Film criticism is a tricky beast. One man’s Citizen Kane is another man’s Glen Or Glenda and it’s impossible to discredit either opinion. During TIFF my esteemed college Matt Goldberg and I disagreed pretty wildly on Bobcat Goldthwait’s vicious pop culture satire God Bless America. While I can’t pretend the film is a flawless masterpiece, I was rather fond of Goldthwait’s psychotically satirical take on the material. Perhaps it says more about my pop culture stained brain than anything else, but I do feel that Goldthwait’s message and approach are valid, if admittedly twisted and a little f-ed up. I guess I’m just fond of the twisted and the f-ed up. That’s me, what are you gonna do? In the interest of debate (and inevitably, message board bashing), I thought I’d present an alternate take on this fairly divisive movie. I’m not saying I’m necessarily right, I just want this opinion of the movie out there. Hit the jump for more and make of it what you will.
So once again, God Bless America is the story of Frank, a middle aged burn out frustrated by the lowest common denominator trash entertainment that defines current American pop culture. After learning that he has a brain tumor and a limited amount of life left, he decides to take action. One night he’s so disgusted by a particularly grating teen girl on an episode of My Super Sweet 16 (given a different name to avoid lawsuits), Frank steals a car, drives across the country, and kills the girl. He then befriends on of the girl’s classmates Roxy who shares his opinions and together they set out on a cross-country killing spree of trash culture icons (variations of Bill O’Reilly, American Idol hosts/contestants) and citizens with bad etiquette (not even people who talk during movies are spared). Harsh stuff to be sure, but pretty damn hilarious too. It’s the kind of movie where even killing a baby is played for laughs and Goldthwait finds just the right dark comedic tone to make it work.
Now, obviously Goldthwait is in no way condoning violence with this movie. It’s more of a satirical fable. Frank starts the movie with a series of fantasies in which he kills irritating neighbors and co-workers for the annoying him and in many ways the movie is an extension of the director’s personal version of that fantasy. The film is in no way intended to be a cry for violence. Instead it uses violence and comedy to make a satirical argument. Throwing shocking violence or jokes at an audience are two of the easiest ways of provoking a visceral reaction. Get their attention and you can make them think and that’s Bobcat’s modus operandi on the movie. Sensationalistic? Sure, but with a purpose, like all good satire.
You could argue that Goldthwait’s targets of attack are trivial and not worth the attention and perhaps that’s true. However, his opinions are valid and his film is a hilarious wake up call. I there are other contemporary issues more worthy of attention, but given my endless pop culture obsession and disgust with the director’s targets, I got swept up in all the bloody hilarity. Many people are equally obsessed with pop culture these days and given the fact that you’re reading a website entirely dedicated to film rather than a hard news site right now, you’re probably in that boat yourself, at least a little bit. Given that fact, satirical attacks on pop culture are completely valid. It is after all a major fixture in the lives of most people in the Western world and anything that takes up that much time and attention in so many people’s lives is worthy of debate.
One of the preeminent works of satire is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, an essay published in 1729 suggesting that the struggling Irish families should eat their own children as a means of easing their economic troubles. It sparked huge controversy at the time, but to any intelligent reader it’s clear that Swift in no way condones eating babies, it’s just a means of satirizing the disgustingly unsympathetic attitude to the poor that so many commentators had at that time. God Bless America falls into this form of agitation satire. Many will claim that the film is needlessly shocking and it is, but that’s kind of the point. This isn’t reality, it’s a fable. By presenting ludicrously exaggerated figures willing to embark on a killing spree as a means of waking up America to the degeneration of their culture, Goldthwait simply wants to draw attention to his opinion with comedy and images so extreme that they are impossible to easily dismiss. You may not necessarily like or agree with what Goldthwait has to say and that’s fine. At least he grabbed your attention and made you think about his argument, if only to dismiss it. That’s the point of good satire and combined with the underrated World Greatest Dad, Goldthwait has established himself as one of the best contemporary satirists working in film. His movies may be so out there that they’ll never be consumed as mass entertainment, but at least his brand of agitation comedy is available for those interested in experiencing it (the guy has definitely come a long way since growling his way through Police Academy sequels).
I’ll never claim that God Bless America is a masterpiece. The movie is definitely flawed with Bobcat throwing in a few rants to many and admittedly never offering any sort of solution to overcoming dumbed down American culture. He more or less just acknowledges his disgust. However, I applaud the means with which he makes his argument and the extreme places that he allows his imagination to go. Comedy is too often dismissed as merely light entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but the genre can also be used as means of examining themes an ideas too uncomfortable to explore dramatically. It would be entirely possible to play this same story and argument straight and I would have no problem dismissing that version of the moive as exploitative and empty. Satire is slightly different though. God Bless America is a thought experiment designed to make you laugh. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of a Bill Hicks rant about advertising or American culture. Is the subject trivial? In the grand scheme of things, sure. But it’s also about something that takes up so much space in the American landscape that it deserves to be discussed and satirized. Disagreeing with Goldthwait is fine, at least he made you consider his opinion. However, I don’t think the movie should be dismissed or ignored. The ideas are valid and worth the attention. Don’t take it too seriously though. It is a comedy after all, just one that will hopefully stick around in your head for a while after the laughter and/or disgust fades.