I was reading The Guardian a couple of days ago but I only say that trying to sound intelligent. I was actually checking the scores of the Saturday afternoon football, which The Guardian covers quite well and with barely a mention of its usual green, solar-powered, America-spies-on-lesbians agenda.
Half way down their live football blog there was a link to a Youtube video of the quickest goal ever scored, which I watched for all of the 15 seconds it ran feeling disappointed that it didn’t involve a squirrel on stilts which is really the only reason I visit Youtube these days. Probably because I hadn’t seen my usual squirrel on stilts, I clicked pretty randomly on another of the videos. The link was to a video of a ‘9 year old goalkeeper with amazing saves’. I can say now that it was a lucky click. The comments below the video are worth reading. They helped focus my mind on what I wanted to write about today.
I remember being a Bobcat Goldthwait fan until he appeared in a Police Academy movie. That probably drew a line beneath my interest in Bobcat Goldthwait. Before Police Academy, I’d been something of a Goldthwait advocate among my peer group. He'd occasionally appear on UK TV and was one of the more memorable of the American standups; a wailing but strangely erudite and provocative comedian who defied you to like him so, naturally, I loved him. Then he appeared in one of the worst series of movies not involving teenage vampires and my interest died. That was until I saw ‘God Bless America’ earlier this year and I realised that Bobcat had probably committed career suicide back with his Police Academy work. It had to be deliberate. Now he’s a director and even if he’s stopped the crazy snorting and wailing, he still has one of the most interesting voices out there.
It’s a few years since he made ‘God Bless America’ but like many small movies, it has eventually found its audience among those of us naturally predisposed towards its message. I personally think it’s one of the best satires of the past decade. Had Oliver Stone made it, debates would have raged across the media. I hazard to suggest that it’s because it has Goldthwait’s name attached that this movie is so underrated. Had a young twenty something hipster called Brandon instead of Bobcat made it, they’d have been given millions to make the next Ninja Turtle movie. It’s a seriously insane world in which Brad Ratner makes million dollar movies and Goldthwait struggles to raise cash for his independent movies. It reminds me that yesterday morning in The Guardian, John Waters was complaining that he can’t get $5 million to make a movie. He’s doing a one-man show in Liverpool. I’d go but these things are always too damn expensive. But I digress…
The lack of mainstream success is probably down the message of ‘God Bless America’ and it doesn’t make for easy viewing. It’s a profoundly violent film and the black humour really is grim. Yet it’s also beautifully rendered satire about the impotence of rage and the twisted values of American (but you can easily read it as British) society. The genesis of the movie is Goldthwait’s belief that people are too mean. It’s the reason I mentioned the football video. The video ‘9 year old goalkeeper with amazing saves’ was a video of an ordinary kid being filmed by an ordinary father as he played in goal in their ordinary back garden. Yet I suppose it’s a perfect expression of our hateful culture when a proud father posts a video of his son dreaming of becoming a goalkeeper and it prompts hundreds of spiteful comments directed towards the kid. That was probably why I rewatched Goldthwait’s film last night.
The problem of the satire – and possibly the problem of most satire – is that it never offers much of an alternative to the things it attacks. It tends to end up looking like an impotent rage against the machine. The violence of the two lead characters in 'God Bless America are a damning indictment of the power of even satire to make things better. The lack of any restorative effect of the film is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that these excellent leads have never been given the same prominence in more mainstream fare. Joel Murray carried the movie with his bravely subdued performance, yet you also know that in anything costing more to produce he’d be fifth or sixth down the cast below a brother Baldwin. Tara Lynne Barr was excellent as the plucky but insane Roxy and she brought dynamism to the film. It was the relationship between the two that keeps the film going against the backdrop of Goldthwait’s hyper-reality of bad talent shows and fundamentalist conservatism.
In the light of this cold November day, I’m not sure if the film really succeeds. Reading the comments over at the IMDB, I see people dismissing it as a film about an old guy hating things that old guys hate. I don’t think that’s true but I do recognise that it preaches to the choir, reaching out for an audience who already shares its values.
Our culture does certainly pride itself on people who meanly grasp, take, and own. Generosity is thought of as the sin of suckers, fools, and easy grifts. Our advertisements have cheapened sincerity and sentiment to the point that we’re quick to question it in its raw form. Just last week, somebody emailed me to ask advice about writing books, publishing, and the things I’ve done over the past few years. This rarely happens so I replied at length. A few emails were exchanged and I tried to be as helpful as I could. I was honest, sometimes scathing about the industry, but trying to give good advice based on the hard lessons I’ve learned. I thought I was being generous with my advice until, after about three or four emails, I realised that the person I was corresponding with had come to the conclusion that I was mad. There was definitely a sense of their backing out of the conversation. This isn’t the first time that has happened.
It struck me again, watching this film, that what seems like rational sense can all too easily be interpreted as madness by others. I often think that people interpret my friendliness as a form of madness. And perhaps it is. Whenever I go to London, I’ll hold open a door for the person behind me but I’m usually left wondering why I’m still holding the door open ten minutes later after a hundred people had walked through without acknowledging me or offering to hold it themselves. Another thing I’ve learned not to do is smile at anybody on the Underground. You don’t even make eye contact. To do either is to confirm to people that you are indeed mad, whereas here, in the North West, you can still smile at people, have a conversation with a stranger whilst you wait at a bus stop, and if you hold a door open for somebody they’ll often say ‘thank you’ and take it from you.
But perhaps this is a remnant of a world that won’t be around for much longer. ‘God Bless America’ is a loud wail of protest but there’s no sense that things will change. Even the sharpest satire eventually gets dulled by the amount of stupidity that’s actually out there.