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Movies Can Make Us Mean; They Can Also Save Us

As it feels like we are racing deeper into the sewer, some films remind us of the way out.

By Dorothy Woodend 20 Jul 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

In 2006, director Mike Judge made a film called Idiocracy. A few years after its initial release, when the film had all but disappeared, I wrote a short review of it for The Tyee.

This past week, as the entire world watched the president of the United States flail about like a beached tangerine pufferfish, I thought about Judge’s film again.

In a quick recap from that earlier review, the premise of Idiocracy is just this:

“In the future, smart people have vanished like the passenger pigeon or the great auk. Dumb people have bred like mad and essentially taken over. The planet is a garbage heap, and the smartest man on earth is played by Luke Wilson, which should tell you something.

“Wilson is Corporal Joe Bauer, a perfectly average American soldier who is cryogenically frozen as part of a secret military experiment. A sex worker named Rita (Maya Rudolph) also undergoes the same procedure at the behest of her pimp. As is the case with most top-secret freezing experiments (see Futurama), something goes terribly wrong. Human error even at the dawn of the 21st century is alive and well. Five hundred years later, in the year 2505, human error has completely taken over. When Joe is accidentally defrosted from his long sleep, he discovers that he is now the smartest man alive. The planet is buried under mountains of garbage, COSTCO stores have grown to the size of entire cities, and the human populace watches Reality TV shows like Ow My Balls!”

I’m certainly not the first person to draw correlations between Judge’s film and the current state of affairs. In Idiocracy the president is a former porn star-turned wrestler named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. But even this cartoon version seems better, more rational and grounded, than what is now in place at the White House.

Way back in the gentle days of 2006, what seemed a harmless bit of silly string, a romp and a tickle, doesn’t seem quite so funny any more. In fact, Judge’s comedy has taken on the look of a prescient documentary. Sort of…

To put it gently, reality is a little hard to pin down at the moment. It’s like snakes in a can, leaping out at the weirdest moments. Even Sasha Baron Cohen’s new show is regularly upstaged by the evening news. The people who called the chaos early, documentarian Adam Curtis in HyperNormalisation and polymath Charlie Brooker in Black Mirror, probably never expected their work to eerily parallel the shape and form of reality.

But have the movies helped create this moment in history?

The question occurred to me in another film, quite different from Idiocracy, namely Morgan Neville’s documentary biography of Mister Rogers Won’t You Be My Neighbour. In the beginning of the film, the children’s television host and American icon states simply: “What we see and hear on the screen becomes who we are.”

So, have we really become Idiocracy?

This is not the first time the thought has occurred to me, but it’s taken on metastatic proportions of late.

The movies have been training folk for a very long time in a particular narrative trope. Call it the dopey trope — the idea that intelligence is elitist, snobby and fundamentally weak, and will eventually be overturned by old-fashioned foxy wisdom of the cornpone variety.

Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy, among many others, have built their careers on the basis of this simple recipe — mix crudity and sentiment, like a slab of poo, cover it over with whipped topping, and serve it hot. The common conceit of many recent films is the belief that somehow blissful ignorance is enough to propel folksy dipshits to wealth, power, and even political office.

The most terrible thing is that it appeared to work. It’s still working, in fact. As the smartest people in the room make jokes and shake their heads, the juggernaut of idiots rolls on, a veritable freight train of fools.

But it’s stranger than that. If it was simple boneheadedness, that’s fine. Stupidity isn’t the worst thing in the world. But when it’s mixed with narcissism, cruelty and a generalized belief in one’s own divine entitlement, that’s when shit gets toxic.

As the American president continues his assault on rationality, reason and the poor embattled English language, it’s hard not to feel as though this entire episode in U.S. history is an Adam Sandler film gone horribly wrong. Big Daddy wrecks up the White House.

In this, mainstream film must bear some of the responsibility for the current surrealist moment. It helped prepared the way, with strong support from reality TV and social media. It’s also been something of a long haul (cinematically speaking), a gradual winnowing down of social mores and accepted civilities that all seemed like good dirty fun at first. It’s only in hindsight, that things begin to look different, darker, and creepier.

Trump may well be the most visible example, even apotheosis, of this fast food combo of greed, insecurity, and vacuous incompetence, but he’s certainly not alone. The Daily Show’s correspondents make a blood sport of filming ordinary Americans blowing hard about Space Force and swamp rats. Even gentle documentarians are getting in on the act.

Lauren Greenfield’s new film Generation Wealth purports to takes aim at the privileged worlds of the grotesquely wealthy. But as a number of critics have pointed out, Greenfield goes after some pretty easy targets — beauty queens, con men and plastic surgery addicts. Folks who give the term nouveau riche an even worse name.

In the process of watching a great many documentaries, occasionally I’ve stumbled across a bewildered filmmaker who is gamely trying to sort through the chaos. I recently watched a film, wherein a documentary filmmaker decides to try and glean some measure of understanding of Trump voters by actually talking to them. Of course, what he discovers is that opinion matters more than facts, people will cling tightly to the most outlandish bullshit if it backs up their world view and blind faith (in Trump, God, or the almighty buck) obscures everything, including common sense.

This approach in filmmaking isn’t new. Documentarians have been fixing dummies in their sights for a long while. But in this current moment, it’s not enough to simply give the bigoted, the deeply uninformed, and the downright intolerant time to air out their yellowed washing. As a filmmaker you should go deeper, to ferret out what built those belief systems in the first place.

Documentarian Adam Curtis has made a life’s work of doing precisely that, sifting through archives of image and ideology to uncover the architecture that underpins these things. He is joined lately by a number of other filmmakers looking hard at what lies beneath the stories we tell ourselves.

It’s an idea that pops up with a death head’s grin in Hitler’s Hollywood, opening next week at the Vancity Theatre. Director Rüdiger Suchsland’s film makes a well-structured and somewhat terrifying argument that films are the unconscious rendered visible. The idea is adopted from a philosopher named Siegfried Kracauer, whose thesis, the documentary says, is that “films contain the collective unconscious of the period in which they were created.”

Watching Hitler’s Hollywood, I experienced a creeping sensation that was all the more disturbing for being familiar. The quality that comes through after watching clip after clip of films made during the Nazi regime — be they musicals, dramas or comedies — is a peculiar sense of dread. It scrapes at your nerve endings like fingernails dragged across a chalkboard.

Suchland’s film captures the blend of sugared images — toothy smiles, frothy dresses and forced cheerfulness — mixed with death cult fascination that attended so many of films made during this era. It is strangely similar to the combination of end of the world scenarios mixed with piffle currently on offer in contemporary multiplexes.

Much earlier, film also documented the Nazis’ habit of manipulating image and language to control and beguile the population.

Stan Neumann’s documentary Language Does Not Lie is based on Victor Klemperer’s diary that he kept during the rise of Third Reich. In a cool, almost dispassionate tone, the film narrates Klemperer’s writing, as he describes the minutia of daily life under Nazi rule. As a professor of romance languages, the man was able to parse the ways in which words were employed as tools of control and subversion, as well as seduction, to a dark and horrific ideology.

As the American media scratched its collective noggin this past week over the difference between the words “would and wouldn’t,” Klemperer’s work makes epic and detailed explication of the way language could be repurposed and reinvented to pull reality loose from its very moorings.

Drop by drop, word by word, act by act.

As Klemperer and his wife were stripped of all rights and privileges, he describes each new humiliation and absurdity, numbering them in consecutive fashion, not unlike what Amy Siskind is doing at the moment with her ongoing list of Trumpian madness.

Like Siskind’s work, it is the mixture of grand political style melting into odd quotidian detail that snags in the mind like a fishhook. Klemperer collected examples of what he termed LTI (Language of the Third Reich) from secret jokes, shouted speeches and radio broadcasts. As he examines how words are manipulated and put towards ends for which they were never initially designed, he writes in his journal “Hitler is the Barnum of Hell, like a true circus director, he always wants to do what has never been done before.”

Eventually public terror and secret brutality harden into a system, classified and codified in good German fashion. A ban on listening to the radio, a ban on purchasing flowers, a ban on going to restaurants, going to the barber, confiscation of typewriters, of bicycles, of deck chairs. A ban on having pets. The list goes on, so bizarrely intricate that it becomes almost dizzying. But it’s the most ordinary parts of the narrative, the smallest pieces of information that sink the deepest. The euphemism like concert camp instead of concentration camp. The Yellow Star clearly visible on the left-hand side of the chest, sewn on tightly. Aryan children and star-bearing children seen playing together can cost Jewish parents their lives. Small soul killing moments, like Klemperer and his wife being forced to give up their elderly cat, are more horrifying than fear of the Gestapo.

It is a slow process, almost sly in its sinuous movement, slithering through ordinary daily life, eating away at human dignity.

What is most disturbing about Language Does Not Lie are the curious parallels between then and now. As the couple apply for immigration to the U.S., Klemperer ponders whether to go or stay, explaining “I was German and I was waiting for the Germans to come back.” The echo of so many America folk wondering where their country went filters through time and distance.

As you listen to the steady calm voice narrating Klemperer’s observations, you can’t help but note the flattening effect of too much horror. It is difficult to keep all the details in your head. Grand Guignol humour creeps in, not unlike what you might hear on The Daily Show or Stephen Colbert. In one section of the film, a man in a Nazi uniform addresses the camera and tells a joke. “Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon are talking in Heaven. Caesar says, ‘If I’d had all those German tanks, I could have conquered Germany.’ Frederick the Great says, ‘If I had all those German planes, I would have conquered all of Europe.’ Napoleon says ‘If I’d had Goebbels, no one would yet know I’d lost the battle of Waterloo.’”

Throughout it all, Klemperer keeps writing, hiding his pages as soon as he finished them, capturing the true nature of everyday life under tyranny. Or as he notes, “A thousand mosquito bites are worse than a heavy blow to the head. I observe and note down the mosquitoes.”

In addition to being a reminder to pay close attention to the patterns and lessons of history, Language Does Not Lie also provides a singular message of hope: “Everything will pass. Everything has an end.”

Here is where I also have faith in the defiant spirit of humanity, and, strangely enough a renewed respect for Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers dedicated his life to making media for children that honoured kindness, integrity, compassion and love. In an interview with Variety, director Morgan Neville summed up the underlying motivation for making his film Won’t You Be My Neigbour? “I wanted to make a film to remind people about the value of radical kindness… Fred’s message, when I distill it, he talked about grace. It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen. It is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”

In talking to people about Won’t You Be My Neighbour? and examining my own reactions to it, something very interesting begins to emerge. Call it a way back to something better, a reminder of something we’d forgotten, or been trained to disregard as sappy, sentimental or childish. But it is none of those things. In fact, it is their opposite.

Call it the pendulum swing. I think it’s finally on its way.

The phenomena of a film like Won’t You Be My Neighbour? reminded of James Baldwin’s oft-quoted statement that people who give up their hatred will finally have to face their pain. A genuine attempt to understand takes time and a lot of patience to carve through all of the sedimentary layers of fear and anger and see what really lies at the bottom of the human heart.

But, at some point, maybe just around the corner, folk will take one whiff of the toxic fumes coming out the White House and declare “That’s enough of that!”

We humans are better than the idiocracies we create for ourselves. If we made them, we can unmake them.

The question becomes would or wouldn’t you want to?  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Film

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