On Michael Cera’s Film Short: “Brazzaville Teenager”


Michael Cera, who played a main role in Arrested Development (2000-2013) and starred in such films as Superbad (2007), Juno (2007), Year One (2009), and This is the End (2013), recently decided he wanted to direct his own film short. Cera’s film short, Brasserville Teenager, is based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. The story, written over thirty years ago, was re-written by Cera with Bruce Jay Friedman. And like any translation of text into film, something is lost here and something is added there. What interests me most is the portrayal of the schlemiel and humiliation in the film. To be sure, in this filmic translation the humiliation is greatly diminished and the schlemiel is displaced by the special effects which turn the film more toward a symbolic dimension (reminiscent of a David Lynch film) than toward a deeper understanding of the schlemiel’s failure and frustration.

Let’s go through the short story first and then compare notes.

The story starts out with the hope of the schlemiel, Gunther:

He had always felt that perhaps a deathbed scene would unite them; he and his father would clutch at each other in a sicklied fusion of sweetness and truth, the older man dropping his lifelong cool, finally spilling the beans, telling Gunther what it was all about. (9)

The narrator’s tone already suggests that Gunther’s hopes might be a little off. As the story goes on, we see that, in this schlemiel scenario, there is a big gap between the father and the son. The son feels that this event “would unite them.” However, as the story shows us, nothing changes in the end. But it’s the journey to that point which matters most.

The main conceit of the story is that, after Gunther leaves his father, all he can think about this how his father’s “knuckles” have enlarged and that his body has been “whittled down.” He is saddened by his reduction of his role model; following this, however, an idea comes to him which, somehow, will change everything:

The idea came to him that if he, Gunther, were to debase himself, to do something painful beyond belief, the most embarrassing act he could imagine, only then could his dad recover…The instant his plan formed, he wanted to tear it form his head. (10)

This idea is childish and presupposes some kind of magic that will occur if he does something. He becomes obsessed with this idea. His plan is to get his boss, Hartman, to sing backup vocals in a song called “Brazzerville Teen-Ager”:

It’s about a young boy whose father is a mercenary and gets sent to the Congo. The boy goes along and write this letter back to his girl from the States, talking about how great it was surfing and holding hands and now here he is in Brazzerville. (10)

Since he knows the producer, he feels he can coax him to let his boss, Mr. Hartman, sing back up vocals.

After he finishes telling Hartman what he would like to do, Hartman, bewildered, tells him “You’re still not coming through”(11). And he proceeds to ask him the logical question: “What’s the connection between all this and your father’s sickness?”   In response, Gunther tells him that “I can’t explain it…I’ve learned that if I can get you to do this thing, which of course is way out of your line…Dad will recover”(11). Hartman asked him what he means by “he’s learned” and all Gunther can say is that he just “knows it.” Gunther asks Hartman to “forget the logic part” because he really “feels” it’s true. In response, Hartman tells him to back into the office and to “forget you ever made this little speech.”

After this experience, while driving around at night, Gunther congratulates himself for speaking his mind. Although he failed to get Hartman to do it, at least he spoke. But then he gets an idea: “If I got myself to say something like that to a boss, there’s no limit to what I can do”(11).   This spurs him to drive out to Hartman’s house and speak more.

What’s so interesting about what spurs him is the fact that in his speaking to a superior, his boss, he feels as if he has done something life changing. This, no doubt, has to do with speaking the truth to his father. Apparently, he never gets to speak his mind; and this is what troubles him most about his relationship with superiors and elders.

When he arrives at Hartman’s house, he stumbles into a party of the rich and powerful. They humor him and Hartman nearly fires him there on the spot. But Hartman’s wife comes to the rescue and tells Hartman to do it because Gunther, “the poor fellow is quite upset. It will cost you very little and it might be fun”(12).

Hartman goes ahead and does the backup vocals.   He is asked to “girl it” in his “doo wahs.” And he does so. Following this humiliation-of-sorts, Gunther drives him home and sees someone flipping pancakes in a store front. He pulls over, asks Hartman to filp one, and gets the owners approval. Hartman does this, too.

The next scene we learn that the Gunther’s father is better. He helps him pack up and go. But when he starts thinking about all the things he wanted to ask him, as he did at the outset of the story, and says “Dad.” He chokes up and fails to speak. The father asks him what, but Gunther says “nothing.”

In the last section of the story, on the way from his father’s apartment Gunther stops the elevator between floors. And then he screams out, “You son of a bitch! You know what I had to go through to get you on your goddamn feet?”(14)

In Cera’s rendition of the story, much is the same except 1) the film includes a male interlocutor in a bar who speaks with Gunther; 2) the conversation with Hartman (played by Jack O’Connell) has words like “lesbian” and the expression “rock in my show”(5:28); 3) the wife says she will “wet” Hartman’s “whistle” if he goes (a sexual allusion that isn’t present in the original); 4) Gunther says, after getting Hartman onboard, “Once in a while you’ll meet a crazy person who will go along with you no matter what”; 5) the music studio scenes bear mention of having “one heart” and include scenes that aren’t in the story; 6) the recording scene is morbid, like a David Lynch film; 7) Hartman, unlike the story, is moved by the music; 8) the pancake flipping scene is deleted; 9) the scene with his father (played by Charles Grodin) is incredibly long.

What I liked about the film version of the story was the fact that it brought out the divide between emotion and masculinity. We could clearly see that doing a good deed made Hartman more kind, which is something we don’t see in the story. And we also see the divide between Gunther and his father in a clearer manner. Most importantly, I like how Cera used the timing of the film to illustrate the differences between the father and the son. It shows how they continually miss each other and how the father has become a grumpy older man while his son remains a schlemiel who cannot speak to him face-to-face.

In the end, Gunther is the schlemiel because, in his mind, his action and his feeling should be enough to heal his father and unify them; ultimately, however, he remains a person who screams “between floors.” He is caught between being a man and a child. He wants to have a “normal” relationship but can’t say the right things to make it happen. His prank on Hartman took some kind of odd-courage, but, ultimately, he can’t bring that courage to his real-life relationship with his father.   His feelings and his prank can’t do it. He has to let go of that magical connection that all children, in some way, think exists between reality and emotions. But he can’t.

Cera’s film, at the very least, is faithful to this message in Friedman’s original story. This isn’t lost in translation, however, it is amplified.


4 thoughts on “On Michael Cera’s Film Short: “Brazzaville Teenager”

  1. Another insightful blog on the schlemiel. Thank you. I’m beginning to see that the theory of the schlemiel might also apply to men, especially young men, of other cultures. For example, there are schlemiels among Chinese Canadians (or Americans), but with one major difference. I see a general lack of humor in the Chinese Canadian schlemiel experience, although I have seen lots of humor among the “villagers” in my parents’ ancestral home in China in my recent visit there. In contrast, in the case of the Jewish experience, as I observe it, the humor associated with the schlemiel figure crosses geography.

    A question: Most of the blogs that I’ve read so far on this site have mainly dealt with the male figure; is there much commentary on the female schlemiel?

    • I’d love to hear more about the Chinese version! As for female schlemiels, yes, there are, many. I have written on a few;namely, Barbara Streisand and Sarah Silverman.

      • Thank you for your interest. An example from Chinese literature that is comparable the schlemiel comes from the modern short fiction writer Lu Xun’s novella “The True Story of Ah Q.” The schlemiel-like character is an illiterate bumpkin named Ah Q. It is set in the time around the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty (circa 1911). The hero Ah Q regularly gets into arguments and routinely receives a slap in the face or a beating from almost everyone, including a wealthy family patriarch and the village slackers. When a nun curses him, he gets aroused, but aware of his own strict moral code of separation between sexes, he looks for a wife in the person of a widowed house servant. His courting method is direct. He asks her to sleep with him. Bamboo pole in hand, the scholar son of her master beats him for the indiscretion. Ah Q does eventually get the respect he thought due him when he announces to everyone that he’s become a revolutionary. Fearing being exposed as an illiterate, he signs a document confession, professing a role in the ransacking of the homes of wealthy families by revolutionary soldiers; when in truth, he slept in during the ransacking. The new magistrate takes a hard line on the growing chaos after the revolution and sentences Ah Q to death.

        I also find the accounts of Chinese people in Boyang’s (aka Bo Yang) anthology of essays entitled “The Ugly Chinaman” have the ring of the schlemiel. What intrigues me about Bo Yang is that he’s born in Kaifeng County in the province of Henan, China. Kaifeng is known to have a remnant community of Jewish people dating back centuries. Just off the top of my head, when reading “The Ugly Chinaman,” I get this feeling the author might be Jewish, even though, besides the tone and humor of the text, everything about him is Chinese.

        My own interest is in the Chinese Canadian experience. I would like to apply what I learn from the theory of the schlemiel to better understand the early Chinese men in Canada, particularly during the circa pre-1968 period. I’m currently looking into finding a Chinese word that might be the equivalent to “schlemiel.”

        Your blog has inspired me to post more on this in the future. Thanks again.

  2. This to me is a film about exploring the bargaining stage of grief. It’s a bargaining fantasy. Gunther comes to some intuitive understanding that if he makes some self-sacrifice, that he will be rewarded with the continued existence of his aloof father, played in a nice, understated way by Charles Grodin. The idea of bargaining a self sacrifice as a stage of grief is all too common–the deal with God. “I’ll be a better person and more like you want me to be if I get to keep my pop.” But the bargain is usually a noble self sacrifice. Here Gunther imagines that his self sacrifice must be ignoble. It must be debasing and humiliating. It has to involve the breaking of unwritten rules of social living. It involves crossing a generational barrier–the one separating him from his father. It involves not only his own humiliation and discomfort, but also a humiliating request that a member of that older generation must cross that same generational barrier and enter into a scenario that is as much a fish-out-of-water scene as the one he must endure just to make the request. So the film opens with scenes of the hospital where Gunther’s dad is dying, but the sound track is of a conversation Gunther is having with someone of his own generation. Gunther is open and honest about his feelings. He is scared of being alone. He wants answers from his dad before his dad moves on. And hidden in these questions is his own fear of inadequacy. He seeks to define himself and measure himself against his pop. He wants to know philosophy. He wants to know about his father’s sexuality and finances–the stuff that is often off limits in cross-generational relationships. He wants to know about his father’s fear. “Are you scared?” “Is Death a breeze?” As the film switches to Gunther and his dad in the room together, his questions are answered with less than overt comparisons between his son and the doctors that are treating him. He tells his son that they are good guys that don’t think twice about treating a guy so much older. Gunther is told that they laugh, that they get the humor. Gunther does not. He also wants his dad to “drop his life-long cool.” Gunther feels small and weak, and this is compounded by the threat of losing his dad. The bargaining fantasy comes to him. He must get over his crippling fear of crossing that generational barrier. He sees his boss humiliate a guy so badly that the co-worker seems physically ill. When Gunther is called into the office, he asks the boss to come with him to where a R&B recording session is going to be happening and sing back-up on some song. He is soundly rejected. The viewer is made to believe that this was not enough. He has to debase and humiliate himself even further. He has to go to the man’s house. He has to interrupt his sophisticated, grownup party and insist. When the boss’s wife comes to his aid and makes this happen, Gunther weeps. Gunther takes this man to a setting that is as uncomfortable for him as the party was for Gunther. And after it is over, the boss is humiliated and shown that in this world where he is the outsider and the underdog, he is inadequate. He is not good enough. The once dominant boss looks small and weak. On the ride back, they seem to have connected. Miraculously, Gunther’s dad is healed. And when they are reunited, the audience expects that things will be different. They are not. With a lilting musical backing track, we see scenes of awkwardness between father and son. Their body language clearly suggests that they are as estranged as ever. Gunther screams his rage at his dad–his impotent rage at the top of his lungs by himself at the bottom of an elevator shaft, still unable to make a connection to his dad. It is as if it is not about the fact that he is unafraid to put himself out there. It is just that his dad is a dick. It is dreamlike and nonsensical and yet really resonant. I love this film. Although a couple of the bit parts–the friend at the bar and the guests at the grownup party seem to deliver their lines in ways that are not quite right, the rest of the film really works. The sound is especially effective as is the pacing. The lingering shots of catatonic thinking really work. The silent resolution is also very nice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s