand landscape, which only amplifies the artificiality, rather than vitiating it. And if the characters are whimsical or eccentric, then there is almost nothing the film medium can do to lend plausibility or identification to such a narrative. The Living Wake treads the line between a determined piece of outsider humor and a "hey-let's-get-our-crazy-friends-together-and-make-a-movie" ethos.

Here's an example of the home movie sort of whimsey that the film not only lapses into, but is virtually built on:

Yes it's funny, but it's theatrical, and sketch-oriented, rather than being a sustainable arc of character-based satire. The Living Wake is funny, but perhaps it should not be watched in a single sitting. Broken up into 10 or 15 minute chunks, this might be one of the funniest films of its decade.

Like it or not, you can't deny it's brave, and for that it deserves more praise than the cautious faux-noir humor of a Wild Target.
* The film is available on both Hulu and Netflix streaming, so you can easily test my assertions against your own assessment.

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