Wednesday, July 24, 2013

God Bless Cynicism

Last night a compatriot and I took part in America's newest, favorite past-time: scrolling through Netflix's instant catalog. After a shorter-than-usual perusing of titles (20 minutes), we landed on Bobcat Goldthwait's ironically-titled "God Bless America." The movie had been endorsed fby my friend's co-worker, and I had enjoyed what I heard from Goldthwait on the Harmontown podcast. We were both aware of the movie's basic premise (spoilers ahead): a man goes on a killing spree of annoying people. We were both prepared for the darkness that followed, but in the end, the ensuing violence felt counterproductive and the thesis, ham-handed

I'm an admittedly cynical person. I use comedy and snark to combat things I don't like (which is an ever-growing list). My twitter feed is full of criticism and subtle jabs at media coverage. Cynicism is the tool I use to deal with many of the issues I have with society. It's the reason I love The Daily Show so much, and it's the reason this movie seemed right up my alley.

But it didn't turn out that way.

The first 15 minutes of "God Bless America" are somewhat pleasurable to watch. The main protagonist, Frank, confronts all sorts of annoyances in his life: his inconsiderate neighbors, his droll co-workers, and the insufferable media all around him. He daydreams of disposing these elements of his life in a particularly satisfying fashion (skeet-shooting a crying baby is the most horrifying, but also the funniest). After losing his job and being diagnosed with a inoperable brain tumor, he decides to turn this fantasy into a reality, and that's where all the fun was sucked out of the film.

The next 80 minutes are filled with Frank overbearing us with rants about society sudden decline into a bunch of celebrity-obsessed, loud-mouthed dickheads. None of the commentary is particularly eye-opening, but that doesn't stop Frank from jumping into a preachy monologue in nearly every scene.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the film was its relationship with violence. For all of the negative social commentary on America, the country's infatuation with violence is left completely ignored. In fact, it is clearly celebrated in the film. During the kill scenes, Frank and his sidekick are beautifully framed while disposing of the wicked. The young girl's hair whips in the wind as she leans out of a yellow sports car and fires on unsuspecting protesters wielding "God Hates Fags" signs . Frank's final massacre literally takes place center-stage with lights flashing upon him and his body shaking majestically in slo-mo from the kickback of his assault rifle.

Defenders of the film will no doubt point out that the film is just harmless fun. The film isn't promoting violence, it's just supposed to be a silly, "wouldn't it be awesome if..." scenario, but 'we totally wouldn't ever do it.' And I get it. I'm not going to go out and murder a bunch of people, and neither is anyone who saw that movie (probably). But this movie got very preachy at times and took very serious tones. Because of that, it's impossible to view the glorified violence as a complete break from reality.

But it wasn't really the violence that really bothered me. It was the films snarky, sarcastic tone.

When talking with his co-worker about an annoying shock-jock radio DJ, Frank rolls his eyes at his peer's suggestion that he's "just saying what we're all thinking." He replies radio DJs aren't being edgy, they're just saying what sells. But the exact criticisms can be made of this movie. It's a mass-targeting of arrogant teens, fear-mongering talking heads, and celebrity culture. All of it is well-traveled territory and has become the culture of the new media. We constantly mock and debase others through tweets and internet comments, and none of it is accomplishing anything.

The culture of cynicism that has spawned from places like the depths of internet forums and shows like "The Soup" (which I admittedly enjoy from time to time) is a growing issue. It started with anonymous comments on the internet. But we've become so comfortable with trashing everything we see, that it has spilled over into popular culture. Rather than create anything positive in our life, it has become much more commonplace and "cool" to tear down others. We're beginning to identify ourselves by not what we like, but what we hate. And to what end? Even Frank accomplishes nothing. The news barely picks up his murders, and after killing a conservative pundit, the victim becomes a martyr, only strengthening his cause. Frank, unsurprised by this development, mutters "I'm just glad he's dead." Which brings us to the real point of all this cynicism and hate: it's completely masturbatory.

Being negative brings nothing to the table. It's completely self-serving. A shitty comment on the internet, a fan booing his team. All it does is please the criticizer and does nothing to better the world around him. Even murdering dozens of people changed nothing for Frank. It briefly gave him a smidge of happiness, then he died. Nothing else.

"God Bless America" tries to paint this country as a land inescapable from the incessantly-stupid media and all-around terrible people. Frank is constantly seen on his couch watching terrible reality shows, and when he tries to change the channel, it is either something equally as offensive or a regurgitation of the same program he just saw. And while this culture is certainly pervasive in America, it is anything but inescapable. Many believe, myself included, that we are in a golden age of television right now. While there are channels like TLC and MTV that have completely lost their way, there are stations like FX, AMC and IFC, who are doing amazing things right now. Perhaps instead of literally shooting down dumb, hateful culture, we should spend our energy supporting the good things in life. Turn off "First Take" and support intelligent debate through podcasts, or donate to public radio.

As a recovering cynic myself, I know how hard this can be. It is so much easier to make fun than it is to support things. I still find it hard to pass up the occasional shot at movies like "Grown Up 2". Saying you hate something tells nothing about yourself and is therefore easy to state. To admit you like or love something is to open yourself up. You become vulnerable. You, yourself, could become a cynic's target. But it's worth it.

It's worth it to take all of the things you hate in life, all the haters in life, and put them so far in your rear-view mirror that you can't make out their figure any longer. I'm a huge sports fan, but have grown tired of ESPN's "embrace debate" format. For a while, I screamed at the top of my lungs at people like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith and how they were ruining the sports media. But now, I can't even remember the last time I watch ESPN for anything other than a live sporting event. There is plenty of great sports coverage available at SB Nation (full disclosure, I write for one of their blogs), Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, Yahoo!, and plenty of others. There's no shortage of good things out there, if you spend the energy to look.

But negativity can occasionally produce good things. The aforementioned Daily Show has done a brilliant job skewering cable news networks and has created a culture of skepticism and critical thinking. The key word there is created. They don't just blindly trash CNN and Fox News, they, in turn, create counter-arguments and offer viewers an alternative way of thinking.

However, most negativity in this culture creates nothing. We trash Justin Beiber because it's "edgy" (for an adult, nowhere near his target audience) to mock his fame. He took a picture with the Stanley Cup? Great. Who cares? Why waste your effort pretending to be outraged by something so meaningless? It's all a waste of time, effort, and pent-up emotion.

While youtube comments and angry letters are individually harmless, together they have created a culture that thrives on snarkiness. We are creating terrible things, just so we can enjoy devouring them. It's carnivorous. It's not edgy, nor clever. It's a waste of time, and worse, it's counterproductive. Do us, and yourself a favor, use social media to promote and spread the good, not trash the bad. I'll do my best to follow suit.

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