"To Err is Human, to Film Divine": The Films of Albert Brooks

A retrospective in New York of films directed by Albert Brooks highlight his brazenly unique brand of screen comedy.
James Slaymaker
In Modern Romance (1981), Albert Brooks plays Robert Cole, a feature film editor who impulsively breaks up with his long-term girlfriend, Mary. Feeling dejected, he skips work and spends the evening alone in his apartment, self-medicating with Quaaludes and chintzy pop music. This bravura sequence of slow-build comedy runs almost 10 full minutes, as Bob’s mental and physical faculties gradually decline while he flits irrationally between optimism, regret, rage and paranoia. Rather than using his mise en scène to enter Bob’s unstable headspace, Brooks’ camera captures Bob’s breakdown from a detached remove, framing him in a series of neutrally-angled wide shots which calmly track his clumsy motion through a series of tight, claustrophobic rooms. Brooks’ wonderfully understated performance nails the thought processes of a neurotic desperately trying to rationalize his actions while simultaneously being eaten away by self-doubt. One minute, he’s indulging in pseudo-profound, maudlin statements affirming a newfound optimistic attitude towards the future (“Music is the doctor of the soul”), the next he’s driving himself into an envious frenzy at the thought of Mary falling into the arms of another man (“Don’t have sex with Harry! Please...don’t have sex!”).
This scene encapsulates the elements of Brooks’ directorial style which make his brand of screen comedy so brazenly unique: Clumsy motion within banal, enclosed spaces; long takes that call attention to their own duration; avoidance of non-diegetic sound; minimalist compositions; off-rhythms; sluggish (though precise) comic pacing; and a lack of reaction shots and/or reverse angles. Brooks’ characters aren’t quick-witted or verbose, and his films are nearly devoid of punchlines in the conventional sense. They instead construct humor through naturalistic, character-driven set-pieces, paying a high level of attention to the minutiae of human behavior and the slow accumulation of comic details.  With its focus on excruciating social awkwardness and crescendoing humiliations, Brooks’ style had a great influence on the generation of American comedians which followed, from the highs of Tim Heidecker and Larry David to the lows of Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Central to each of the films Brooks has directed is his own, carefully cultivated comic persona: the highly strung, West Coast neurotic whose surface-level joviality barely masks a core of grotesque narcissism and self-loathing. The stories are set in motion by these men taking on a flagrantly misguided, quixotic quest. The filmmaker who longs to pioneer a radical form of cinematic realism in his feature debut, Real Life (1979); the sci-fi author who moves back in with his mother in the hopes of finding the root cause of all his personal failings in Mother (1996); the humorist eager to revive his career by using his comedic skills to bridge the rift between the U.S. and the Middle East in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005); the yuppie who turns his back on his materialistic lifestyle in the vague hope of re-connecting with authentic America in Lost in America (1985). In each case, the protagonist’s inability to escape their own solipsism and myopic perspective render him unable to achieve their idealistic goal. Although this fact gradually becomes clear for the people surrounding him, the Brooks protagonist is so delusional that he remains oblivious to the extent that his actions are negatively affecting himself and those in his orbit.
Brooks began his career as a stand-up in the late 60s, quickly earning renown on the late-night comedy circuit with his singularly cerebral, deconstructionist approach to comedy. Brooks’ most famous bits during this period involved establishing hacky comedic set-ups only to push them in daring new directions. Stand-outs included a set in which Brooks posed as a shambolic ventriloquist who lacked the ability to throw his voice and a mock mime act in which Brooks would repeatedly break his silence to ineloquently explain the punchlines of his visual jokes. During the early development phase of Saturday Night Live, Brooks turned down the opportunity to work as a permanent host, and instead offered to independently shoot his own short conceptual films which could be incorporated into the show. These would usually take a mock-documentary form, as a fictionalized version of Brooks gave the viewer a ludicrous insight into a new topic each week, such as an anaesthesia-free coronary bypass surgery and a fake ‘school for comedy’ which holds meticulous tutorials on the performance of spit takes. It was through this hands-on experience that Brooks learned the craft of filmmaking, and these formally innovative, scathingly satirical skits were quickly singled out as the highlight of a show that otherwise tended to rely on cheap-and-easy laughs directed at the lowest common denominator.
Real Life is the culmination of the techniques Brooks developed during this early stage of his career. A raucous parody of the co-opting of the cinema vérité movement by mainstream American entertainment—with the concurrent PBS documentary series An American Family being a particular object of ridicule—Real Life is structured around the tension between the fictionalized Brooks’ idealistic aspirations towards achieving total documentary immediacy and his vulgar commercialist instincts. The opening of the film features Brooks walking the audience through a series of technical innovations which have enabled him to craft a portrait of a regular suburban family with unflinching realism, yet when shooting begins Brooks appears less concerned with capturing emotional truth than packaging his documentary footage into the shape of a recognizable narrative that will not alienate his potential audience members. Unable to detach from the formal structures of mainstream narrative cinema, Brooks frets that his lead ‘character’ (Warren Yeager, an affable veterinarian played by Charles Grodin) will come across as unsympathetic, that there will not be sufficient dramatic conflict, and that the ending will be underwhelming. Despite his pretensions to artistic integrity, Brooks’ true concerns are primarily monetary. Furthermore, Brooks does not account for the significant impact that the presence of his extensive camera crew will have on the behavior of his subjects. Some self-consciously showboat for the camera, while others clam up so as to avoid airing their dirty laundry for a national audience.
While the first act of Real Life unfolds in a register of zany playfulness, the film gradually pushes into darker, more uncomfortable territory as the depths of Brooks’ megalomania and willingness to exploit others become apparent. Perhaps the most excruciating moment occurs after Brooks’ crew leads Warren to accidentally lose a prize racehorse on the operating table. Warren pulls Brooks aside afterwards to plead him to leave the footage on the incident on the cutting room floor, fearing the impact the incident may have on his professional reputation. Brooks, unwilling to sacrifice one of his project’s most thrilling incidents, awkwardly convinces Warren that the sequence will actually cast him in a positive light, putting across the image of him as a more vulnerable (and thus relatable) figure. By the end of the film, Brooks has been abandoned by the studio backing the project and the family at the film’s centre, and is unable to piece together a satisfying feature from the two months’ worth of footage he’s captured. Unwilling to accept defeat and desperate to salvage the doomed project, Brooks completely rejects his vérité ideals and wholeheartedly embraces artifice (“The audience loves fake. They crave fake. Reality sucks. I can do fake!”). Desperately scrambling to think up a huge, crowd-pleading gesture by cribbing from some of the highest-grossing blockbusters of all time, Brooks attempts to match the conclusion of Gone With the Wind by burning down the Yeager family home with little regard for the lives of the people inside. Brooks devolves into a raving, histrionic monster, cackling at the brilliance of his vision as the family home becomes engulfed in flames.
A similar—though subtler—form of obsessive egomania afflicts Modern Romance’s Bob, whose on-again, off-again relationship with the placid, patient Mary (Kathryn Harrold) is repeatedly sabotaged by his possessive nature and myriad insecurities. Despite igniting the break-up which opens the film, Bob is unable to conceive of the thought of her being unfaithful to him, leading him to track her actions in an increasingly invasive manner—he reads her mail, checks her phone bills, visits her apartment at random moments to make sure she’s alone, and follows her to an after-work social function to make sure none of her co-workers have designs on her. Although he would like to see himself as a progressive, Bob’s behavior is in fact governed by ingrained patriarchal notions of masculine entitlement and ownership. Bob is driven by a pathological desire to exert control over Mary, and he devolves into emotional hysterics when that control is threatened. Repeatedly, Bob tries to mask his misogyny in the language of paternal protection, such as when he tells Mary to change into a more conservative outfit before going to work because “there are men out there who only rape. It’s all they do.” When Bob becomes enraged at the idea of Mary setting up a date with a new partner after he has just scoured his phone book for an old flame to hook up with, Bob is demonstrating the sort of masculine hypocrisy he would ordinarily take pride in being better than. Bob sees Mary not as an individual but an object—to be protected, to be used for validation, and to fetishize. And it is the obscure nature of the desired other which leads Bob to madness. Perpetually playing the victim, Bob’s absolute lack of self-awareness blinds him to just how creepy and domineering his actions truly are, as well as the role social conditioning plays in enabling men like Bob to indulge in their worst tendencies without facing significant consequences—a form of social conditioning Brooks connects to the gender imbalance endemic in the romantic comedy genre, which the structure of Modern Romance slyly subverts.
Like the protagonist of Real Life, Bob ultimately resorts to a grand gesture as a means to avoid seriously tackling his many complicated problems head-on. In this case, Bob concludes that his insecurity can be easily cured through the sacred bond of marriage, and he impulsively proposes. The childish Bob is so blinded by the elation of the immediate moment that he is unable to consider the issues which may arise beyond it: “This part is perfect isn’t it? Well, we can work at everything else.” The couple embrace as the camera cranes outwards in a swooping motion familiar to any number of romantic climaxes, before a post-script drolly informs us that “They were divorced the following month.” On its own, this would be merely an amusing subversion of genre conventions, but the title card which unexpectedly follows reveals the true complexity of Brooks’ vision of co-dependent relationships: “They are currently dating with plans to remarry.” These two people are trapped in a dangerously toxic relationship bound together less by genuine affection that by the mutual fear of being alone. Bob, on some level, recognizes that they are incompatible as a couple, but is so consumed by uncertainty when they’re apart he repeatedly runs back to the safety net of their relationship.
The relationship drama at the center of the film is structured around two lengthy scenes of Bob in the editing suite, detailing his working processes in pain-staking detail. At first glance, this may seem to be an odd narrative decision on Brooks’ part, until one considers the parallels between Bob’s approach to his work and his approach to his love life. It is notable that a lengthy scene is devoted to Bob and his director arguing over whether or not to cut a single reaction line of dialogue, as both are aware that even a few frames removed or added could have a drastic effect on the viewer’s perception of the characters’ motivations and the events that are to follow. Similarly, Bob endlessly replays scenes from his relationship with Mary through his head, honing in on minor details while omitting others to create a warped recollection of past events. In the process, he pieces together a mental narrative which fits his own perception of Mary informed by his own anxieties and hang-ups.
“It’s time to get out. We have to touch Indians! We have to see the mountains and the prairies and the whole rest of that song!”— this is the mentality that inspires the Howards’ decision to drop out of yuppie society and embrace a life on the open road in Lost in America. When put into practice, however, the couple see nothing of America other than a handful of tacky tourist traps, an expensive hotel, and a casino floor. The film is Brooks’ most explicit exploration of the mentality of the baby boomer generation suspended between the waning counter-cultural ambitions of the 60s and the consumerist ideology that came to define the upper-middle-class under the Reagan administration. The Howards (Brooks and Julie Hagerty) have become so heavily indoctrinated into the structures of late-period capitalism and high-end consumerism that they not only unable to adapt to a life outside of society, they are unable to even imagine what a life outside of that society might entail. They try out the counter-cultural lifestyle with the flippancy of a couple choosing a themed holiday from a high-end catalogue: they liquidate their assets into a sizable monetary nest egg, buy a $25,000, fully furnished Winnebago, and quit their high-powered jobs knowing full-well that they can return anytime they want. Once on the open road, and with limitless possibilities open to them, the Howards choose to spend their first night of freedom enclosed in a Las Vegas bridal suite.
The Howards therefore harbor an abstract longing for the revolutionary values of the hippie era, yet are too afraid to act on these feelings in any substantial way. Tellingly, this vaguely defined sense of freedom and the desire to encounter authentic America is informed not by any genuine socio-political views, but by the consumption of mass media images. Yet, the notion of a life actually stripped of material pleasures is beyond their imagination. What is at work here is an insidious aspect of corporate capitalism: the mentality of the Howards has been so thoroughly socially conditioned by the structures of the post-industrial business world that they are incapable of true revolutionary or anti-establishment thought.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World revisits the themes of cultural myopia and capitalistic entitlement. Donning a fictionalized version of himself akin to the persona he adopted in Real Life, Brooks plays a middle-aged comic who spots an opportunity to revitalize his dwindling career when offered an assignment from the U.S. State Department to conduct first-hand research in India and Pakistan which will aid the government in understanding what makes Muslims laugh. It is clear from the outset that this task is fundamentally misguided; the suggestion that the geopolitical conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East can be bridged by locating common comedic ground frames Middle Eastern antipathy towards the U.S. as being the result of insubstantial cultural differences as opposed to a response to American imperialism and interventionism. Despite these faults and his own ignorance of Muslim culture, Brooks optimistically accepts the task in the hopes of winning the Medal of Honor in recognition of his altruism. Brooks is less interested in learning from the perspective of the other cultures he visits than trying to impose his own, specifically Western style of humor upon them. Upon learning that his new assistant doesn’t understand sarcasm, he treats it as an aberration rather than a result of linguistic barriers. His primary research technique involves stopping passers-by and barraging them with a string of corny American jokes until they crack a smile. The major set-piece of the film features Brooks performing a disastrous stand-up act in New Delhi, revisiting some of his own previous stand-up material to an unresponsive Muslim audience. What Brooks fails to consider is that his own deconstructionist strand of stand-up humor is reliant on a cultural context, as it plays with the conventions and clichés of modern American mainstream humour. Reflecting on the experience, Brooks pins the failure on superficial factors such as poor lighting and the timing of the event (“Everybody feels more like laughing in the evening”). Despite the lip service paid to the desire to understand another culture, when faced with actual multi-ethnic confusion, Brooks buckles. And the nature of his journey, which takes place almost entirely within gentrified hotel rooms, restaurants and offices, enable him to visit the Third World without truly experience it.
Eager to embrace foreign cultures yet simultaneously unable to see beyond the Western values that have shaped him, Brooks’ mentality is revealing of a deeply internalized, America-centric perspective. Brooks sees the U.S. not as a global superpower built on imperialistic violence, but a benevolent force concerned with establishing stability and order. It is this narrow-minded worldview which blinds Brooks to the true nature of the quest he’s been assigned, whose true aim is not to heal the rift between different cultures but rather to employ soft power as a means to enable America’s cultural and economic expansion and the protection of its strategic global position.
Fortunately, the real Brooks is scathingly critical of such ethnocentrism, and the result is his darkest, most haunting work. The third act raises the stakes to absurdist heights, as Brooks’ blundering megalomania leads him to unwittingly reignite conflict between India and Pakistan. As the countries enter a nuclear alert status, Brooks is safely pulled from the region, and helmed as a hero back in the states for simply having good intentions. The film closes on the haunting image of Brooks and his family enjoying a celebratory dinner as he is hailed as a hero for simply making the effort to ‘heal’ the cultural divide, regardless of the outcome of his quest. While a small TV in the kitchen reports of rising inter-national tensions in the Middle East, the Brooks clan are distracted by a slow globe of the Taj Mahal bought by him at an American gift store—a vulgar, Westernized symbol which reflects our hero’s blinkered view of the world.
"Albert Brooks" is running October 5 – 10, 2018 at the Metrograph in New York.

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