By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
Digital Nation: Four Lions
Besides December 7, 1941, two other dates will live in infamy as long as wars against tyranny are fought. Americans will continue to mark September 11, 2001, for as long as there are people who can recall the sight of New York’s World Trade Center crumbling into ash and dust. For Britons still wary of being blown up while riding a bus, July 7, 2005, is the day that won’t be forgotten.
From an entertainer’s point of the view, all three dates qualify as tough acts to follow.
I can’t remember hearing any jokes told about Pearl Harbor, ever. The closest anyone’s come, as far as I can tell, is the Steven Spielberg comedy, 1941, in which Californians react farcically to warnings the same tragedy could be repeated in their back yards. By most measurable commercial standards, the 1978 release was a huge disappointment for everyone concerned.
In the wake of 9/11, members of the New York chapter of the Friars Club debated whether to abandon plans for a roast of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. The horror was fresh on everyone’s mind and some comedy clubs hadn’t even bothered to open their doors, knowing laughter was a luxury Americans weren’t yet ready to afford. Because proceeds from the roast were expected to benefit charity, the Friars Club, Comedy Club and Hefner elected to go ahead with the gig.
It wasn’t until the last celebrity roaster was introduced that the subject of 9/11 was broached. Raspy voiced hell-raiser Gilbert Gottfried decided to test the waters by explaining to the audience that he hadn’t been able to prepare for his monologue because couldn’t get a direct flight to the city: “They said they have to connect with the Empire State Building first.”
The gasps from the audience were audible on the dais, as was the loud admonishment, “Too soon!” Instead of shrinking into the woodwork, Gottfried challenged the audience by launching into a nearly 10-minute rendition of the notoriously filthy, if often hilarious “The Aristocrats” joke. It’s the kind of bit comedians tell each other backstage — embellishing the basic premise with verbal atrocities of their own — but rarely repeat before civilians. Within seconds, Gottfried had Hefner, his fellow roasters and audience members in hysterics.
He had made his point: anyone capable of finding humor in the depraved imagery of “The Aristocrats” should be ready for lampooning the fanatical beliefs that fuel the terrorists.
In his uproarious black comedy, Four Lions, British director Chris Morris also presses the limits of good taste and appropriate humor. Even before a frame of film was shot, he heard the groans from people who said that terrorism wasn’t funny and he was being disrespectful to the victims. He decided to make the movie, about jihadists inspired as much by the Three Stooges as Osama Bin Laden, anyway.
“Some people love to work up a moral lather at anything they think is inappropriate,” argued Morris, no stranger to controversy back home in England. “If Americans can handle the humor in South Park, they can handle Four Lions. We screened it in New York, before an audience of 200 people – Democrats and Republicans, alike – and they laughed all the way through it.
“They told me afterwards, ‘We lived through 9/11 and we’re sick of people taking up arms to defend us.’”
If columnist Jimmy Breslin had written the screenplay for Four Lions, he might have titled it, “The Cell That Couldn’t Blow Shit Up Right,” after his novel The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. It involves a plot by a quartet of self-declared jihadists – three Muslims and a white convert – to wreak havoc during a running of the London Marathon. Although the threat is real, the terrorists appear to be too undisciplined and stupid to pull off such a devastating attack.
People are killed, but not in the way anyone would expect them to die. A crow festooned in a bomber’s vest also is martyred.
“We knew pretty early on that everyone couldn’t live happily ever after,” Morris allowed.
Along with writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, Morris thoroughly researched terrorism, counterterrorism and Islam. They agreed the target of their humor wouldn’t be the Islamic teachings or belief. Wild misinterpretations of the Koran were fair game, however.
To this end, the filmmakers were handed plenty of ammo by police and military intelligence agents.
“We learned that a lot of potential jihadists are filtered out before they can cause any harm to anyone,” recalls Morris, whose televised satires on scandals involving pedophilia outraged viewers and caused him to be labeled, “the sickest man in Britain.” “They told one guy, he’d be of more use to them at home, knitting. We based our characters on the ‘bunch of guys’ theory, which allows for some jihadists to be acting on their own, independent of Al Qaeda or any other group.”
Nevertheless, Morris knew that he was walking a tightrope in early screenings. After one, a soldier who had been asked by the conservative Evening Standard to attend and comment wrote a column in which he identified himself as “probably the only person in the room who’s actually been in a suicide bombing … someone who’s been at the pointy end.” Surprisingly, perhaps, he became a staunch ally.
“At one stage of the movie, after one of the terrorists accidentally blows himself up in a field of sheep, one of his dispirited friends asks, ‘Is he a martyr or is he jalfrezi (a curry dish)?,” wrote former army captain Patrick Hennessey. “The joke goes far beyond the slapstick of the accidental death. The confusion over whether he has been properly martyred mirrors the genuine confusion I once heard among potential suicide bombers arrested in Helmand.
“They weren’t as worried about blowing themselves up as they were concerned that their remains would become ‘unclean’ if mixed in with those of their infidel victims. Anyone who has listened to intercepted radio communications of Taliban fighters hoping to overrun an International Security Assistance Force base to get copies of (sexy ‘lad’ magazines) Nuts and Zoo is well aware of the hypocrisy and absurdity of the enemy.”
Morris cited a home-grown cell of Canadian jihadists, who were committed to assassinating the prime minister, “but couldn’t remember his name.” Richard Reid, the British man convicted of trying to bring down an airliner with a shoe bomb, was supposed to have risen to Paradise with a co-conspirator, Saajid Muhammad Badat, who flaked out on the assignment at the last minute. Instead of finding a place to hide or destroy his bomb, Badat threw his shoes into a closet and the detonator under his bed, then forgot about them. He would be arrested at his home, evidence intact, nearly two years later.
In his column, Hennessey related another story: “In a rage over having lost a colleague, one of my fellow officers once demanded of an interpreter, what sort of a sick, twisted religion he subscribed to that could inspire a man to blow himself up like this? The interpreter shrugged apologetically and pointed to the charred remains on the roadside.
“’But this man was not special,’ he said. ‘He wasn’t any type of Muslim. He was just an idiot.’ The interpreter accepted the officer’s apology and saved our lives many times, which was no laughing matter.”
Hennessey concluded, “Four Lions is funny because its fictional jihadists are, in the end, just idiots. It’s also tragic for the same reason and the more powerful for being so.”
“That column was a piece of luck,” said Morris. “Considering that it was being written for the Evening Standard, it could have broke either way. Soldiers, like surgeons and cops, have strange senses of humor, though.”
It’s interesting to note the degree to which London and other metropolitan areas are wired for surveillance purposes. Here, police are able to locate and trace the paths of the conspirators practically from their doorsteps to the throbbing mass of humanity at the start of the marathon, and relay their findings to sharpshooters. The ability to track suspects via CATV also is demonstrated in the British thriller series, MI5.
Four Lions has been generating rave reviews and loud buzz, ever since it debuted at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. When it comes to satire, though, American audiences are a different breed of cat.
In the Loop, a film every bit as caustic as Four Lions, followed the same path to and through the American arthouse circuit. As funny as it was in depicting the frustrations associated with making critical decisions on policy, even among allies, the picture failed to find a large, appreciative audience here. This, despite some marvelous portrayals of politicians, bureaucrats and military leaders by such fine actors as James Gandolfini, David Rasche, Peter Capaldi, Gina McKee, Tom Hollander, Steve Coogan and Mimi Kennedy.
“When In the Loop was pitched as a potential TV project, someone called it an ‘absolutely shocking dereliction of duty,’” said Morris, about Armstrong’s previous screenplay. “The amount of swearing was Olympian, but it primarily was about how small and venal the people making decisions on war and other important issues can be.”
To a master satirist, power and idiocy too often walk hand in hand. Satire can also be, as George S. Kaufman once observed, “what closes on Saturday night.” After surviving a midterm election that left many Americans feeling sick about the prospects for democracy, the right medicine for a return to sanity could be found in the brave and undeniably funny British export Four Lions, and, for those who haven’t seen it already, In the Loop.