Politics imitates art: When slapstick becomes government policy

Should I sue Prime Minister David Cameron for stealing my idea? It was meant to be a dumb idea, one so far-fetched that no “real-life” politician would imitate it.

empty red car crashed over garden wall into building wall. original title was bad parking.
Bad Parking © Neil Harrison

Back in 1999, when I was a freshman (or fresher) at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, I came up with an epiphany. This time, for Filmmaking 101 (or introduction to film making, or whatever they called it), we’d have something everyone could be involved in.

You see, last time I had a group assignment I felt left out. This was in 1998. I wanted to do something about a Spanish playwright, while all the girls in my group (I was the only boy) were adamant to make a horror film about the old college. (At least, the big mouth Irish girl wanted to, and none of the rest objected loud enough to be heard.)

As I was a joint honours student, the girls had a different schedule than I did. We still managed to have some official production meetings.

I managed to film a pretty good segment. I had an actress (a group member) ad lib according to my directions. The directions were simple, but I felt they worked. Well, the other girls said that she did a great job “considering.” In other words, they called me a lazy-do nothing who was lucky to get a chance to touch the camera. (In reality, I think that bit was the only scary part. A bit like Blair Witch, into the camera, before I’d heard of Blair Witch. But never mind.)

Well, when it came time to do the write up, I think the girls ganged up on me. Everything that went wrong with the film was my fault, and nothing that went right with it was down to me.

There was a girl in the group who didn’t do horror, who was also joint honours, but she didn’t have to resit and I did. I could whine about it, but “failing” and resitting that class was a learning experience. (Or so I tell myself.)

Fine, whatever. This gave me an opportunity to make another film, not a silly “horror” about students. (Why do so many student films have to be about students? It’s even worse than making a film about film-makers.)

So here we were, a group of misfits, or resits. Were these people lazy? Hard to work with?

Well, one was incredibly talented, and I think he made his previous team nervous. Another, the only girl in the group, I think had health problems during the previous try, but she was well now. Perhaps she had been the only girl in her previous group. The third, well, I couldn’t see anything wrong with him. Maybe he just took some time to adjust to university life.

Had only I known these people would be descent people, I could have saved myself a lot of anxiety.

Before I found out how great they were to work with, however, my mind started racing. I feared lazy prima-Donnas who’d show up late and want only their ideas, people who lacked the intelligence or talent to hold a camera, maybe even psychopaths or worse.

I mean, if the second rate horror film that I’d been an excluded part of the first time passed, what was so bad that it could fail?

So, I prepared for the worst. I tried to think up some idea that might have the potential to interest even the most narcissistic person, while being fun enough to engage the most air-headed do-nothing. At the very least, I wanted something that would interest me enough for my personal stamp on it not to go unnoticed.

Ministry of silly walks – Monty Python by oOps-oOps

We’d watched many films in film class, and one segment that got a lot of laughs was Monty-Python’s “ministry of silly walks.” I also loved what I’d learned in French of the “Theatre of the Absurd.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was probably being subconsciously influenced by these works, even if I wouldn’t admit a taste for Monty Python at the time (not even to myself).

So, what I came up with, anyway, was this: A Political Party Broadcast of the Free Radical Party.

Political party broadcasts are normally quite boring affairs. In Britain, each year, the major parties get to show their stuff for about ten to fifteen minutes on air. I noticed how these contrasted with the American idea of a thirty second mud-slinging commercial, or the multi-hour debate. As a foreigner, one’s own system always seems better, until you fall in love with the exotic.

I think there might be potential with this ten minute format, at least it could get past the name-calling and the sound bytes. The best thing about the British system, was the time: It was exactly the right length for our film school assignment.

So, here I am, pitching this political party broadcast to three total strangers. We could do it in segments, much like the horror film. Only, each segment could be our individual stamp. This way, no one would be accused of being lazy, and no one would be left out of the creative process.

In order to not get into an argument about politics, we’d have only the most hair-brained, idiotic ideas imaginable. These would be ideas that no political party in Britain, no matter how extreme and desperate, would ever contemplate. We were going to make the Monster Raving Loony Party look serious.

The group amazed me. One guy came up with the simple idea of “free beer for students.” Though the dialogue wasn’t that memorable, he was able to take interesting shots with the camera by using simple techniques (such as having students lying on the floor and spinning the camera around them.) As we had zero budget, and a cheap camera, any effects that didn’t make the viewer sick were a bonus.

Another student decided to have me act in a pretty gruesome scene. I was to be an extremist neo-con who proposed a draconian solution to the drugs problem. It involved large amounts of fire, which he masterfully interlaced into shots with me in front of one of Aberystwyth’s war monuments. The trenchcoat was mine, the accent was mine, but the character was someone I found more repulsive than anyone I ever met. Yet, I was part of a team, so I portrayed the student’s figment of imagination as best I could in the limited time we had.

This creative student’s name was Philip. He sometimes had what I might call a tendency to bring unnecessary attention to himself, yet he was very talented; and for the sake of his talent I hope he has put it to good use.

Well, I thought the “free beer” idea might be eventually adopted by the Liberal Democrats, but none of the others would be.

I was uneasy about the neo-con segment, especially as I felt that I might be a little more conservative than the average film student. Did he want me just because I had an American accent? What also made me uneasy was it seemed to link being conservative to being a monster. But, in the end, I “knew” that it couldn’t happen here. Right?

Sadly, I forgot the segment that the female member of our group produced. Perhaps I wasn’t as involved in that segment as I had been with the others. But, one doesn’t forget one’s own work quite as easily.

My original idea, the most hair-brained, wacky, goofy, far-fetched “political” idea I could think up, the original policy of the Free Radical Party, is alive and well. Looking in the newspaper today, I was shocked to see it adopted by a major political party.

It was this: Privatise the roads.

I had one of my friends hold up diagrams of different roads and outline an idea to privatize the roads. Yes, I wrote a script this time.

First, my deranged “mad scientist” character seethed in his desire to be “an autocratic ruler like Stalin.” When this wasn’t possible, he decided that strange drastic changes needed to be made instead.

In order to solve the environmental problems caused by concrete, the roads would be privatized. And, eventually, to save money, the corporations would be forced to tear up the roads to make dirt roads.

Inside, I prefer dirt roads to concrete, I prefer nature to speed, but I know no one else would go for it. It was supposed to be too silly to be believable.

I remember showing it to one of my conservative friends, and he spoke of nationalizing the air in a retaliatory form of mockery. He thought I was making fun of privatization, making fun of conservatives, poking fun at the whole Thatcherite idea of a free market by putting it into an extreme caricature.

In a way, I was pointing to some of the excesses of privatization by pointing out the one thing that I thought even the most extreme politicians would never do. I heard of privatized police forces and it made me think of Al Capone, but that would be too close to reality to work. I wanted to point out an absurdity by exaggerating it.

How wrong I was. Lesson learned: if there’s a dumb idea, too dumb to work, some government somewhere will eventually implement it. The more illogical it is, the louder people will scream of the necessity of its implementation.

All you can do is hope that the change won’t affect your country. And I hope that Philip’s idea is never adopted by the Conservatives or anyone else as policy.

I still hope, that by warning about the worst possible scenario, we “artists” can somehow convince people to prevent it from happening.

Well, maybe privatizing the roads will be the Conservatives’ undoing.  Then Labour can introduce a real Ministry of Silly Walks.

image credits:
© Neil Harrison | Dreamstime.com