Film: Trapped in Eden

We are never so funny to others as when we are least funny to ourselves. This seeming paradox is the piston that drives the engine of comedy. In the greatest of all comedies—the Shakespearean tales of romantic reconciliation and their operatic counterparts, Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte—a pompous man’s thick carapace of earnestness is penetrated by humiliation. All at once, the unwitting butt of the joke realizes that he, too, partakes of the human condition, and is thereby made whole. It is in these transformative moments that the moral force of comedy is most evident, for it reminds us that we are not gods, merely men.

That’s one way to be funny. Another is to show us serious people who not only don’t realize how funny they are but never acquire any insight into their condition, wrapped as they are in their own bulletproof dignity. This sheer obliviousness is what makes them funny to us—but it also tempts us to feel superior to them, and that is a dangerous business, an invitation to vanity. This, I think, is the reason why women as a group tend to squirm at pure farce, for it outrages their protective instincts. Farce, after all, is a peculiarly hopeless kind of comedy, one in which the dignified boob learns nothing from his elaborately prepared Calvary of embarrassment. Instead, he is utterly vanquished by the other characters—and by the audience. Men naturally think in such triumphalist terms, but most women don’t. They want the victim (if he is a man) to learn from his misfortune and be the better for it.

Christopher Guest, who wrote This Is Spinal Tap and went on to direct and cowrite Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and, most recently, A Mighty Wind, is no farceur, but he understands as well as anybody making movies today that the world is full of earnest, ordinary middle-class folk who are funny to everyone but themselves. They are his bread and butter, and he toasts them on both sides, spoofing their idiosyncrasies with the uncanny accuracy of the natural-born satirist. The results are always funny, often howlingly so, and very definitely at the expense of Guest’s characters, who come off looking like…well, idiots. Yet for all the scalpel-sharp precision of his satire, Guest’s films are rarely if ever cruel. How does he work this little miracle of mercy?

The answer lies in the cinematic form he has created, the “mockumentary,” a satirical pseudo-documentary about the activities of a group of fictional characters who are in the grip of a collective obsession. In This Is Spinal Tap, the parties in question are the members of a moderately successful heavy-metal band that has hit the skids; Waiting for Guffman is about a little-theater group whose members dream in vain of being invited to take their small-town pageant to Broadway, while Best in Show takes us inside the bizarre world of competitive dog shows. In all three films, the worldly stakes are low (even the members of Spinal Tap were never that famous), but the obsessions are no less powerful for their essential triviality.

Part of the fun of these movies, of course, is the sheer preposterousness of the notion that anyone would want to make a movie about such insignificant folk. (One of the most subtle aspects of Guest’s films is the way in which they also spoof the pompous conventions of documentary filmmaking itself.) But in the Age of Warhol, we take it for granted that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, and so Guest’s protagonists never for a moment question their worthiness. Therein lies the key to his comedy, for he refuses to puncture their pretensions. The camera is pointed at them, therefore they are important, and he never forces them to look in the mirror and confront their foolishness. In one sense, their condition is hopeless, but in another it is perfectly hopeful—or, to put it another way, perfectly innocent.

In A Mighty Wind, a mockumentary about a reunion concert by a group of 1960s folk musicians, Guest’s method can be seen at its most acute. The occasion for the concert is the death of Irving Steinbloom, a folk-music impresario whose unmusical son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), decides to pay tribute to his late father by producing a televised concert at New York’s Town Hall that will feature three of the long-forgotten acts that the elder Steinbloom made briefly famous. Foremost among them are Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), who once charmed America with their lovey-dovey warbling but have long since gone their separate ways, Mitch to a mental hospital and Mickey to a sedate suburban marriage to a titan of the “bladder control industry.” (Levy also cowrote the script, a good deal of which, as usual with Guest, was improvised by the performers.)

In Guest’s movies, what passes for satire is often only a slightly heightened version of reality. The watery ballads sung by Mitch and Mickey, whose biggest hit was “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” could almost be passed off as authentic, and as for the eupeptic, squeaky-clean New Main Street Singers, who once appeared regularly on network TV but have long since been relegated to the theme-park circuit, a friend of mine who used to sing at Disney World assures me that they, too, are eerily close to the real thing. This is typical of Guest, who never stresses his satirical points, preferring to let them register almost subliminally. (That’s why his films are just as much fun the second time you see them—you miss so much the first time around.)

Various sober-sided writers have pointed out that the folkies of A Mighty Wind are not nearly as socially conscious as were their real-life counterparts (though one of them does have a bee in his bonnet over the Spanish Civil War). Aside from suggesting the possibility that Guest might want to consider making a mockumentary about film critics, this objection completely misses the point of A Mighty Wind, which is, so to speak, not about Pete Seeger but the Kingston Trio. In addition, it also overlooks the way in which A Mighty Wind, unlike Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, allows its imaginary subjects a not-inconsiderable measure of worldly triumph. For their concert is successful, the PBS telecast does come off as planned, and even though they all return to their hum-drum lives at film’s end, they do so with delusions intact and one last hurrah ringing in their ears.

Best of all, Mitch and Mickey even have a moment of something like reconciliation, though, of course, it is not accompanied by any transforming insight into their own absurdity, a forgivable omission that nevertheless keeps A Mighty Wind from being even better than it is. Like all of Christopher Guest’s addled characters, Mitch and Mickey feed off their fantasies, never once eating from the Tree of Knowledge. They are trapped in Eden, doomed to live forever in a world of innocent illusion, blissfully unaware that we are laughing at them—and at ourselves.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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