Folk Explosion

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Christopher Guest isn’t just a filmmaker; he’s a collector. He collects people—as many as he can pack into one movie. A Mighty Wind, about 1960s-era folk musicians reuniting for a benefit concert in New York, is a treasure chest of human oddity, brimming with deluded, myopic but mostly decent people all nursing pet obsessions.

Consider a pair of married folk musicians (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch) fronting a vaguely franchise-y folk group called the New Main Street Singers that is seen performing at an amusement park, in front of something called the Whiplash Rollercoaster. Higgins’ character, Terry Bohner, is a polite, unsentimental, tightly wound nice guy who inflicts minor punishments on bandmates who don’t perform exactly to his specifications; with his soft-voiced, quasi-military demeanor, he could be an assistant track coach who found Jesus. ("There was abuse in my family," he says, "but it was mostly musical in nature.")

Lynch’s character, Laurie Bohner, is a one-time porn actress who became famous for a particular talent that she no longer names. The Bohners have similarly straight posture, and when they listen, they’re like soldiers trying to memorize the details of a mission. They describe their belief system (they don’t like to call it a religion), which is based, Laurie says, around the worship of "the awesome and vibratory power of color." The phrase is hippie-dippy wonderful, and Guest follows it by cutting to Ted, Laurie and other color worshipers chanting in a dark room, wearing star-spangled witch outfits and clutching sparklers.

And yet, somehow, A Mighty Wind doesn’t dismiss the Bohners (an activity that is, I believe, still illegal in Georgia). It listens to them; it takes them much less seriously than they take themselves, but it does, in fact, take them seriously, and that’s what makes A Mighty Wind a great comedy—Guest’s most nuanced, controlled, expertly acted picture so far, and perhaps his deepest.

A Mighty Wind has at least a dozen recurring characters in addition to the Bohners (whose last name is the film’s only cheap joke, but hey, I’m smiling as I type it). There’s Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban), the tone-deaf, neurotic, arrogant son of a recently deceased music manager, who is trying to organize a commemorative folk concert at Town Hall in New York City. (In his youth, Steinbloom founded the Jewish Children’s Polo League.) There’s Town Hall manager Lawrence F. Turpin (Michael Hitchcock), who takes the concert as an opportunity to show off a talent for flower arrangement. There’s the polite but bickering Folkmen (Michael Mc-Kean, Harry Shearer, Guest), who resent the New Main Street Singers for making music that sounds like a toothpaste commercial, even though their music is just as affected. (Guest boasts a vibrato you could throw a cat through; he sings like a hobbit.) Most poignant of all are one-time lovebirds Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) whose most famous duet, "There’s a Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," included an onstage smooch, and whose divorce might not have driven Mitch insane, but definitely didn’t help. (Mitch’s first solo album after the breakup, A Cry for Help, pictured him in a straitjacket.)

Guest’s films as cowriter or director (This Is Spinal Tap, The Big Picture, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) tend to be heavily improvised in collaboration with a stock company that includes Guest himself, a super-intense but gentle soul who might be the de Niro of comedy. (As a flannel-clad coon dog owner in Best in Show, Guest used his voice like a bassoon, and he seemed taller somehow.) Instead of a detailed script, Guest and his cowriters (usually Shearer, Levy and Mc-Kean) give the actors lists of elements each scene must contain, and they improvise and then refine their own dialogue. Guest and his crew shoot the performances cinema verite, circa 1977 or so, but the style isn’t rigid; the nonfiction trappings are there mainly to enhance the characters’ quirkiness, and to express Guest’s documentarian’s sense of what comedy should be—a window into human longing. (The broken-souled Mitch, played by Levy with magnificent control and mystery, best exemplifies this sense of longing; he recognizes the concert for what it is—a doomed attempt to relive vanished times. "There’s a deception here," he says of the concert and its potential audience. "They’re expecting to see a man who no longer exists.")

"Mockumentary" truly is the right word for Guest’s work, because it combines mockery with thorough knowledge of the things being mocked. Guest understands not just folk music, but music, and many of his actors play their own instruments, write their own songs and do their own singing. He also understands pop culture history (the "clips" of old tv shows are perfect), regional differences in dialect and temperament, and minor things like the anxious-but-businesslike atmosphere in a tv control room during a live broadcast. Each character in Wind has his or her own obsession, all of which are understood and respected by Guest, and reflected in Joseph T. Garrity’s observant, intelligent production design. Each scene introducing a character includes at least one item, often in the background, suggesting a character’s defining trait or favorite pastime. The Bohners’ home is full of floral imagery. Ed Begley, Jr., a Swedish-born PBS mogul, throws around Yiddish phrases to act "down" with Steinbloom, and has a hand-built model ship in his office. And Mickey’s husband, who works in "the bladder management industry," has the most elaborately detailed model train set you’ve ever seen, including topographically accurate hills and vegetation and a town filled with hundreds of itty bitty people. ("I would love to see this town in the autumn," Mitch says.)

Guest’s work grows out of a lifelike, quasi-improvised school that was founded by John Cassavetes, and whose prominent graduates include Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, Garry Shandling (The Larry Sanders Show), Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and the Canadian tv wizard Ken Finkleman (The Newsroom, More Tears). As stylistically diverse as these filmmakers are, they all borrow documentary qualities, from overlapping dialogue to illustrative inserts to handheld or otherwise loose and flowing camerawork, and they all make movies that feel, for lack of a better word, democratic. A Mighty Wind’s end-credits sequence salutes this democratic quality: Guest fills the screen with every feature player’s name simultaneously, then illuminates each name in non-hierarchical order.

Guest’s tone is tricky; it’s mocking but not cruel. He finds his characters interesting, but with few exceptions, he doesn’t adore them. He respects their passion, their work ethic and their determination to believe that the world is, if not a good place, then a place where good things can happen. When Turpin says of Town Hall, "This is the best place to sing in New York, and possibly the world," he means it. When, late in the film, we catch up with Mickey playing mandolin in a booth on a convention floor, she says, "I’m a musician again," and it’s a straight-faced, factual statement that proves Guest understands creative people on a profound level. Through characters like Mickey, he insists on the worthiness of art, even when practiced by people who aren’t great artists. (When Steinbloom criticizes a flower arrangement in Turpin’s theater, Turpin struggles to control himself.) All of Guest’s characters share a key quality: an inability to express the raging emotion inside them, and an unwillingness to see that inability as a personal failing. Like all Guest films, A Mighty Wind is about people learning to live with disappointment by refusing to admit it. Guest and his collaborators are sweet but not sticky. They understand human nature; it’s been a long time since I saw a Hollywood movie with so much love in it.

A Mighty Wind
Directed by Christopher Guest

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