September 11 changed everything. They say it killed irony. It certainly reinforced some sagging taboos, such as blind jingoism, self-righteous piety, intolerance, and primitive Christian values.
As for irony, though, it may already have drowned in the abiding cultural morass of complacency, selfishness, ignorance, and superficiality. Instead of posing provocative notions, the movie and television industry and other media took provocative poses. Knowing that audiences wanted to be titillated by outrageous behavior but not outrageous ideas, they upped the squalor but lobotomized any intelligent content. With hot TV shows like Survivor, Fear Factor, and Jackass encouraging people to eat rats, cockroaches, and a “vomit omelet,” respectively, nothing physically gross could shock the system. But subversive ideas could, and no one was interested in those even before the Twin Towers came down.
As early as 1998, Terry Gilliam’s brilliant adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — a truly disturbing and funny glimpse of the American nightmare — got the heave-ho from critics and audiences. And in 2000, Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s reviled, Swiftian novel American Psycho — which with breathtaking insouciance equated cut-throat capitalism with cut-throat serial killing — met the same fate.
So it was no surprise when everyone turned on Paul Weitz’s (mentor of 1999’s American Pie and its subsequent franchise) soft-core satire American Dreamz this past year because it dared challenge the still sacrosanct Bush administration’s foreign policy and the even more revered TV show American Idol.
Was it because, as the famous refrain goes, satire is what closes on Saturday night? That wasn’t the case for the harder hitting, right-leaning Thank You for Smoking the year before. Maybe it was that film’s acerbic tone and ruthless irony, reminiscent of Kubrick, that won over audiences, and not the reactionary point of view.
Similarly with Judd Apatow’s movies Knocked Up and his more thoughtful 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), the irreverent, often filthy humor and puerile pleasures of the film’s flippant social rejects draw in viewers who have been conditioned by decades of post-Waters comedies, so that when the hero finally submits to the status quo (seduced by a domesticating female) it seems the cool thing to do.
In movies, as in all other media, it appears that those with right-leaning agendas have usurped from the left their most potent tools of persuasion: black-comic satire and raunchy humor. Whether the blame lies with complacent audiences or cowardly filmmakers or both, the result is an atmosphere of indulgent apathy punctuated by sublimated right-wing acceptance.
Do upcoming films such as The Simpsons Movie (opening today) or Superbad (opens August 17) indicate any change coming soon? At press time, I hadn’t seen either, but I’m holding out hope that The Simpsons might provide the same cinematic and cultural charge as South Park did eight years ago. The Simpsons’ promotional campaign of transforming several 7-Elevens into Apu’s Quik-E Marts, instructing South Asian employees and franchise owners to wear Apu nametags and recite degrading lines of dialogue from the show, however, raises doubts. As for Superbad, it sounds suspiciously like the formula of “amusing, raunchy, nerdy losers have fun, learn their lesson, get girlfriends, and become Republicans” of similar Apatow projects.
Friends who have seen it, though, tell me it’s hilarious. Isn’t that enough? People have been laughing things off too long. The world is more deranged and absurd than it was in 1964. The times call for a Kubrick, a pre-Polyester Waters, a Jonathan Swift.