Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thrown to the Lions

Morris's return will reignite the debate about humour and taboo

Last week Billy Connelly, in his twilight years as a leading British comedian, stoked the flames of the old debate about the remit comedians have to push the boundaries of comedy, flirt around (or not) taboo subjects and advance ever further into the heart of dark humour.

Connelly was talking specifically about the outrage performers can invoke through swearing, which is rather self-serving given that the man can barely deliver a joke without punctuating every pause for breath with an obscenity, but personal taste aside, it was a timely, if moot, stirring up of the debate. One of the most divisive comedians and satirists of the last two decades Chris Morris returned to the public eye at Sundance, finally unveiling his latest work: a comedy about British jihadists. What else?

Morris, made infamous by his Brass Eye special (some nine years ago now, which itself was four years after the original series), still retains the mysterious, unflinching and publicity-shunning satirical edge that enveloped him during the fallout from the 'Paedophilia special', and has given his customary lack of media time to promote this début feature, his first major work since Channel 4 series Jam. Critics have already begun to advise who it will offend, though since showing at Sundance it has been largely well-received.

Many will look at Morris's film as just the latest in a line of controversial treatments of difficult subjects, given his history, but that is to discount Morris's acute contextual awareness. Terrorism, at home and abroad, has been a heated political, cultural, religious and social issue post 9/11*, but it has yet to be properly and overtly approached by humour, though it provides a decent source for stand up material. Britain's broad position on terror, from abhorring wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to harbouring concerns over Muslim schools, and the conflicting policy on religious preaching, has since the London attacks in July 2005 descended into increased confusion. Out of that, though, there is much humour to be found, reckons Chris Morris, and he's approached it from a particularly thorny and - following the failed plane bombing on Christmas Day 2009 by a London University-educated man - pertinent angle.

*(That said, there is a painfully funny 'Easter Egg' on The Day Today DVD whereby Morris conducts a telephone interview with Peter O'Hanarahanarahan, who should be covering a business conference taking place in the Twin Towers later that day (September 11th 2001) but quite clearly, it emerges, isn't there).

Does the subject's high profile in the media and penetration of cultural and political zones sanction, or indeed call for, a film being made specifically to raise a laugh? If a certain topic is capable of stirring up emotions such as anger, confusion, compassion, then why not humour also? If art imitates life - and Morris reveals that he was in part inspired by a report of a real failed terrorist attack - it is not to suggest that the imitation can only serve as a mirror and end there.

One of Morris's greatest skills to date has been holding that mirror up to an audience, warts and all, letting the eyes see and the brain disbelieve. It might forever be his albatross, but the hysterical fallout from Morris's Brass Eye 'Paedophile Special', a 'mockumentary' about hysterical fallouts to taboo like paedophilia, transcended the boundaries of satire, humour and social commentary with a peerless brilliance, exactly because it probed at something that was at the time the most controversial of subjects.

The difficulty, or genius, of this type of work is the way in which it is received. Politcial and media outlets dispense and encourage an accepted stance on contentious issues like terrorism, which becomes a stock and recognised view. The reaction to acts of terrorism, quite clearly, is one of shock and disgust. Sometimes outrage and war. But what happens when the issue is displaced, in two ways: by treatment from a different source, namely a film, book or even song lyric, and secondly, in a manner which deliberately contradicts what might be a 'generally-accepted' view?

Imagine this scenerio: a family and guests mourn the passing of a grandmother at a funeral service. As they go to leave they realise her husband, the grandfather, has died during the service. Aside from the morose real life reaction to this, consider the ironic comic possibilities were this a scene in a sketch show: discount for repeat customers, 2-for-1 coffin offer, loyalty card etc etc. This is the detached treatment that art's (un)limitation allows, for any subject matter going.

For a film, as a piece of art, is not limited by an audience or a market, nor by an overarching agenda - unlike the media or political arenas - it will find or make its own. (Whether or not it is then successful is a different matter). It is perhaps fair to say that a film is not and cannot be barred from touching certain subjects simply by its being.

It's more a question of the boundaries writers and performers like Chris Morris and Billy Connelly should or shouldn't impose, in the search to find new angles from which to approach topics, and even to find new topics themselves. Because the less interested in your work the audience is, the quicker it will fade and be forgotten about. And the key point is, for a film like Four Lions, 'interested' doesn't have to mean amused or impressed; it could just as well mean shocked, furious and upset.

But Morris hasn't simply made this film by sticking a number of touchy subjects to a dartboard and taking aim, in order to goad a reaction out from the typical Daily Mail reader. Firstly, while the issue is contentious, it is still 'on-topic' and as a piece of work slots into the current cultural context. Secondly, as a film, the treatment of British terrorists as a source of humour presents the interesting spectacle of whether it will even succeed in its intentions to make people laugh. Often, the closer to the bone, the bigger the risk - and the laugh. Morris is of course well of this, but even so, for a début commercial feature and his first major work in some time, it's a bold opening salvo.

But the third and most important point is that humour does not undermine or belittle that which it uses to raise laughs. Because as Morris himself says, terrorism matters. A film like Four Lions might treat it in a way which might be different, but that is not necessarily 'offensive'. If it makes people think about terrorism in a different way, exposes subtleties to the subject because of the unusual angle, then it serves a purpose of simply adding a voice, a side to the story, on a very broad, current, feared and often misunderstood topic. If Four Lions makes people roar with laughter, and it makes some of them think as well, then, really that's all there is to it.

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