The Unquiet American

The Unquiet American

Reviews of Why We Fight, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.


In the family of documentary filmmakers, Eugene Jarecki might figure as a younger sibling to Michael Moore: the sober, responsible little fellow who tails a riotous big brother. Moore plays to the camera; Jarecki keeps himself offscreen. Moore ridicules his political enemies; Jarecki respects them, letting the likes of Richard Perle and William Kristol make their best case for the Iraq War. When you watch Jarecki’s Why We Fight, you find that opinions are identified as such, and dutifully balanced, and kept distinct from assertions of fact–a procedure that has often been prescribed for Moore and would probably hit him like a dose of lithium, smoothing him into respectability at the expense of smothering his oomph. Nobody would presume to medicate Jarecki–and yet, as sometimes happens with little brothers, he is in his quiet way the more unruly of the two.

His new film does little more than explain why we, the United States, fight in Iraq, and also why we have fought in general for the past sixty years. It expounds at length upon a canonical text–President Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he famously warned against “the military-industrial complex”–while piecing together a portrait of one ordinary citizen, Wilton Sekzer, whose son was among those murdered by the World Trade Center attackers. On top of that, Jarecki gives you glancing stories about other citizens (a strikingly hopeless young man who has just enlisted in the Army, a disillusioned woman now retired from an Air Force career); illustrated lectures about past US military actions; Inquiring Photographer interviews conducted in small American towns and in Iraq; professional accounts of the beginning of the Iraq War, as witnessed by the pilots who dropped the first bombs. All this and a little film history, too: Jarecki traces his title, Why We Fight, to the series of troop indoctrination films that Frank Capra directed during World War II for the Army Signal Corps.

How does all this disparate material fit together? Uneasily.

Jarecki starts with a small portion of the Eisenhower speech, elaborated with a montage of archival footage and some soundtrack music in the Philip Glass vein. Moviegoers who have seen Errol Morris’s The Fog of War will undergo a moment of déjà vu–though not so prolonged a moment as readers of The Nation will experience later, when Jarecki sets out to demonstrate that a military-industrial complex exists today, and that Dick Cheney and a company called Halliburton have something to do with it. I suppose this information will be fresh to many Americans, and I admire the precise, light touch with which Jarecki gives them the news. But except for a few brief scenes of a weapons trade show, where a pitchman for Kellogg Brown & Root performs card tricks before an audience of procurement officers, these sections of Why We Fight are devoid of memorable moments. All that sticks in the mind are phrases (bring home the bacon, revolving door) and an impression of Eisenhower’s probity.

Surrounding this presentation, and sometimes intercut with it, are Jarecki’s other items: lessons from talking heads (hello, Gore Vidal!), perfunctory chats with Middle Americans (who might have had ideas about why we’re in Iraq but didn’t share many of them), a visit to a bomb factory, more World War II footage, assembled according to an order that remains mysterious to me, even after a second viewing. Michael Moore, for all his jokey eclecticism, would have made you understand, and feel, each change of topic. Jarecki, though a far more expository filmmaker, has jumped around as if out of control. He can’t find a line through this vast and bloody subject–until, remarkably, he does, in the last fifteen minutes or so.

That’s when Lieut. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Pentagon analyst, stops functioning in the film as an expert witness and becomes a character, living out her estrangement from the forces she once served. You see that she has had to abandon something dear to her. So has William Solomon, the young Army volunteer, who is shown putting a few mementos into storage and moving out of his now-empty childhood apartment. As the film reaches its conclusion, the import of these characters’ stories converges with that of Wilton Sekzer, whose loss is the most profound of all.

A Vietnam veteran and retired New York City cop, Sekzer wholeheartedly supported the war against Iraq, finding in it some small relief for his rage and grief over the death of his son. Then he heard George Bush deny, on television, that his Administration had ever linked Saddam Hussein to the World Trade Center attack. With that, all the rage and grief seem to have struck Sekzer again at full force, joined by a new sense of betrayal.

Why do we fight? “Because we’re hurt, and our leaders lie,” Sekzer might say. To which Kwiatkowski could add: “Because it’s useful to the people in power, who don’t give a damn who gets killed.” And Solomon might chime in: “Because we’ve got nothing better to do, and the Army’s hiring.”

Not one answer, but three unruly, devastating truths.

In Albert Brooks’s new film, we get another plausible explanation of why we fight–and it may be the most unsettling of all. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World devilishly supposes that Brooks is no longer simply the character he has long played onscreen: an irritable, carping, self-deluded entertainer. Now he is all of those things and a State Department official.

All right, a State Department freelancer. (Brooks never gets the regular jobs.) Summoned to Washington from his scene of quotidian failure in LA, he is told that the President wants to go beyond “the normal ways of understanding” other cultures–“spying and fighting”–to gain insight into Islam by discovering what makes Muslims laugh. There’s no money in the assignment, and Brooks is worried about the need to write a 500-page report. (For the rest of the movie, that requirement will be like a bad tooth to him, demanding to be probed by his tongue.) But the State Department is more polite to him than was Penny Marshall at his last audition, so off he flies to India and Pakistan, with no clue about what he’s doing and no ideas in his head, other than that he’s a famous and important person.

This is unquestionably new territory for Brooks the writer-director, who has never before ventured farther than Nevada (except for a foray into the World Beyond, in Defending Your Life). The Indian travelogue he gives us in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a novelty–though perhaps not so large a novelty as it may appear. In the first place, Brooks the movie character is a magnet for whatever iron filings of American culture might be lying about New Delhi. National identity clings to him like a fuzz, padding him against direct contact with anything foreign. In the second place, Brooks retains his essential gag of being the comedian who isn’t funny. When he flops before an uncomprehending Indian audience (while doing some of his vintage stand-up routines), he isn’t being new, just redundant.

Yet I think Brooks has worked a real innovation into Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Whereas his humor ordinarily depends on deferring the punch line indefinitely, here he has delivered a punch line (only one) right where it belongs, at the end of the movie. You won’t mind my telling, will you? There’s no spoiling a joke that’s meant to be unfunny. It turns out that Brooks, like a true State Department official, has made life better for one educated, middle-class woman (played by the delightful Sheetal Sheth). And all it took–laugh it up!–was a catastrophe inflicted on two nations.

But matters of geopolitics aside, the question remains: What can you see for fun on Friday night? The best answer I can give is the preposterously funny, perpetually inventive, implausibly successful Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Because this film adapts a masterwork of eighteenth-century English literature, you will be glad to know that the tone is appropriately high. Tristram Shandy begins (more or less) with an off-color pun, punctuated by an offscreen animal noise. From this, students of Laurence Sterne’s novel (or whatever) will immediately recognize the faithfulness of Martin Hardy’s screenplay and Michael Winterbottom’s direction. Sterne wrote pee-pee jokes, and you will get pee-pee jokes, whether from the text (as in the scene of Tristram’s circumcision by a window sash) or from the filmmakers’ imagination (as in the scene of Steve Coogan dropping a hot chestnut down his pants).

For those of you who can’t remember at which Starbucks you left your lecture notes, I will explain that Sterne, the Albert Brooks of the eighteenth-century Yorkshire clergy, wrote Tristram Shandy as a book about writing a book. His narrator, Tristram, was attempting to compose his memoirs but found the process so befuddling that after hundreds of pages he couldn’t get himself born. The analogy, of course, is a movie about making a movie. Coogan therefore appears in the film as the onscreen narrator, Tristram; as Tristram’s father, Walter (by virtue of family resemblance); and as “Steve Coogan,” a self-serious comic actor who is worried that the movie of Tristram Shandy might turn out to be about someone other than himself. This someone other is “Rob Brydon,” a less famous comic actor who has been hired to play Uncle Toby, and who teases “Steve Coogan” with the relentlessness of a ventriloquist’s evil dummy.

Winterbottom and Hardy might have tried narrating Tristram Shandy simultaneously with the making of Tristram Shandy, in the Sterne fashion; but they chose instead to compose the film in two large movements. The first consists of scenes from the early parts of the book; the second (which begins abruptly, at the moment of Tristram’s birth) consists of scenes of the film crew on location, as they flirt, bicker, give interviews, look at the rushes, negotiate for more money and worry over rewrites. Part one is a kind of temporal maze, in which characters rush about from one time frame to another. Part two is a spatial maze, in which characters spend a leisurely evening and night wandering about their hotel and its grounds.

This second part of the film calls to mind Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, with vodka tonics substituted for Cuba libres. But it also substitutes tenderness, in Sterne’s fashion, for Fassbinder’s harsh laughter. “If the audience could just see Walter pick up his baby,” Coogan says, arguing for a better role for himself, “they would forgive him everything.” After which Winterbottom shows the unforgivable “Coogan” picking up his baby, changing his diaper and cooing him back to sleep.

Somehow, despite our thinking about it, babies get born, movies get made and people stumble temporarily into their better selves. If you’ve forgotten that this is cause for celebration, Tristram Shandy will remind you.

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