When making a movie comedy it has been proven time and again to be relatively impossible for the film to be successfully self-aware. In most cases, the filmmaker is forced to adopt tactics that take both the audience and the characters out of the fictional reality of the film narrative. Consider the films of Woody Allen; he is a filmmaker who expresses, in his efforts toward self-awareness, the importance of his own intellectual credentials and his own filmic knowledge in thinly disguised references. To achieve what can best be called intellectual filmmaking for the pretentious, Allen often stages himself as one of the characters in the film addressing the camera and in turn the audience. There is a Romantic playfulness to the fact that Allen’s characters are aware of the fact that they inhabit the world of a film. This of course is reinforced when those same characters in the same films enact variations of scenes by well-established film directors such as Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Lewis, and Dreyer. Another approach to addressing the farcical nature of film within the confines of film comedy itself can be found at its best in Louis C. K.’s Pootie Tang (2001). Pootie Tang has a lot to offer as satire, but its framing of an entire feature film within a feature film serves as the most blatant kind of self awareness. At the beginning of the film, Pootie Tang (Lance Crouther) appears on a talk show where he introduces a “clip” from his latest movie. This “clip” is essentially the film itself, accompanied with a bookend of Pootie Tang, still on the talk show, after the clip has finished. The duration of the clip itself within the reality of the Pootie Tang world indicates an indictment on the filmmaker’s part of egotistical excess and the inflation of America’s infatuation with celebrity. Another product of the clip’s duration is that it enables the audience to forget that they are watching a film within a film, and Louis C. K. is able to suspend the audience’s disbelief twice in the course of one film. But both Louis C. K. and Woody Allen are addressing reflexivity in their comedies by implementing a decidedly modern mode of filmmaking that negates traditional narrative form and character.
Perhaps it is a matter of taste when it comes to comedy, but I tend to think that less is more in the American films made post the Hollywood studio system. The flamboyant and bombastic tone of Woody Allen films has little to offer beyond their initial superficial engagement for reasons self-evident. To contrast Annie Hall (1977) or Pootie Tang in terms of successful reflexivity in comedy, it becomes only logical to turn to the early films of Albert Brooks.
Strangely, Brooks’ most biting and filmicly referential comedy is also his film that is the most like the aforementioned pictures, Real Life (1979). In Real Life Brooks plays himself as a smarmy and pretentious film director who has undertaken a year long documentary on the life of a single suburban family with not only pomp and circumstance, but a myriad of scientific teams and technological innovations. In one fail swoop Brooks manages to lampoon reality television, film directors, American suburbia, studio executives, and any other party having even the least bit to do with the film industry. Brooks even makes reference to a number of other significant films, such as Gone With The Wind (1939), without having to take his characters out of their own reality with either visual recreations of other films or with monologues delivered to the audience. In effect, though Real Life is about a man making a film, the characters in Real Life are never aware of the film we the audience are viewing, only that film which exists in their world. Another courageous decision on the part of Albert Brooks is to play a character of him named Albert Brooks. Brooks intends to accept reality as a hyper fiction rather than hyper fiction as reality the way Woody Allen does when he appears in his own films.
Albert Brooks’ second feature, Modern Romance (1982), again deals with a man, Robert Cole, (played by Albert Brooks) who works in the film industry, though this time he is a foley artist rather than a director. Cole is obsessed with his on again off again girlfriend Mary (Monica Johnson), and it is this rollercoaster courtship that composes most of the narrative in Modern Romance. But Brooks is equally interested in the work and the situations created by that work that a foley artist finds them in. James L. Brooks (who directed Albert Brooks in Broadcast News) has a cameo as the director for whom Robert Cole is working. The film within Modern Romance is a low rent Star Wars knock off starring George Kennedy. Cole consistently complains that this is the only kind of work he has been getting, essentially giving voice to Albert Brooks’ own condemnation of the popular blockbuster film. Other comical asides that creep naturally into the narrative of the film include the regular ingestion of speed by the sound editors, a fact few outside of the industry are privy of.
As in Real Life, the reflexivity or self-awareness in Modern Romance is motivated by the circumstance of the film’s narrative rather than by the film’s director. Brooks takes an even more subtle approach to his study of how Americans see movies and the people who make them in his third feature Lost In America (1985). Unlike its two predecessors, Lost In America does not focus on a protagonist whose professional occupation involves the film industry. This time out Brooks plays David, an advertising executive who, when passed up for promotion, quits his job, invests everything he owns in a motor home and drives across the country with his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) just like in Easy Rider (1969). For the unhappy yuppie couple of Lost In America it is that Romantic notion that Easy Rider imbued to their generation that prompts their journey. David makes numerous references to being “just like Easy Rider” throughout Lost In America, though less and less often as the couple loses everything they own and ends up living in a trailer park, only to “sell out” to survive. Lost In America is the most bitter of Albert Brooks’ first three films, concerning itself exclusively with the impossibility of the dreams and expectations propagated by the cinema and their effects upon a susceptible audience.
Examining these three films it’s almost deliberate that the protagonist of each film takes the audience one step further away from film production and one step closer to the audience itself. The primary strength Brooks’ films derive by making their self-awareness circumstantial is that that reflexivity can be incorporated and in some cases inform the sociological aspects of the films’ satire. What’s strange is that although Albert Brooks provides the perfect blueprint for such a popular form of comedy filmmaking his films are among some of the most overlooked and under appreciated.