We are in the midst of almost daily Civil War 150th anniversaries these days and savvy producers from Steven Spielberg to Bill O’Reilly are marking the occasion with commemorative projects of one sort or another. It’s inevitable that one of these would be a comedy, and the good news is, 150 years out, it is no longer “too soon”. (Laugh all you want, but 60 years was still too soon, judging by the public’s response to Buster Keaton’s 1927 The General). Anyway, Wendy Jo Cohen’s smart new mockumentary The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek doesn’t poke fun of our country’s greatest tragedy per se (how could you?), but at the much more rewarding target of documentary makers — a genre she knows intimately well from having been producing them for 15 years.
The film aspires to be “Spinal Tap meets Ken and Ric Burns’ The Civil War” and, as someone who chuckled profusely and knowingly throughout, I can attest that it almost gets there. (I might also throw in Woody Allen’s Zelig and F Troop for that matter). The Christopher Guest element consists not just in the fact that this is a parody, but it also embraces his favorite comic trope of spending 90 minutes in the company of maladroits and misfits. The tale follows the ups and downs of the 13th Rhode Island (even the name of the infantry unit is a joke) and its heroes: a dandyish, homosexual company commander; a Chinese laundryman with the unfortunate name of General Li (which occasions much confusion, this being the Civil War and all); a nerdy black drummer boy who is a genius inventor (shades of Urkel); and a one-legged prostitute. Never heard of them? That’s the joke that fuels this spoof: though these four people won this Civil War battle their deeds have gone unsung because they don’t look like American heroes have traditionally looked, i.e. male, straight and white.
The concept is inspired because it allows Cohen (credited on the web site as “Grace Burns”) to be an equal opportunity satirist, aiming her buckshot at both types of historical talking heads: the war-loving, flag-waving, curmudgeonly old white guy we associate with the History Channel; and the identity-based deconstructionists and revisionists, best represented in the film as a type by a feminist African American woman wearing a head scarf.
Now: this is nothing if not an “in” joke. This is comedy for people who watch history documentaries, people! I’d like to have been in on the pitch sessions:
“And the market for this film is…?”
But I guess you know I am right square dead center in the middle of the target audience for this movie so I enjoyed it mightily. Glancing at her IMDB entry, the bulk of Cohen’s credits over the past 15 years has been as a producer of military documentaries, so it is not surprising that she scores biggest at the technical level. It simply looks like it is supposed to look, and I am a stickler for such things, so trust me when I say it is phenomenal. In this kind of comedy art direction and prop and costume design bear an unusually large chunk of the burden, and I would say that this stuff was 95% of the way there. (The weakest link were the fabricated letters, i.e. facsimiles of 19th century correspondence. As in the Burns’ Civil War film, there are a lot of them, and all in close-up. They were fairly half-assed, but it’s possible that that’s an intentional joke). But Cohen gets so much RIGHT…the rooms in which she shoots her talking heads, the lighting in those rooms, the choice of the narrator, the sound effects. She even elicited big guffaws from me from certain camera movements!
And all that is predictable, given her professional background. She’d BETTER get that stuff right! The big surprise is how funny and how outlandish her writing is. Not just in the details of the story as I described above, which you will observe gets pretty politically incorrect, but in the framing devices with the “historians.” One of them, for example, is clearly a prostitute delivering her expert advice while turning tricks. In another scene, we revisit the site of the former battlefield (which is now a parking lot) and re-envision the battle, juxtaposing the cannon sounds with SUVs driving around looking for a place to park. Practically every shot has something funny going on.
The one aspect that stops the film short of hitting the coveted “Guest-esque” mark is unfortunately, the acting. Nearly everyone in the film is well cast in terms of type, but virtually none of them hit that sweet spot one so badly wants in a comedy of this type. This kind of thing calls for a high wire act that only masters of improvisation can pull off: you must be able to play an off-kilter character, but one who is in dead earnest, never for an instant betraying that they know what they’re doing is supposed to be funny. They can have a funny voice, a funny face, a funny hat, a funny hairpiece and say funny things. But the actors need to be playing strong intentions and they have to be absolutely serious about them. It calls for hard core pros, the kind of people who do this sort of thing all the time so that it comes naturally. I didn’t get that vibe from this film; nearly every actor tips his hand in one way or another. The star of this film is strictly Cohen, but ideally some of these talking heads would have (and should have) walked away with it. (Another cool option that would have been totally sweet would have been to stick a couple of actual historians in the movie).
At any rate, that said, I recommend it highly to the readers of this blog and it opens tomorrow March 1 at the Quad Cinema here in New York and will be playing through the next week. Furthermore, it features the talents of several peeps readers of this blog may know, including Dirty Martini, Bianca Leigh, Raquel Cion, Richard Kent Green, Tim Cusack, Bob Laine and Christopher “Kit” Lucas. At least those are the ones I know!
For show times and info at the Quad Cinema go here. And for the movies excellent web site go to http://www.pussywillowcreek.com/