Albania is the most backward country in Europe, a tiny Balkan nation that has experienced a tragic history of isolation, oppression, religious strife and extreme poverty. So what is it that makes the very idea of Albania so comical to American filmmakers?
I asked myself this question after seeing Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog," a cleverly executed satire about a political consultant and Hollywood producer who decide to divert public attention from a presidential sex scandal by creating the illusion of a war (" 'Wag the Dog' Is a Comedy With Some Real Bite to It," Calendar, Dec. 24). But a war against whom? The consultant barely has to think--the name of the perfect opponent comes to him like a reflex: "Albania."
"Why Albania?" asks a curious presidential aide.
"Why not?" the consultant shoots back. "What did they ever do for us?"
This breezy reply makes it sound like any number of small, historically unfriendly nations might make for a good comic adversary. But this clearly isn't the case. One need only imagine the discomfort of moviegoers if the film had substituted an equally afflicted Third World nation as our fictional "enemy"--the Sudan, say, or North Korea. (I won't even mention Grenada.) It just wouldn't be funny at all. In certain situations, it seems, only Albania will do.
The first time I had occasion to wonder about the inherent comic qualities of movie Albanians was in 1990, when I went to see "Tune in Tomorrow," Hollywood's adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa's wonderful novel, "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter." Set in Peru in the early 1950s, the book features a character named Pedro Camacho, a gifted but unhinged writer of radio soap operas who nearly provokes an international incident by lacing his scripts with frequent, gratuitous and disgusting insults directed against Argentines. ("I've killed my own daughter," one of Camacho's characters reflects. "The only thing left to do is go live in Buenos Aires.")
This aspect of the novel obviously caused trouble for the screenwriter, especially after the decision was made to set the film in New Orleans rather than Lima. It would hardly make sense to have an American writer slander Argentines, right? A more suitable ethnic group needed to be found, and Albanians turned out to be the natural choice. ("What's the matter with you, boy?" a character with a rich Southern accent asks another early in the film. "You look like an Albanian peasant whose cow just died.") In the movie's climactic sequence, an angry mob waves signs reading "Justice for Albania," while swarthy terrorists, members of the Albanian Liberation Front, take vengeance by setting fire to the radio station where the scriptwriter (renamed Pedro Carmichael) works.
As an American of Albanian ancestry (on my mother's side), I found this substitution more curious than offensive. Besides, it was easy to sympathize with the filmmaker's dilemma. "Tune in Tomorrow" was released at the height of the push for political correctness in America, a moment when ethnic and racial humor had fallen into extreme disrepute.
On the one hand, the script demanded risky ethnic stereotyping; on the other hand, the prevailing cultural ethos insisted on civility, especially toward historically victimized racial and ethnic groups. Albanians offered a convenient compromise, the possibility of a kind of "victimless" ethnic humor directed against white Europeans rather than blacks or Latin Americans. The use of Albanians as place-holders is especially clear in the absurd protest scene: There were people with a legitimate reason to be waving signs and demanding justice in the segregated Louisiana of the 1950s, but their ancestors did not hail from Tirana or Skopje.
"Wag the Dog" also uses Albania as a stand-in for more plausible but less amusing nations or political groups. In a revealing moment, the consultant briefly flirts with a scenario involving fanatical Muslim fundamentalists, but then quickly retreats, in favor of a flimsy story about Albanian terrorists trying to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S. in a suitcase. (Why? "They want to destroy our way of life!")
Unlike "Tune in Tomorrow," though, "Wag the Dog" knows exactly what it's doing. The savvy media professionals in charge of the "war" understand one crucial fact about Albania: Most Americans don't know the first thing about it. For 50 years, Albania's borders were sealed from the outside world. During that time, Albania itself became a kind of fiction, a rumor of a country, the real-life equivalent of movie countries like Freedonia or Kuristan.
One character in "Wag the Dog" wonders out loud if there's an Albanian national dish. "Nobody knows," another replies. "We could make it up." Various people in the movie are surprised to learn that actor James Belushi is of Albanian descent, as if such a thing couldn't really be possible.
It's precisely Albania's status as a cipher, a blank spot on the map, that makes it so useful for American filmmakers. What makes the piece funny, I suspect, is the invisibility of its real history. Throughout the Cold War, the rest of the world didn't hear much about starving peasants or political prisoners in Albania. All we really got were occasional glimpses of the fanatically rigid Hoxha regime, breaking first with the Soviet Union, then with China, furiously leading its impoverished people into a state of complete isolation. By virtue of its geopolitical insignificance and clownish ferocity, Albania became an amusing Cold War sideshow, the least threatening and most perversely entertaining nation in the communist bloc.
"Wag the Dog" is a smart, genuinely funny movie. But for all its virtues as a send-up of contemporary American culture, the film's treatment of Albania ultimately feels dated, like a holdover from the days before the collapse of communism.
These days Albania no longer wants to "destroy our way of life"; in fact, most Albanians would like nothing more than to have a piece of it. Anyone interested in a movie about the actual place called Albania rather than the imaginary Hollywood backwater that shares the same name, should keep an eye out for Gianni Amelio's extraordinary 1994 film "Lamerica," which will be available on home video soon.
Set during the crisis year of 1991, when boatloads of Albanian refugees flooded into Italy, the film takes place in a landscape of almost unimaginable wretchedness and desolation. For all its bleakness, though, "Lamerica" is a profoundly compassionate portrait of desperately poor people trapped between the wreck of the old and the chaos of the new, willing to risk everything for a shot at something better. Once you've seen it, you'll never be able to laugh at Albania again.