TIFF 2011: Another Take On GOD BLESS AMERICA

     September 19, 2011

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.

god-bless-america-movie-image-03So 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.

god-bless-america-movie-image-01You 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).

god-bless-america-movie-image-02I’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.

Rating: B+

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  • Edward Lee

    “One man’s Citizen Kane is another man’s Glen Or Glenda and it’s impossible to discredit either opinion. ”

    Wrong. Big wrong. In fact, this sentence ALONE guarantees that I would never — in a million years — ever read one of your reviews. When you start from a point of ignorance of film criticism, then you’re only trafficking in ignorance.

    • jymmmymack

      Maybe you should learn to read. He didn’t say Citizen Kane was the equivalent of Glen or Glenda. He didn’t even say that some people think Glen or Glenda was a masterpiece, or that Citizen Kane wasn’t a masterpiece. It’s an expression. “One man’s Ware and Peace is another man’s Twilight.” “One man’s Sgt. Pepper’s is another man’s Ice Ice Baby.” He was making an analogy. He was saying, what one man considers to be a masterpiece, another might think is a complete atrocity. I know some people who love Black Swan and think it is an amazing piece of art. I know a couple of people who think Black Swan is a piece of trash that should be giggled at and ridiculed by a midnight movie audience.

      • Edward Lee

        No, I read it just fine the first time, but, as long as we’re throwing ad hominims, maybe you should learn to think.

      • jymmmymack

        First of all it’s ad hominEm. Second, you don’t even know the definition of ad hominem. If I were to say, “you have made poor investment opportunities, so your thoughts on Citizen Kane are completely unfounded.” Ad hominem is bringing up irrelevant criticisms in order to negate or belittle someone’s argument. Making fun of someone within the context is not an ad hominem. I said that you should learn to read as a humorous way of pointing out that you misread and misinterpreted the article. Within the context, your exaggerated inability to read is the reason for your inability to understand a common expression. So, next time you try to sound smart and completely ignore the fact that someone pointed out an error in your argument, research your references thoroughly so as to avoid looking like a fool… again.

      • Edward Lee

        Right, jymmmmmymack. How’s your latest viewing of “Ware and Peace” working out for ya? You might wanna look in the mirror before you accuse others of not spelling things correctly, d-bag. My argument is s-o-u-n-d; it’s clearly your skull that’s cracked.

      • jymmmymack

        You’re right, I accidentally typed an “e”. Still doesn’t change the fact that you don’t know what ad hominem means. Ironically, you’ve actually provided a perfect example of an ad hominem. See, you ridiculed me for my typo as a means of belittling what I said about your lack of knowledge without ever addressing the fact that you don’t know what the phrase means OR commenting on the fact that you don’t understand a common expression. You argue that “Johnny’s opinion is crap” because the film is “crap.” If you really want to talk about approaching film criticism from a position of “ignorance”, you have no further to look than at yourself. Criticism (I assume you’re referring to the art of reviewing, and not actual theoretical criticism, as I don’t think you’d be able to fully grasp the concepts in that category) is in its very nature subjective. If it weren’t subjective, then every RT score would be either 100% or 0%. Everyone would either love the film or hate it. As it stands, some people still like “crappy” movies. So, I’ll go look in the mirror and smile, and go about my day knowing that I am not a “d-bag.”

    • Markus

      I’d say it’s ironic that an article defending people’s ability to like different films is countered by someone essentially stating that no one is allowed to have that opinion, but that isn’t actually irony; it’s just someone being a dick in a comments section.

      • Craig

        One man’s expression is another man’s subliminal kill command.

      • Edward Lee

        You must be reading different talkbacks than I. If you’re referring to my observation, then lemme help you out: I’m not saying that anyone need agree with my estimation … I’m only saying that you can tell an awful lot about the way a “critic” “criticizes” by the words he uses, and I learned that I wouldn’t waste any time with THIS reviewer’s “observations” b/c the argument presented is baseless. Just b/c Johnny thinks XANADU is a piece of crap doesn’t make XANADU a piece of crap, any more than it makes Johnny’s opinion a piece of crap. Johnny’s opinion is a piece of crap b/c he begins from a position of i-g-n-o-r-a-n-c-e of effective film c-r-i-t-i-c-i-s-m. It’s a subtle difference, and anyone schooled in the art of film criticism (and, yes, it IS an art form) knows that right out of the gate.

  • Markus

    “but given my endless pop culture obsession and disgust with the director’s targets, I got swept up in all the bloody hilarity.”

    This is why this makes me a bit uneasy; it’s the “I’m ok with it as long as I agree with it” justification. With the inclusion of a Bill O’Reilly metaphor, this’ll probably get a few comparisons to the rhetoric surrounding Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting a few months ago. It’s easy to relate to someone taking out their anger on vapid celebrities, but it’s a short skip and jump over to a senseless shooting rampage.

    Compare it to Boondock Saints; no one is going to feel bad if drug dealers and mobsters start turning up dead. But it’s harder to defend the idea of killing celebrities just because they annoy us. Yes, everyone hates Snooki, and people can relate to a film where celebrities are targetted, but a shooting spree might be much. No one ever ate a baby because they were hungry, but someone did shoot John Lennon for being famous.

    • Bob Sagat

      I’d bet my left nut someone’s eaten a baby because they were hungry.

    • ted d. wang

      I’d bet my right nut someone had Lennon shot because he was disturbing the shite.

  • Wladi

    I’m with Goldberg review on this one…good films r good films and crappy films r crappy films beyond matters of taste…

  • Ira Nayman

    Actually, A MODEST PROPOSAL is about a plan to sell the children of the poor Irish to the wealthy English for food. Your brief description of that seminal piece of satirical writing isn’t quite correct. The problem with these kinds of errors is that they tend to undermine the broader point you are trying to make. :-(

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  • Dennis

    I was just happy to see a site post opposing views. I NEVER base my opinions on somebody elses. I do however think the movie will be amazing. I have seen the trailer and a few clips from it. Honestly, the idea that pining for the good old days means bringing back slavery is rediculous. It means looking back to the time when people said please and thank you, held the door for the person behind you, and just plain had some decency. Being an older person who has seen a few generations go by, I pine for those things too. I grew up at the end of all of those bad things, but there were good things going on then too. A man recently god carjacked in front of a crowd and the people just walked over him as he crawled to a phone to call for help. We need a few people we guns to shock us back into some semblence of societal thinking, instead of just putting on the blinders when we leave the house and only thinking about ourselves.