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Whither Satire

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I’ve been thinking lately about satire, and particularly political satire of our present moment, which often seems to have come pre-satirized, no joke or jibe having more of a bite than actual reality. Mocking the mock-worthy can sometimes be galvanizing to those of us who have to live with them (which is to say everyone), but is that the extent of what satire can achieve? There’s a cherished belief among liberal creatives that mocking something, exposing its fundamental contradictions and inherent stupidity, fatally weakens it. And whether that was ever true, it certainly isn’t today, at a time when fascists and autocrats weaponize their own ridiculousness, and teach their followers to see any attack on it as an attack on them.

The failure mode of satire, I think, is smugness, a work whose sole purpose is to flatter its viewers that they are smarter than Those People. Most work that operates on this level doesn’t see itself as smug or self-satisfied, but as brave, ruthlessly exposing the inadequacies of its targets. But in a world where leaders flaunt their corruption and venality, and vice-signaling has become a way of life for so many people, what value is there in that exposure? It’s as if the writers of these works believe that there’s someone out there keeping score. That if they can just “prove” that the other team are cheating, the game will be over. The result is enervating, somehow managing to be fundamentally wrong about how the world works even as it points out the fucking obvious about its targets.

Nowhere is this misguided belief in the power of mockery to defeat fascism more in evidence than in Taika Waititi’s execrable Jojo Rabit (2019), a film that bravely satirizes that Nazis by… making the same jokes about them that people were making in 1942. As I wrote in my review of the film last year:

Fascism can’t be defeated by mockery any more than it can be defeated by debate, because in its essence it is the antithesis of these things. Fascism is the belief that might makes right, so by definition, someone who is powerful can’t be made to look ridiculous, or wrong, or stupid, because they define reality through their power. To the people susceptible to fascist rhetoric, the tradeoff they’re being offered is quite simple and alluring: give up your grasp on reality and accept our fake truth instead, proclaim loudly and despite all available evidence that Donald Trump is a stable genius, that Boris Johnson is a man of the people, that Adolf Hitler is leading his people to greatness, and in exchange you get to share in that same power. People might correctly point out that you’re just as ridiculous as the people you’ve chosen to follow, but how clever are they going to look when you string them up in the town square?

At the other end of the scale of Trump-era satire is Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017), a film whose success in exactly the places where Jojo Rabbit fails identifies the crucial component for an effective satire of autocracy: rage. Jojo Rabbit is a disgustingly nice movie, using its mockery of its Nazi characters to make them look foolish and harmless (along the way, it defangs the genuine darkness of the novel it was based on). The Death of Stalin recognizes that same foolishness among the members of the Politburo in the days after Stalin’s demise. But it also recognizes that these men still have tremendous power, which they are too cowardly and self-serving to wield for anything more than self-preservation. And without ever losing control of its comedic tone, it makes it clear that the only correct response to such a failure is wrathful contempt. The sad truth is that ridiculous people had and still have power over millions of lives, and pointing out their ridiculousness doesn’t change that fact, or make them less dangerous. A successful satire needs to recognize that truth, to balance mocking stupidity with anger at the power that the mock-worthy still have over us.

From the trailers for Adam McKay’s new movie Don’t Look Up (now streaming on Netflix), I had assumed that it was a smug sort of satire, whose main purpose was to point and laugh at how politicians, the media, and the right wing ecosphere mangle and mishandle looming catastrophes like climate change or COVID. I think the reason I had that reaction is that Jonah Hill, who plays the president’s failson and chief of staff, is prominently featured in the trailers, even though he’s by far the worst part of the movie and not at all representative of its tone. (This is not a knock on Hill, an actor I’ve enjoyed in a lot of other things, and who is clearly only doing what he’s been asked to do here; but boy, is his material in this movie dire.) The movie itself, however, turns out to be anything but smug. It’s angry, and sad, and does a good job of capturing how incandescently frustrating it is to know that there’s a calamity coming that nobody is doing anything to stop, and how unbelievably stupid it all is.

The premise of Don’t Look Up is that two scientists (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that a comet with the potential to end all life on Earth is on a direct collision course with us. They alert the government, and from there it’s off to the races. From a Trump-like president (Meryl Streep) who is initially too distracted with political crises to give the matter any serious thought, to media personalities (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) who want to turn the whole thing into a cute, uplifting science story, to the government’s insistence, once they finally start to take the crisis seriously, that it can only be addressed by slapping a heroic, American face on it (Ron Perlman), to the far right making it an article of faith that the comet doesn’t exist, and culminating in a tech mogul (a nearly-unrecognizable Mark Rylance) who sees the comet as a financial opportunity because it turns out to be rich in rare earth metals.

(For those of us who had a prurient fascination with Don’t Look Up because McKay co-wrote it with former Sanders advisor David Sirota, it’s interesting to note the nonexistent role that liberals and the political left play in its story. It would be a pretty obvious gag to have the left agree in principle that the comet must be stopped, but find itself incapable of translating that belief into action—perhaps because of a moderate sentaor who worries about what preventing a Chixulub-level impact might do to the deficit?—and after the last few weeks, it would be hard to argue with that depiction. But instead the Democrats are simply missing in action, and maybe that in itself is a form of condemnation.)

McKay and Sirota play fair. Nothing that happens in this movie, no matter how ridiculous or absurd, is unrealistic, for the simple reason that it has already happened. When Lawrence and DiCaprio go to the press to try to get around the government’s indifference, she’s dismissed as a hysteric while he’s adopted as an avuncular figure, embraced and fêted for his activism without anyone actually doing anything in response to it. Though most astronomers agree with the calculations saying that the comet will hit the earth, all it takes is one person with a “Dr.” before their name saying otherwise for the media to announce that the conclusion is controversial and subject to debate. Most fascinating is the subplot involving Rylance, who bristles at being described as a “businessman” and believes himself to be a prophet ushering in a new era in humanity’s history. He uses shiny tech and big names to convince the government, the public, and Wall Street that he can safely disintegrate the comet while gathering the wealth it contains, despite the fact that his technology is completely untested, and the cost of failure would be catastrophic. (Apropos of recent discussions we’ve had on this blog about the difference between actual, peer-reviewed science and what the tech industry calls science.)

Through it all, Don’t Look Up manages to strike a balance between humorously exposing the bone-deep stupidity of the forces that control our lives and prevent us from living in a better world, and depicting the rage, frustration, and sadness that we’re all feeling as we watch it happen. I don’t want to oversell this movie. It’s not an instant classic and it doesn’t say anything we didn’t already know (also, like just about every movie I’ve watched this year, it’s at least half an hour too long). It doesn’t have any immortal scenes or lines that will become a way for us to explain reality to ourselves—perhaps the closest is Lawrence telling some people who are spinning conspiracies about why the government isn’t handling the crisis that “the truth is way more depressing. They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for”. But it does feel honest to our moment, never falling into the trap of detachment or self-satisfaction. When DiCaprio finally loses his shit on live TV, begging to understand why a crisis that could have been handled safely has been allowed to reach the point of no return, that strikes a chord. But when everyone then laughs uncomfortably and changes the channel, that rings true as well.

The one place where the film falls into the trap of smugness is in its ending, in which reality slaps the faces of the people who were trying to make money or political hay out of denying it. That moment of satisfaction we sometimes like to imagine, where the people who have been maliciously denying the truth realize that they were wrong, and now there’s hell to be paid. But, even leaving aside whether there’s any real satisfaction to be had from that moment, it’s a fantasy to believe that it’s coming. That calamities like climate change or COVID will hit us like a comet, rather than hurting the powerless while the powerful shelter in wealth, luxury, and most of all, the tacit acceptance that they shouldn’t have to pay a price for their actions.

Which brings me to the question I’ve been avoiding throughout this essay: what is satire, and especially satire of our current era, for? What could it possibly accomplish? One gets the sense that a film like Don’t Look Up is intended to inspire people to action, but its effect feels more deadening, a brief moment of catharsis as we hurtle towards a disaster that there is no political will to prevent. Maybe all satire is inherently smug, intended to preach to the converted and make them feel, for a moment, as if their frustration has been seen, the equivalent of a tweet crowing that this and that conservative has just been “destroyed” by an online comment. I’d like to believe that such a versatile storytelling tool has more power. It’s clear that McKay and Sirota believe this. But I haven’t seen much evidence for it.

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