Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 19, 2010 7:54 am 
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Humor with an enlightening bite

"If a terrorist organization wanted to knock out the moral compass of Britain," Chris Morris once announced, "all they'd have to do is to kill 100 celebrities at random. The entire country would have an instant nervous breakdown." This is the voice of a comedian with a gift for outrage. In the late Nineties Morris started the TV show Brass Eye, a series of satirical mock documentaries that scandalized people in 1997 and 2001 by tricking English public figures into supporting fictitious and often absurd charities and causes. Morris's comedy is confrontational, but deft enough to get the better of its targets before they know what's hit them.

Morris's comic film Four Lions goes in a slightly different direction, taking on a subject that neither Brits nor Americans tend to find at all funny: locally grown Islamic terrorism. The film's jihadists were born and bred in England. They have the fundamentalist Muslim look of beards and caps, and mostly Pakistani family origins, but they call each other"bro" or "mate" and speak with the accents of the North of England. For them, suicide bombing seems to seem almost patriotic. It's just the thing to do. It will bring honor upon them, they think, and send them straight to heaven.

What's radial and shocking for Americans about Four Lions is its daring to approach this subject at all, and find it funny. But it has a simple and perhaps valuable, even curiously reassuring, serious point: As the Sundance blurb said when the comedy was shown at that festival in January 2010, this movie "shows that- - while terrorism is about ideology -- it can also be about idiots." This film points to a larger truth that jihadists can be really dumb. 9/11 was a huge and terrible tragedy for its thousands of American victims and indeed for the world at large. The repercussions continue to cause irreparable damage. But for that and a few other successful and largely tragic attacks, many have fizzled or been foiled, or caught out, as they often are, because of their clumsiness and incompetence, like the chap who tried to blow up his shoe. By taking these fellows seriously, we give them the advantage. In this, comedy is a valuable weapon.

Beyond this, the whole idea of terrorism itself as a worthwhile and noble endeavor is stupid. If they think they are making the world better for others or for themselves, jihadists are woefully mistaken (as in most cases are those who think invasions can spread democracy).

Four Lions is madcap humor. Morris's jihadists wind up in big puffy clown suits trying to invade the London Marathon. The movie presents us with the group's charismatic (and more energetic) leader Omar (Riz Ahmed), a nice young man with an adorable wife and son who do nothing but urge him on in his plan, which they, like he, think is honorable and right. This is the most disconcerting and disturbing aspect of the story. Omar is assisted by his doltish sidekick Waj (Kayvan Novak), along with the non-Pakistakni Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the musically-inclined Hassan (Arsher Ali), and the dangerously terrified Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) -- who is the first casualty in a series of fatal errors, based, according to Morris and his writers, Jesse Armstrong of In the Loop and Sam Bain, on actual would-be terror plots in Britain. Faisal is training crows to fly around with bombs strapped to them. Hassan is a rapper-terrorist wannabe; his rap aspirations show how confused these mixed-culture boys are about their ideology and style. Hassan disrupts a public meeting by pretending to be a suicide bomber, only with party poppers instead of explosives: "It's the gesture/ That messed ya!" he boasts. Idiocy in terrorism, like so many strange things, is an everyday reality. Blowing yourself up is not as easy as it may look. Blowing yourself up and taking a bunch of other people and property with you is a lot harder still.

The boys keep fouling up their attempts to make the routine pre-martyrdom video. Glumly going over these on his laptop, Omar calls them the "blooper" outtakes, as if he were compiling a DVD bonus feature of his own and his pals' imminent deaths. It's all so confused -- and so true of contemporary media-driven life.

One must point out that Four Lions by intent has absolutely nothing to do with Islam or its tenets, which involve a central focus on submission to the will of God and the pursuit of peace. And while the topic seems outrageous, something Al Qaeda was used for a recent movie out of India (with a Pakistani star) that the NY Times called "a likable, gently satiric Bollywood film" this year, Tere Bin Laden (Abhishek Sharma 2010) -- which I saw, but did not review. Both Terre Bin Laden and Four Lions have a madcap, somewhat disorganized quality. But Terre Bin Laden is milder in its import. The hero wants to win a free trip to America, so he fakes an interview with Osama bin Laden to gain caché as a journalist, using a poultry farmer bin Laden lookalike. Mayhem ensues, but not fatality.

Omar and his pals never think about why they're doing what they're doing. They're not thinkers (though Omar is not only a nice family man but not as dumb as his cohorts). They're men of action. But of course that's a delusion, because effective action is beyond them.

Four Kings is not devastatingly well-made. Its dialogue is funny, slangy, profane, burt hardly incisive. This is at best as good as a middling "Monty Python" episode, no more. But overall Morris and his collaborators wield the weapon of black comedy as a force for political enlightenment. As Peter Bradshaw notes in The Guardian, Morris is "brutally unimpressed with the moral idiocy of suicide bombing and suggests that the only sane response is derisive laughter." A viewpoint that might be empowering, especially for Americans.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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