Did starring in “The Shawshank Redemption” (and then directing “Dead Man Walking” the following year) leave Tim Robbins with a profound compassion for the members of America’s prison system, or was that profound compassion what compelled him to pursue those jobs in the first place? Either way, it seems the famous actor and sometime filmmaker still fervently believes in the words of Sister Helen Prejean, who Susan Sarandon played in “Dead Man Walking”: “Everyone is worth more than their worst act.”
Robbins’ first directorial effort since 1999’s “Cradle Will Rock” finds him going back to jail in order to help extend that ethos into the real world. A broadly affecting documentary that’s long on empathy and short on detail, “45 Seconds of Laughter” takes us inside the maximum-security fortress of Calipatria State Prison, where a few special members of Robbins’ theater company (The Actors’ Gang) lead a troupe of violent criminals in a commedia dell’arte workshop that’s meant to bring them together and restore a measure of mutual humanity.
At least, that appears to be the goal; self-evident as the program’s intentions may be — and as much its results tend to speak for themselves — no one from Robbins’ crew ever announces what they’re hoping to accomplish. In keeping with The Actors’ Gang’s policy of not asking prisoners what they did to deserve their sentences, “45 Seconds of Laughter” keeps context to a bare minimum. If not for some introductory shots along the arid shores of California’s Bombay Beach and a few outside visitors, this film would take place in an absolute vacuum of good-natured clownery (there’s so little table-setting that some viewers might be thrown by the fact that one of the felons bears such a striking resemblance to the star of “Mystic River”).
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But while the tunnel vision of Robbins’ vérité approach might be a convenient shortcut to the charitable feelings he hopes to inspire with it — to the idea that the masks we all wear disguise a common spirit that binds us together in being alive — it also has a perversely flattening effect on a film about restoring full dimension to people who can no longer even see their whole selves. The result is a documentary that relegates its most transformative material into a series of broad montages; a documentary that indicates at something beautiful, but isn’t willing or able to articulate what that might be.
If “45 Seconds of Laughter” doesn’t manage to depict the essence of who these prisoners are, or how exactly the Actors’ Gang workshop brings them together, it has no trouble defining what has previously kept them apart (and at each others’ throats). Asked to describe the vibe at Calipatria, one of the inmates sums it up in just three words: “Racial. Conniving. Violent.” The men have segregated themselves into gangs of their own — gangs that offer solidarity, and are only held together by their hatred of everyone else. They’re allowed four emotions (happiness, anger, sadness, and fear), all of which are camouflaged by silence.
In a violent maximum-security jail like this one, vulnerability is the opposite of strength, and so people feel as if they have no choice but to hide behind their identity like a mask. Whereas other prisoner-support programs (such as the one detailed in Jairus McLeary’s “The Work”) compel felons to put down those masks and expose themselves to the harsh truths of the healing process, Robbins’ approach uses commedia dell’arte as an opportunity for them to exchange one mask for another; to find common ground by embracing the same archetypes (the old man Pantalone, the heroic Pulcinella, etc.). The prisoners begin each class by smothering their faces with white paint, turning their faces into fresh canvases.
From there, it’s amazing how fast these hardened criminals disappear into their new roles, as if they were all secretly desperate for someone else to be. Robbins does little to flesh out that idea, and even less to refute it; we come to recognize a few of the prisoners, and even learn some of their names, but most of them are reduced to stiff posture and winning smiles. Any resistance to the program has been edited out, though the number of participants noticeably thins as we race to whatever vague performance the inmates are working towards (anyone familiar with the Taviani brothers’ “Caesar Must Die,” a narrative film in which a cast of actual prisoners stage a Shakespearean tragedy, might want to lower their expectations).
Most of the movie consists of footage of the inmates playing warmup games like Zip Zap Zop and participating in various acting exercises. Every session ends with 45 seconds of forced laughter, which is meant to raise endorphins and keep the good vibes going even after the prisoners return to their cells. Some of the programs’ mantras stick in the mind — “what can I do to make a better circle?” an instructor tells the prisoners to ask themselves — but Robbins elides the hard work that it takes for a group of people to reshape themselves.
What we’re left with — besides a much-appreciated feeling of lightness in our hearts — is an unsettling reminder that Robbins’ program shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Whereas “The Work” probed deeper into the human soul, and dove into reservoirs of pain that transcend the prison experience, “45 Seconds of Laughter” only points our attention towards the dehumanizing nature of America’s correctional institutions.
Of course, that’s a valuable consolation so far as these things go. As nice as it is that famous actors and born-again ex-cons are willing to spend a few dozen hours reminding felons of their intrinsic humanity, it’s barbaric and unhelpful that our jails do so much to strip them of that in the first place. These are (often profoundly disadvantaged) men who have done terrible things for one reason or another, but a system that shackles people to their worst act is a system that has no interest in allowing them to do better. Empathy breeds empathy, and no one should have to rely on Tim Robbins to show them that.
“45 Seconds of Laughter” played at the 2019 New York Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.