What one book would Stephen Colbert bring to a desert island? Answer here.
Bonus link: “Ask Ayn”
Burn After Reading (2008)
Admittedly, the only Cohen Brothers movie that I’ve ever liked is The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). But I came to Burn After Reading not realizing it was a Cohen Brothers movie. Anyway, the plot here is one part expanded love triangle (akin to Sartre’s No Exit) and the other part zany spy comedy. Unsurprisingly, the characters are caricatures, and the audience is supposed to smugly view themselves above them. Each runs about chasing after an image of themselves they want others to adopt, be it Makovich’s uncompromising intellectual, Clooney’s athletic lothario, or McDormand’s youthful striver, yet they all find no one really interested (much like Jason Alexander‘s character George Costanza can’t find anyone to adopt his desired nickname “T-Bone” in an episode of TV’s Seinfeld). The film wants to be kind of like a Kafka novel, probing the emptiness of formal law and order, but it stumbles as it mocks pretty much all of the central characters. Nobody in the film ever sublimates their venal greed and desires. Brad Pitt’s character is about the only one the filmmakers can’t mock effectively, because they never really present him as having any ambitions beyond exercising and being a dope. Put this next to Orson Welles‘ Kafka adaptation of The Trial (1962) and it seems a bit weak. Sure, there is some good acting and a few funny gags. But the film sort of preys upon “simple” folks as targets for ridicule. It would be a far more subversive film if it included some of the CIA bigwigs or other peripheral yet powerful characters in the film and also held up their stupid desires and dreams for ridicule (perhaps like early Miloš Forman films). As it stands, Burn After Reading is about halfway to a good film. But only halfway.
Drunk History Comedy Central (2013- )
There is a silly television show called “Drunk History” on a cable network in which comedians consume alcohol to the point of drunkenness and then re-tell the story of some historical incident or personality. Well-known actors reenact the story and lip-sync to the narration of the drunken storyteller, with absolutely meticulous fidelity to the words of the storyteller, belches and all. There is a hidden secret as to what makes the premise of the show intriguing. The reenactments are not faithful to “historical fact”. Instead, they are faithful to the inebriated ramblings of the storyteller. The historical accounts are like myths. The drunk storytellers clearly have some sort of script in hand, and have done some amount of research beforehand. But they act (or maybe really are) too drunk to tell the story in an articulate and nuanced manner. So the show dramatizes the myth in a way that makes the act of mythologization evident–that’s the funny part. This is like the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It also makes the show a “pragmatic reflective history,” according the G.W.F. Hegel in Reason in History (1837), because it “nullifies the past and makes the event present.”
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
Director: P.J. Hogan
Main Cast: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter
Although billed as the story of small town girl Muriel’s (Toni Collette’s) attempts to “make her own way” in the world, what is most striking about this Australian comedy is that it is catalogues the typically conflicting attempts by various characters to advance their social status. It is also well cast, well acted and well written. Oh, and, unlike so many Aussie comedies, it’s actually funny. Muriel is the daughter of an aging, insignificant local politician (Bill Hunter) with desperate, pathetic and cliched delusions of grandeur. He considers all of his family members failures, more or less, holding him back from his ambitions. Muriel leaves for the big city, Sydney, and her path there triggers events that put her family in a downward spiral. Initially desperate for the approval of the popular girls from her high school, she meets another former classmate (Rachel Griffiths) on a holiday. The two become fast friends, and share an apartment in Sydney. Muriel feigns having a fiancee, and dreams of getting married. These are the external validations she sees as crucial to her standing in the eyes of those around her. She does achieve marriage eventually, in the most demeaning way possible. Toni Collette is perfect in the title role–her big breakthrough. Her performance at the big wedding (for a change, not the end of the movie) is wonderful, and just the expression on her face walking down the aisle–giddy, silly, unjustified, embarrassingly inappropriate, gloating, uncontained joy–encapsulates much of the movie. The film always lands on its feet portraying the more-juvenile-than-they-realize aspirations of young adults in the 1990s. There is no shortage of smaller gags, and the dramatic elements are well paced, seamlessly integrated with the humorous content, and and asset to the overall work. All of the main characters seek social status, and many commit injustices against those around them to do so. The “heart-warming” ending finds at least Muriel (she changes her name at one point to Mariel–to be a different person) changing her outlook on life. Rather than seek a mild form of greatness (success in the big things of life–her version of the larger social stage) she chooses happiness (success in the small things in life–for her, friendship). What makes this treatment so successful is that the ending makes no explicit statement as to whether Muriel’s “mature” choice of the path of “happiness” is borne of her own free will or merely through a zen-like acceptance of her social position. Her father explicitly concedes to something like the latter. Her mother (Jeanie Drynan) makes a tragic, but altruistic choice of neither. Of all the characters in the film, the most selfless acts are by Muriel’s mother. Muriel, despite her supposed growth as a person, has merely evolved from pure self-interest to a kind of ambivalent “two against the world” friend pairing that has the feel of a willing compromise among those closest to her. This is the moral center of the film. It holds that you should not harm others. But in relegating the mother to a peripheral role, it puts little emphasis on selfless altruism.
Louie FX Networks (2010- )
Louis C.K.’s current show Louie may well be one of the best things on TV right now. There are plenty of other worthy shows today — Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time with Finn & Jake merits a nod, as do the likes of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang and Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, for starters. But Louie makes its mark by trying to go a little deeper than the standard sitcom fare. Take the 9 June 2014, Season 4 episode “In the Woods.” Like much of season 4, the episode, stretching to a full 90 minute timeslot, meanders and jumps unexpectedly to flashbacks. But like some earlier episodes, Louis C.K., not only the lead actor (playing a fictional version of himself) but also the writer and director, explores the significance of cross-generational social ills. In this case, it is teen entry-level drug use. But supporting that general theme there are cycles of physical abuse manifested through burnouts and bullies, and adolescent angst reflected upon by an aging, then middle-aged man. What clicks is the sensitivity of looking back upon school teachers and administrators who seem to really want kids to have opportunities, parents who care, or don’t, the kids, making angry stands against a parent, not because they know they are right but because they don’t and can’t see anyone else who seems right either. But regardless of intent, there’s an attempt to look back and analyze what was done, what failed, and make stupid best-intention attempts at something that might work better. The most basic and fundamental quality of the show, particularly across season 4, is a pervasive sense of trying to do better, of breaking out of negative cycles and downward spirals and not taking the “old ways” as a given. There is a strangely “scientific” quality to it. But of course, this is still Louie C.K. So the show makes a funny spectacle of failure. There is a Whitmanesque celebration of mistakes, which is deftly played off as a crumbling aspect of American society when it appears most strongly in flashbacks. Thankfully, the weakest aspect of his comedy, the Catholic guilt sex jokes, are kept to a relative minimum this season. Instead, one of the strongest aspects of his comedy, that of kids and trying to comprehend being a parent, has occupied center stage. Occasionally that makes the show feel like a present-day counterpart to The Cosby Show. Louie remains Louie, though. There is still a fair amount of sentimental flotsam and jetsam. But a desire for lone individuals to desperately pull off the little things in life in a society where greatness isn’t anything great gives the show some heart that puts Louie ahead of most TV shows with a dramatic element. No, the show doesn’t tackle big issues. But at least it deals with interpersonal and family relationships in a way that emphasizes a constant struggle to attempt, err and correct that seems a lot like a precursor to tackling bigger issues.