A few years back, a professor of mine passingly remarked that he thought Christopher Guest might be Banksy. It’s a lovely sentiment for a number of reasons. Principally, Chris Guest, though chameleonic, is a very unassuming looking chap. Imagining him as a renegade street artist scaling rooftops under cover of darkness is amusing in its own right—plus, he’s a former regular attendee of the House of Lords, so there’s that as well. More to the point, considering the tenor and shape of his body of work, the polemical imagery Banksy traffics in would constitute a nifty bit of inversion—flipping the Guestian organic aesthetic with sometimes-heavy-handed-but-nonetheless-clever protest imagery. Still, there’s an undeniable logic to the idea that makes sense, something that makes me really believe in him as a closeted revolutionary who gets his kicks upending and crudely documenting the high-art world.
Guest’s last project under his own name, Family Tree, is barely remembered and hardly spoken of three years on, which is tragic but fitting. Like most Christopher Guest joints, it’s a confection with immense depth. Family Tree in particular is a radical departure in the modern history of narrative storytelling—addition by fundamental subtraction, personal and epic, internal but universal. All this to say that Family Tree is, quite simply, a show devoid of overarching conflict—probing Darwin’s somewhat-optimistic assertion: “Not until we reach the extreme confines of life, in the Artic region or on the borders of an utter desert, will competition cease.” That Guest made time in each of the eight episodes to weave an undercurrent of mediation and reflexivity (habit and instinct intermingling) to both underscore and shade the absurdity of this obsession—The Plantagenets, Move Along, Please, There Goes the Neighbourhood, Sherlock Holmes: The New Frontier, a Civil War reenactment, its off-hand faux/mod-documentary affectation—showcases just how damn deft he is.
Needless to say, it wasn’t long for this world. Frozen in time, it will stay preserved as a rare, fossilized animal to be studied in the not-too-distant future when purposeful optimism is an all-but-forgotten memory of a waning civilization. Its is an unassuming story with deep roots and subtle profundity—young Englishman outgrows his listless, aimless twenties and looks for a direction; he finds it through course of fate, digging back into his family lineage and seeking out distant relatives, particularly newly discovered kin in the States. That’s the gist. We follow his journey, he meets different people, and has some droll new experiences. There’s a fish-out-of-water quality to it and orbiting perspectives, but this universe is littered with congenial lite-eccentrics that are oddly curious about each other—it’s most similar to A Mighty Wind in its barely perceptible distinction between parody and homage, but here there is no particular niche enclosing the community. This being Guest, each corner of the show, and each new entrant, is a ringer of a particular stripe. The improv is sound, the filmmaking is loose and unhurried, and the delivery is deadpan in a way that combines both British and American straight-faced sensibilities, ranging from goofy to sublime.
This brief run has continued to take root in my mind of late. There are a number of reasons for this: It’s a damn fine program, underappreciated really; it’s quietly unique in its unspooling, never giving up its game; it posits an ancillary, kinda folksy human nature whilst only glimpsing at the underlying melancholy central to modern existence. Importantly though, given all these qualities, it remains relevant as the rhetoric devolves during the interminable election season. Given the tenor of opinions across all walks, our propensity for competition and conflict are as outsized and carnivorous as ever—“a geometrical ratio of increase.” Family Tree, by virtue of simply avoiding the driving force of narrativity—opposing ideologies squaring off, conflict shattering the status quo, “a power incessantly ready for action”—crafts a strange, bewildering, and enticing parallel universe.
Lacking a linear conflict paradigm allows the show to follow a more shapeless and meandering path—germinating and branching out. It’s somewhat Descartes-ian, too—akin to his validating his own existence by examining his inability to disprove his not existing. Family Tree is especially palate-cleansing given the rancor and superficiality of the current race—one which will be, by all accounts, a months-long “knife fight” going forward. Given the unceasing coverage, I still haven’t heard a solid explanation for a particular motif that remains front-and-center (particularly in the Grand Old Party melee, though it’s not hard and fast, per se): the war of numbers, incessant poll-quoting as a strategy above all.
Numbers can be bent if you choose your sources according to a preordained conclusion. That’s the trick of the modern world—no certainty, deep suspicion, entrenched ideals, progress a matter of perspective. Vamping on bullet-points can be considered plainspoken when you don’t use complete sentences, extroversion will be celebrated and encouraged above all, tone trumps content, and catchphrases and SEO-optimized scripts are essential. We’re at a point where all-out attack is a necessary strategy; and the attacks become fodder for further conflict, analyzing the successes and failures of the barrage tactics—“battle within battle must be continually recurring.” Whomever ultimately attacks best (hardest? longest?) wins the day and the top office. At some point it’s pyrrhic, yes?
None of this is new to politics, and the risk is sounding hopelessly naïve when decrying such tawdry maneuvers—“I can only repeat my assurance, that I do not speak without good evidence.” It’s just a shame that it outweighs all else, though; it’s worthy of the perpetual lamentations—a constant reminder of the brazen absurdity we crave. Family Tree confronts our epistemological crisis head on—weaving personal stories largely devoid of schema or motive; it’s just curiosity at its purest, looking backward to move forward, but without the regressive implications. At the same time, there is no essential truth to be gained other than pure experience—Tom’s looking for answers but the sprawl is the point, the indication of progress; that there are exponentially more questions with the addition of each branch is its own satisfaction. It’s a fundamentally different goal than what we usually strive for—modern cognition is typically funneled to a preordained endpoint, and this is eminently exploitable.
This year has been emblematic of the demise of objective reasoning, as well as our collective exhaustion—evidentiary excavation is too tedious; just take the bloviating at face value and ignore the smuggled intent (any randomly selected comments section should provide ample evidence). In Family Tree we follow a thread without the benefit of cutting corners—genealogical gumshoe detective work, hefty ledgers from bygone eras with spotty record-keeping, face-to-face convos, on-the-fly enquiring: A tapestry of personal histories built one clue at a time, with chance encounters and unexpected turns cropping up organically. Interpolation is unavoidable and it builds a framework rather than undermining the discourse. There are no ulterior objectives beyond information gathering and personal growth, finding clusters of harmony in an increasingly complex and trying world where we have to navigate the space between “being made redundant” and having a unique lineage in the grand scheme.
All this in the face of our ever-more unquenchable lust for battle, as the concept of “debate” degrades into a sorta-sublimated facsimile of “trial by combat.” Our stances are increasingly calcified; we’re entrenched and the only solution when there is no middle-ground is to revert to iron and brawn (in the form of campaign funding wars of attrition). Indeed, the struggle for life is most severe between individuals and varieties of the same species. Guest uproots and reinforces our very nature and trajectory, quietly dismissing conflict and gamesmanship while sifting through a Darwinian realm, then dwelling on culture (thus riffing on Beckett and Camus and Sisyphus and Capitalism and narrativity with nary a mention of any). “I would rather be remembered by a song than by a victory,” said Alexander Smith—just think of the ballad of Family Tree as the 5th Baron Haden-Guest’s subdued Spasmodic tribute/inversion/contribution.
Around this point, Martin Scorsese’s Geritol overlord from Quiz Show usually crops up, which is apt. Indeed, we, like the rubes tuning into the rigged Twenty One contests, are not after an impressive intellectual display. We too “just wanted to watch the money.” Watching the numbers fly up is fun, and who doesn’t like a long-shot? This is the single-mindedness he-who-shall-remain-nameless fueled—competition, large numbers, villains, a narrative defined by a jackpot. At his most sanguine, Arthur C. Clarke said, “It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.” Even so, if there is ever any doubt about the perverse irony of humanity as a species, of our capacity for creating and sustaining conflict, consider this: For 4.5 billion years, the Gibeon meteorite hurdled through space undisturbed; it landed on Earth and we saw fit to fashion this eons-old rock into not one but two luxury firearms.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.