A Lesson, Not a Game (h/t Nabokov)

Back when I taught Comp II at the local community college, one of the high points of the semester was introducing the students to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” One of Dennis’s better throwaway lines (he’s got a million) was “Americans have irony-poor blood.” Amen, brother. Predictably, the majority of students would report that the essay made them want to vomit, which then led to a decent discussion on how grim conditions had to be for the Irish for Swift to have gone to such extremes with his writing. Obvious, I know, but given the novocaine of consumerism, brickbats are shortcuts to restoring feeling.

The reason I loved the assignment was the kids who got it. Honestly, I never had to say all that much. Of the kids who appreciated it, the ones from other countries, especially the Middle East – southeast Michigan has a huge number of both immigrants and temporary residents from that neck of the woods – always got it better than anyone. When naive Michiganders said they couldn’t imagine humans treating other humans with such contempt, someone from Jordan or Iraq or Syria would invariably say, “Have you ever heard of the Palestinians?”

Prior to living with Dennis, I was ignorant of pretty much any Middle Eastern history. I thought Israeli deaths greatly outnumbered Palestinian in the conflict (in fact, the reverse is true by a significant ratio that I encourage you to google for yourself), had never heard of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and was utterly ignorant of how Israeli settlements work. I didn’t know who Robert Fisk was. It’s one of the many things I’m thankful for in our marriage. I also learned that discussing Palestinian rights or even viewpoints in this country is a very sure path to being labelled anti-Semitic, odd since Arabs are Semites. (I’ll probably get mail just for this relatively mild paragraph.)

So the recent “Palestinian Chicken” episode on Curb Your Enthusiasm floored me with its audacity; one friend told me it had “restored his faith in comedy.” In it, Larry David tackles American Jewish and Palestinian prejudices with equal brio. It’s no more subtle than “A Modest Proposal”; David has a Palestinian woman curse at him in the middle of sex, “Fuck me, Jew bastard, the way Israel has fucked my country!” My jaw hasn’t dropped quite that low while watching a comedy for some time. But David balances that with a ridiculous discussion at a dinner party where all the guests are Jewish; with great venom, they decide to picket a Palestinian restaurant opening next to a revered Jewish deli. Broad strokes? Yep. Stereotypes reinforced? Yes, but to show how stupid they are; Sacha Barron Cohen did the same thing in Borat. Funny? I haven’t laughed that hard at a Curb episode since the infamous “Opening Night” Touret’s syndrome scene.

It’s hard to imagine bigger balls than David displayed with that episode, but based on the evidence of his first feature, British director Chris Morris has got ’em. Four Lions follows one misguided and four exceedingly dim would-be terrorists as they attempt to distinguish themselves through jihad. Four of the men are Pakistanis living in London, the other is a blustering blue-eyed convert to Islam whose big idea is to bomb a mosque. “It’ll radicalize the moderates,” he bellows, eyes popping belligerently a la Alexei Sayle at his most deranged.

It takes incredible nerve to say that terrorism is just plain dumb, and that the people who commit it are morons and not diabolical masterminds, and that’s exactly what Morris does here. And like David, Morris makes sure that everyone looks equally ridiculous, including the expert lecturing on terrorism, the loopy, laconically flirty woman who lives near the “terrorist cell”, and a co-worker who natters on and on about his fitness routine to Omar, the only one of the five with any sense.

It’s Omar’s inclusion that takes Lions beyond an exercise in laughing cathartically at the bumbling bombers. Played by the strikingly handsome Riz Ahmed, he’s enormously appealing, whether he’s telling stories of sacrifice to his adorable son or bantering with his lovely wife. It’s disturbing when she says that he’s sexier when he’s planning a suicide attack. There’s an especially powerful scene when Omar gives his own version of the Lion King to his son. Having killed Mufasa (“this is the real version, not the film”), Simba can either tell the other animals that it was an accident, or he can blame it on Scar and kill Scar. “What should he do?”, he asks his son. “Tell the truth,” says the little boy without hesitating. “It’s always important to tell the truth.” Omar’s eyes, barely wavering, shine with realization: The kid is right. Yet it doesn’t fit his narrative, so he presses on. “But Simba can’t give up,” he says. “Heroes never give up.” The kid, idolizing his father, eyes him a bit skeptically, then goes with it. It’s one of the best screen captures of stubborn denial I’ve ever seen. Morris directs with just the right distance, and Ahmed acts it perfectly.

There is spectacular exuberance in the movie, including a scene where the Lions rock out to “Dancin’ in the Moonlight” in their bomb-equipped van, and a disastrous stint in a jihadist camp where one of the trainers yells in Urdu, “Who do you think you are, James Fuck Bond?” But the movie ends on a somber note. Stupid people do terrible harm, and innocents are slaughtered as a result. Be sure to watch the end credits, a mini-movie in themselves and a powerful indictment of extremism of all kinds.

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