Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Real Life (1979, Albert Brooks)
Real Life is more prescient than funny, sometimes eerily so. One of the earliest examples of a comedic fake documentary, and Harry Shearer can be seen briefly. The opening text crawl name checks Margaret Meade in her assertion that PBS' 1973 television documentary An American Family has opened up a can of worms for the exploitation of real people's lives on camera, which she praises as a new art form akin to the birth of the novel. Albert Brooks seems to have taken inspiration from the unmentioned fact the couple whom PBS focused upon filed for divorce during the filming. Playing himself, Brooks is the butt of the joke as his pretensions to artistic discovery cause chaos. He can't help inserting himself into the proceedings. Has any documentary director ever really?
Unlike a lot of reality tv spoofs in the years subsequent Real Life, Brooks satirizes the notions that pointing cameras at real people and events legitimizes them and thus emancipates them from mediocrity. Brooks' handheld quality short films on the original run of Saturday Night Live established him as something of a verite humorist, the type of which we recognize today in The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Spoofing his own reputation, Brooks opens the film with an address to the city council that can't help but end in showmanship for the cameras. Brooks' misguided dreamer persona is very similar in his '85 Lost In America, which also has a light intellectual premise that calls the romantic dreams of intellectuals into question. Like Preston Sturges' John Sullivan, his fascination with the little people, or non-entertainers, is asking for trouble. Unlike him, Brooks is going to cause the trouble for others.
Charles Grodin and the rest of the family are naturalistic and always in counterpoint to Brooks' fetishizing their normality. The fame doesn't really go to their heads, even Grodin's wife Frances Lee McCain passes up the chance for an affair with Brooks at one point. Brooks contrasts himself with "real people" as the lifelong entertainer who doesn't know anything else and makes comedic asides to the camera as the subject of his film go to pieces. The lives of ordinary people don't get corrupted by the self-awareness of cameras, posterity and/or fame, they get outright destroyed by its emissaries.
Brooks' comedy is never funny on a gut level, only intellectual. As a result the irony of the story becomes more memorably chilling, like a fable for modern times and neurosis. Modern Times has stood the test of time as satire by coming true as, to paraphrase another satirist, more people than ever in real life get their 15 minutes.