A couple of years ago when I watched the movie God Bless America, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite (whom I once had the pleasure of seeing live when he was doing standup comedy), it didn’t turn out to be as good in its entirety as I had hoped. The trailer (see below) had been awesome, and the advance buzz about the movie had been highly encouraging, since it made it sound as if Goldthwaite had borrowed cues from both Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and the likes of Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture to make a movie that would channel the rage, horror, and sadness many of us have felt as we’ve watched America transform itself into a cruel, decadent, and degenerate “society of the spectacle,” to borrow Guy Debord’s useful and accurate term.
The finished film didn’t quite live up to the buzz or the trailer, since the pacing was off and the third act, including the climactic scene, felt particularly off-kilter. Nevertheless, it contains several scenes and sequences that fulfill the promise of the buildup, and none is better than the one below, where protagonist Frank, played by Joel Murray (yes, Bill’s brother), goes to the office one morning and delivers an immortal rant that, in my estimation, ranks up there with Howard Beale’s prophetic condemnations of America’s mass mediated lunacy in Network. And just as Beale was basically a mouthpiece for screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky’s personal views, so is Frank a mouthpiece for Goldthwaite’s.
Fair warning: Use with care. This clip contains NSFW language and some (intentionally) shocking violence. It also contains a compressed diagnosis of America’s (and the whole first world’s) cultural disease here in the early twenty-first century that’s incisive enough to start a revolution.
“Nobody talks about anything anymore. They just regurgitate everything they see on TV or hear on the radio or watch on the Web. When was the last time you had a real conversation with someone without somebody texting or looking at a screen or a monitor over your head? You know, a conversation about something that wasn’t celebrities, gossip, sports, or pop politics. Something important or something personal. . . . This is the ‘Oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comment has more weight than the truth. Nobody has any shame any more. And we’re supposed to celebrate it! I saw a woman throw a used tampon at another woman last night on network television, a network that bills itself as ‘today’s woman’s channel.’ Kids beat each other blind and post it on YouTube. I mean, do you remember when eating rats and maggots on Survivor was shocking? It all seems so quaint now. I’m sure the girls from Two Girls, One Cup are going to have their own dating show on VH1 any day now. I mean, why have a civilization any more if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”
What are politicians doing at Glastonbury and the GQ awards? I feel guilty going, and I’m a comedian. Why are public officials, paid by us, turning up at events for fashion magazines? Well, the reason I was there was because I have a tour on and I was advised it would be good publicity. What are the politicians selling? How are they managing our perception of them with their attendance of these sequin-encrusted corporate balls?
We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another. We know that however cool a media outlet may purport to be, their primary loyalty is to their corporate backers. We know also that you cannot criticise the corporate backers openly without censorship and subsequent manipulation of this information.
Now I’m aware that this was really no big deal; I’m not saying I’m an estuary Che Guevara. It was a daft joke by a daft comic at a daft event. It makes me wonder, though, how the relationships and power dynamics I witnessed on this relatively inconsequential context are replicated on a more significant scale.
For example, if you can’t criticise Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers — he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor — influence the way he runs our capital?
Is it any wonder that Amazon, Vodafone and Starbucks avoid paying tax when they enjoy such cosy relationships with members of our government?
Ought we be concerned that our rights to protest are being continually eroded under the guise of enhancing our safety? Is there a relationship between proposed fracking in the UK, new laws that prohibit protest and the relationships between energy companies and our government?
I don’t know. I do have some good principles picked up that night that are generally applicable: the glamour and the glitz isn’t real, the party isn’t real, you have a much better time mucking around trying to make your mates laugh. I suppose that’s obvious. We all know it, we already know all the important stuff, like: don’t trust politicians, don’t trust big business and don’t trust the media. Trust your own heart and each another. When you take a breath and look away from the spectacle it’s amazing how absurd it seems when you look back.