May 14, 2012
Bullet points from Bobcat Goldthwait’s new gunpowder black “comedy”
Satire is a loaded gun. In the hands of a skilled marksman, it is an effective weapon. When wielded by an amateur, it is dangerous.
When aimed by acclaimed filmmaking iconoclast Bobcat Goldthwait, well, everyone had better dive for cover.God Bless America, now playing in limited theaters, Goldthwait wages a vigilante vendetta against the worst elements of the pop-modern American lifestyle. The title is pure irony, twisting the patriotic phrase to highlight the moral and cultural shallowness of our national consciousness. The film is a bleak and bloody fever-dream of suppressed rage. In the middle of the cultural carnage, however, lingers a profound question: What’s a thoughtful person to do when confronted with the banal insanity of a selfish and shallow culture?
Following Frank, a middle aged office drone recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and Roxy, an exuberant, bloodthirsty teenage girl, we witness a spree of trigger-happy murders that take us from the home of a spoiled Virginia Beach starlet to a massacre of the studio audience of an American Idol type game show. Along the way, Frank and Roxy leave a trail of corpses. Their victims include anyone unfortunate enough to merit the pair’s annoyance: snotty teens in a movie theater, a hate radio DJ, “anyone who wears crystals,” and even that guy who double parks in a full lot. They even target a preacher and his flock holding up protest signs that read “God Hates Jews” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”—a clear diss of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church.
But as the body count rises into the high dozens, we see that Frank and Roxy are no different than their victims. Hypocritically, the pair objectifies objectifiers, mocks mockers, and silences the petty and banal with violence that is as shallow and superficial as it is brutal. As Frank and Roxy gun down the cast and audience of that Idol-ish show, we can’t help but feel that they are committing the ultimate indecency, the paramount rudeness. As they are riddled with bullets by a group of police, we see them receive the same “justice” they gave to others. Maybe more.
If their victims are petty, then Frank and Roxy are too—their vigilantism as lacking in class as the most banal of reality television idiocy. While this irony is clearly intentional, it does not save the film. Rather, it muddies its message. While memorable, the satire here is not carefully aimed. Instead, it seems like an extended rant, taking cultural potshots at anything and everything that a “decent person” (read “Bobcat Goldthwait”) would find annoying. It lacks the sharpness, the precision that leaves viewers feeling that they learned something about themselves.
I cannot recommend the viewing of Goldthwait’s film. Nor can I commend its raging polemic against the shallow end of our society. Satire should be a sniper rifle, not a shotgun, and there’s not enough left standing when this film’s smoke clears to justify the persistent, often cruel violence.
Still, I can appreciate Goldthwait’s dark vision of our common American problem. Sometimes it takes blood and bullets to highlight a tough truth. And the truth of our growing cultural bankruptcy is tough.
The real value of the film comes not from Frank and Roxy’s bloody “solution,” but in their eloquent indictment of the worst things in American culture. Their words are memorable, and we ought to listen carefully. (The following quotes come directly from the film.)
• With Frank, we Christians ought to react against the “‘oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comic has more weight than the truth.”
• Like him, we need to ask “why have a civilization anymore if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”
• Like him, we should hurt and weep that “nobody cares that they damage other people.”
• With him, we should be genuinely heartbroken that “we reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest. We no longer have any common sense or decency, no sense of shame. There’s no right or wrong. The worst qualities in people are looked up to, celebrated. . . . We’ve lost our kindness, lost our souls.”
Frank’s right. We have lost our souls.
But for me and my siblings in the family of Jesus, Frank and Roxy’s flipped fingers to these elements is not an option. We follow Jesus, who loved vastly beyond our definitions of merit, sense, or decency. He redeems our common foolishness, our deepest indecencies. We look to him for renewal.
Like Frank realizes, our bankrupt situation demands drastic action. But unlike his selfish and bloody methods, there is hope for healing and redemption through the work of Jesus and the growing life of the church. There’s a more redemptive solution than AK-47s in the hands of a sad man and a foul-mouthed little girl.
Paul Pastor is assistant editor for CT’s Church Management Team and Global Publishing initiatives. You can find him interacting with culture, creativity, and intentional living at his blog Sparks and Ashes.