Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic/Syriana

Finally went to see "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" at the Kendall the other day. Not too much to say about it. It would have been a good HBO special, something you're flipping channels and come across, good for a few laughs. The much-touted un-PCness of it amounted to lines like "If God gives you AIDS, make lemonAIDS," and insights on why "chink" is a more acceptable slur than "nigger". Quite rightly, Silverman points out that we make fun of those we aren't afraid of.

Comedy is always about pushing the envelope, somehow. There are a couple of jokes about 9/11, but what would be most offensive to those apt to be offended isn't any punchline of any joke, but the way Silverman mocks the solemnity of the memory of that day. In fact, the last "scene" of the movie has Silverman's awkward "understudy" doing several of her most supposedly offensive jokes while the audience looks on stone-faced. Translation: a lot of the humor is in the delivery. And Silverman is clever about it. When she is at her most daring jokewise she protects herself and her audience by offering up the lines in an obviously put-on persona: basically a brunette variation on the dumb blonde. She makes offensive remarks, but not as Sarah Silverman.

It's postmodern comedy, I guess you could say, because it assumes everyone's in on the big joke, that we all know Silverman's playing a role--we're not only laughing at the jokes, not even primarily at the jokes, but at that clueless character who would tell them. And Silverman, in the meta realm where she is the real Sarah Silverman (this is getting awfully complicated, isn't it?), is saying, look at this spoiled, clueless JAP! So in a sense she's making fun of the clueless JAP who is making fun of the "chinks" and the "niggers".

As a kind of meditation on the nature of political correctness, as it's been marketed, it's not very enlightening. If being irreverent and un-PC simply means you can utter racial slurs with impunity, or reduce whole populations to stereotypes, then being PC isn't all that bad, in my opinion. It's relative, isn't it? It's funny to call someone with Downs Syndrome a retard unless your daughter or your little brother happens to have it. Then it's not all that funny. That's the thing about epithets and slurs.

But people who are obsessed with a PC conspiracy (some call it "soft totalitarianism") are missing the point that, really, in its moderate form, it's just a substitute for civility in modern multiculti Western democracies. So many different cultures and subcultures intermingle in our free market societies that something someone belonging to one of them does is bound to rub you the wrong way. Maybe it's something as innocuous as the food they eat, or that they look different or speak with a funny accent. So you make fun of their food or their faces or their funny accents. Sometimes it's in an innocent way, but sometimes it's malicious. Social censure rightly kicks in when it veers toward the malicious.

A typical comment in an anti-PC chatroom is: "every time someone apologizes, PC has won another one." Or (idiosyncratic syntax intact): "So why dose he have to appoligise? we live too much in a world with their touchy feely stuff and where its consitered wrong to insult anyone except if their a conservative christian who oppses revionist history,evolution,new age paganism and other such stuff" or "I've been watching some of the Twilight Zone Marathon and it hits me more now than ever that what scared us back then has become reality today" (all of which were found here).

PC excesses abound, don't get me wrong, but there's a bigger picture here, of a society in perpetual transition, where demographics are constantly changing, and privileges of race, class and gender are temporary. Understandably, this pisses people off. What I read in anti-PC rants is certainly no better than what they're ranting against. Exceptionalism; the victimization of the majority by minorities; the fear, paranoia, and hatred that attend social change. And so on.

As I've said elsewhere, harping on the excesses of Political Correctness, real or imagined, does have its purposes. It's a way of framing issues, first of all. But mostly it's a way to rail against diversity, affirmative action, sexual harassment suits, gay marriage, even handicap parking, without having to own up to outright bigotry. This doesn't mean that Affirmative Action, for example, was a perfect social program, or that busing was a smashing success. It doesn't mean that it's not irritating when the parking lot is full except for those ten or twelve handicap spots that always seem to be vacant. It doesn't mean that sexual harassment policies have not on occasion been abused by those they were meant to protect. It does not mean that you have to agree with civil unions.

What it does mean is that in civil society, in our public discourse, regardless of whether or not we agree, we make an effort to confer basic respect, acknowledging publicly the dignity afforded every citizen. That means, no name-calling, first of all. And it extends to epithets, like "colored" that have a problematic history, as well as to slurs. Words have weight. We have a duty in democratic discourse to safeguard the dignity of all participants. Do people go overboard? Like I said, it's relative.

But it's clear this is what irks those who harp on PC's excesses. Wider use of gender-neutral terms bugs some people. But the truth is, we live in a society in which gender-neutral terms are often appropriate and accurate. When you scratch the surface, it's really that fact that bugs the people obsessing over it. And about all you can say to those people is: get over it.

Censure has always been a tool of social groups, and there have always been off-limit behaviors, gestures, and words. They reflect the values of the group. You will not be thrown into prison by the PC Gestapo if you use words like "faggot," "nigger" and "kike" but you may find you don't get invited to many dinner parties. Unless you're Sarah Silverman.

Anywho. That was awfully heavy, wasn't it?

But not half as heavy as "Syriana". Yikes. I will admit that one of the main reasons I went to see this one was George Clooney. I'm not a big fan, but when I saw his new look... is it just me or is he not tons sexier with the extra heft, the bearish beard, and that sort of terrified fuck-me look in his eyes he's got all through the film? Even in a torture scene that rivals anything Schlesinger or Tarantino has come up with. I mean, would you rather have your teeth pulled--without anesthetic, duh!--your ear cut off, or all of your fingernails pulled out one by one?

Director Stephen Gaghan takes us through a twisty tale that would have been a thriller if it had had a plot to begin with. It's kind of impressionistic, is the thing. You emerge with the basic idea, though: government is organized crime. Some of the same murky territory Spielberg is interested in exploring in Munich Gaghan explores here. "Bob," the Clooney character, doesn't know who he's working for in the end, just like Avner.

And like in Munich and Paradise Now, we are introduced to terrorists and suicide bombers, and more than cursorily. Here, as in the other films, the terrorists are not exactly unsympathetic. In Munich the Palestinian terrorists are made more understandable by their speechifying, which is echoed almost word for word later in the film by Avner's Zionist mother.

In Paradise Now, the story is told entirely from the Palestinian side, and we are shown the poverty and hopelessness of the suicide bombers' milieu.

Syriana shows us something similar, and ties it in with the evils of big oil. When one oil company is bought by another, a bunch of Pakistani workers are told to amscray. Two of them find their way (don't ask me how) to a kind of radical religious school in the idyllic countryside of Whereverabia, where formerly disaffected youths are being groomed to become suicide bombers. Still, it's a pretty neutral portrayal I would say, until the end, when they blow up an oil tanker instead of a bunch of innocent civilians somewhere. I'm not saying it couldn't or doesn't happen like that, but at least Paradise Now looked its subject matter squarely in the eye. The human cost goes beyond the suicide bombers themselves. Both scenes end in a fade to white, by the way.

There were silly cinematic conceits in Syriana, too. The idea that a Saudi Prince would be as naive and lax in regards to his own security as the Saudi Prince in Syriana is, particularly when he is supposedly some big-ass wannabe reformer. In one of the final scenes, the CIA is satellite-tracking his convoy of identical SUVs--identical except, of course, that His Royal Highness's SUV is the only one with a sun-roof. He wanted the one with the big bulls-eye painted on the roof, but they didn't have it in stock.

There are also needlessly conventional touches. Each of the characters we've followed, none of whom, except maybe Clooney's, we give a rat's ass about, is given a short scene in the film's quiet coda, that we may know their individual fates. The most gratuitous and annoying is the final scene where Jeffrey White's character comes home to find the mysterious personage who has been menacing White's character's home-life throughout the film sitting on his front steps, drunk. The scenes with the two of them have a mock-mysterious feel. Is this his alcoholic father? His leather daddy lover? A stalker? The answer is: WHO CARES. Matt Damon's character's wife is similarly extraneous. To a point, OK, but to see them reconciled in the end didn't give me goosebumps. I wanted him to hook up with Prince Fancy-pants with the bulls-eye on his forehead, personally, but it was not to be. Damn that CIA!

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned thrillers without the domesticating influences, is what I wanna know. A gesture is all it takes to humanize a character. Good acting and writing give characters their depth. Adding superfluous characters in an attempt to do this adds nothing but length to a movie, and Syriana was quite long enough without daddy and wifey along for the ride. In fact, I think White's daddy was thrown in because all of the other characters had a back story, and Gaghan thought, well, what the hell?

But still well worth the trip.

The cinema was not crowded, by the way. My friend Robert and I went to a very early showing. Everyone was middle-aged and looked boring, which was fitting, I suppose. There were two dumpy broads who sat down the row from us. One talked through the previews, and I thought, OK, no problem. But the way she was chattering it was like she had a lot to say. You know how some people are, and it was all very urgent. Probably her friend had suggested the movie, so that they could spend an obligatory couple of hours together but she wouldn't have to listen to her bang on the whole time. No such luck. She yacked through the whole friggin movie. I'm not kidding.

While I was reconciled to suffering in silence, dreaming up violent deaths for them (and substituting the big blonde who was doing all the talking for George Clooney during the torture scene), Robert was not. At one point he turned, snapped his fingers and hissed at them! I almost pissed my pants.

But as is usually the case, this only emboldened them. Try politely asking someone not to smoke, or confronting someone on a cell phone. I guarantee you will get your head bitten off. You will be denounced, degraded, called every dirty name in the book. You and your family will be threatened with bodily harm, or death. And if you are the one on the receiving end of the polite request, nine times out of ten you will be the one biting heads off, denouncing, degrading, and threatening dismemberment and death. Isn't it funny how things that annoy us to no end when someone else does them, when we're caught doing them arouse murderous ire in us, though, truth is, we're the offending party. And it's way beyond mere defensiveness. There must be a name for this specific phenomenon in the DSM-IV. Help me out here, people.

There was a letter in the "Oh, Cruel World!" section of the latest issue of the Weekly Dig that summed it up pretty nicely, I thought:

"To all the chickenshit pussies who get all hot and bothered whenever I talk on my cell phone, take more than two seconds to get money out of my wallet, drive only 20 miles over the speed limit (rather than your preferred 47), or otherwise do anything that wouldn't be such a big fucking deal to any human being who isn't a neurotic loser in desperate need of a swift kick in the ass: Don't roll your eyes at me. Don't sigh. Don't mumble under your breath—or over your breath when I'm too far away for it to be clear that you're actually talking to me. Don't send anonymous letters to local papers that I don't read. Instead, tell me what the fuck I'm doing that's getting your panties wedged so far up your crack that you can taste your own shit. Get the stick out of your ass, the chip off your shoulder and the sand out of your vagina, and grow a backbone."

Hmmm... if I had to choose between the "neurotic losers" and a paranoid, megalomaniacal psychotic loser like the one who wrote this rant... hmmm. Lemme get back to you on that one.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic
Skip it.
3.8 on the film snob-o-meter.
2.1 on the fidgetron.

5.5 on the film snob-o-meter.
7.9 on the fidgetron.


Blogger reformist_muslim said...

Great post. Unfortunately Syriana like doesn't come out in the UK till March.

4:36 PM  

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