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The Designated MournerThe Designated Mourner

Directed by David Hare

Screenplay by Wallace Shawn
(United Kingdom, 1997, 94 minutes, color, 35mm)

Mike Nicols……….Jack
Miranda Richardson……….Judy
David de Keyser……….Howard

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Actually, it might seem to be, you know, a little absurd to lock somebody up for five years and then have someone come to his house and shoot him--all basically because of a couple of essays he'd written several decades before--but you have to understand that no one person plans these things: person A decides the first thing, person B decides the second, you know, I mean, that's just how it works.

Wallace Shawn is the maestro of the chamber cinema. His films are small, still exchanges of wit, compassion, and cynicism, the perfect antidote to the blockbuster cinema of car crashes, gunfire, and exploding asteroids. (The idea of a "My Dinner With Andre Action Figure" is still one of the funniest of all cocktail party jokes in popular culture.) Shawn, handsomely homuncular and seemingly born disheveled, is a rumpled Renaissance man of the independent cinema; The Designated Mourner shows him to be a writer of elegance, passion, and cold-eyed intelligence.

1997's The Designated Mourner, directed by David Hare but written by Shawn, was originally a stage play, and then a radio drama - trust Shawn to resuscitate a dormant form based entirely on words. This is a disturbing allegory in the spirit of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, or Home or of films like Emir Kusturica's Underground, Cory McAbee's American Astronaut, Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital, and even the wildly misogynistic A Boy and His Dog. This is a film that doesn't give up its truth to us to us until late in the game when we're asked to go along with its decision to reserved critical plot points until it feels like telling us. Instead, our satisfactions come from listening to Shawn's phrases spoken by Miranda Richardson, David de Keyser, and, in a brilliant performance, Mike Nichols. The three of them evacuate themselves of their feelings in stark monologues. There seems to be a Cold War era coup in progress, in an unnamed country that feels like the West but behaves like a banana republic. Here, the culture wars are not metaphorical, and artists can be imprisoned for their failure to endorse the junta through content or form.

Much of Shawn's previous theatrical work is encapsulated here. There is the political turn of The Fever, the concern with moral choices of Aunt Dan and Lemon, and the fulminating emotions of Marie and Bruce. But there is something else here, a dread of hat might become of artistic freedom in a society that believes that homilies about freedom are a substitute for the real thing. Though produced in 1997, The Designated Mourner speaks in a very presentist voice. Like Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, this is less a polemic about censorship than a meditation on the credulity of ordinary `good people,' who can't believe what they see is really happening. Much of these characters' suffering comes from forced confrontations with the houses of denial they have painstakingly constructed over the years, and from which they are being dragged into the streets. If My Dinner with Andre was generous and disarming, The Designated Mourner is reserved, its characters suspicious even of their own motivations. They behave as if the government watchdogs are here with us, in the theater, so that even this confession of persecution is hedged about with indirection and euphemism.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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