LIBERAL CELEBRITY (or celebrity liberal) Al Franken is not the sort of guy who leaves you with a lot of questions about who he is or what he's all about. Except for the simple one: What moved the Saturday Night Live quipster to transform himself into an ardent liberal crusader?
The potential enormity of the answer could have been one reason for the demeanor of the crowd in the West Village art house theater not too long ago. They were waiting for Franken's new documentary Al Franken: God Spoke to start and they seemed unusually and reverently quiet.
God Spoke begins with God speaking--instructing Franken to go amongst His people and expose right-wing blowhards and mock Fox News. He (Franken) does. A film crew tags along. He needles Ann Coulter at a debate, her prickliness set against his endearing clownishness. He joshes with people at book signings. He shoots down wonkily adversarial questions from college students. He returns to Minnesota and walks through his childhood home. For a few moments Franken muses poignantly about his father's influence on his comedy and his politics. Franken gets right up to the edge of answering that one mystifying question and then--Bam!--he's back in New York, mingling at an Air America launch party. No deep thoughts necessary; Jack Handy breathes a sigh of relief.
ASSEMBLED BY DIRECTORS Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (The War Room), God Spoke is high vérité documentary-making. The pair are vérité pros, confident in the present tense, the fly-on-the-wall camera; confident that just following Franken, letting Al be Al, will substitute for insight. The technique works great when there's story, and it can work without story--when the subject is deep. It would be the perfect technique for making a documentary about, say, Bob Dylan. Here it is less well suited. One does not expect resolution for a documentary which lacks a narrator, but God Spoke lacks even direction. Fortunately, Franken's personality provides some momentum. A natural comic, he's perpetually on, getting into the middle of every situation, acting to get a reaction from those around him; mostly with humor.
He's on during his radio show. He's on in staff meetings and he's bouncing as the 2004 election closes in, wondering aloud how much of his post-election airtime he should dedicate to gloating. A day? A week?
Franken is on when he muses about conservatives who, knowing his liberal bent, still ask for his autograph: "In this country, celebrity trumps ideology." True, and the longer Franken is on, the truer it seems--though not in the way he intends it.
Franken's boisterous partisan energy seems mixed with a noticeable and faintly sad need to be close to important people, big political figures--to pull them into his spotlight and to sidle into theirs. For instance, at one Democratic event, Franken takes the mike and starts a routine--pulling Chuck Schumer, who's been standing quietly in the background, into the jokes at every opportunity. Schumer, shy or embarrassed, waves him off demurely.
GOD SPOKE follows Franken to a conservative party too, during the Republican convention in New York. He rambles about all the trouble his host is afraid he'll make. And then--friendly mingling! Franken hides histrionically in the coat check, demonstrating for the camera how well-known and well-reviled he is with this crowd. Alan Simpson and William Safire congenially joke with him to come out. Franken forces his way into Henry Kissinger's conversation, clumsily trying to get Kissinger to invite him to do his Kissinger impression. He doesn't. Franken starts it anyway. It's a little uncomfortable to watch.
When Kerry concedes, the camera holds tight on Al's face--a single tear, a perfect Indian-by-the-side-of-the-road-watching-passing-drivers-litter tear--rolls down his cheek. Franken isn't the same afterwards. Exeunt Air America. He's back in Minnesota, getting choked up and telling crowds stories about his wife's underprivileged upbringing. He gets a standing ovation when he tells them he's thinking of running for Paul Wellstone's old Senate seat. Alone with the camera at the end, Franken says that if he does run, he won't be able to be his easygoing goofster self anymore.
WHEN THE LIGHTS CAME UP at the screening, Franken was perched on a stool in front of the stage, flanked by Doob and Hegedus, and ready to take questions from the audience. "First off," he said with some aplomb, "What did you like best about me?"
The Q&A quickly degenerated into an EIC&A (extended inconsequential comment and answer). Someone in the audience's sister knew people who knew people in Wisconsin who voted twice in 2004. Another guy said he tried to join the Marines, but they wouldn't let him because he was Iranian. In the beginning of his documentary, Franken was corrected on a minor point by a college student at another Q&A event. In the film, Franken playfully runs over and pretends to beat the kid up. It's funny. Now, Franken is cooler. He dignified each rambling remark with a polite response that morphed into a talking point.
Someone asked how liberals could get a cohesive message out. Communicate that Democrats are for the public interest, Franken responded. He then welled up with emotion. Franken sniffled and his voice wobbled as he added that "we need to be telling stories about my wife Frannie . . . and how she grew up."
The Franken shtick was gone; replaced with a Clintonesque routine of pain-feeling. But yet he was somehow still the same. He was still performing--putting on an act that would bring people to him.
At one point, Franken started talking about the dreadful state of today's America. "I want to cry a lot of the time," he said. It was vintage Stuart Smalley, except that Franken was serious. And on cue--a snivel, a near sob, and possibly (it was hard to see from the back row) another tear.
Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.