Thursday, April 07, 2022

The Laughter of Jackals

When I was young, back in the 1970s, disaster movies were in vogue. Perhaps the most memorable was Jaws (1975), but before that were such noteworthies as The Omega Man (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Airport and Earthquake (1974). Afterward came such screen gems as Rollercoaster (1977), Meteor, Hurricane and The China Syndrome (1979). All in all, there were more than fifty such major Hollywood disaster productions released in the period.

And everybody was going to see them and talking about how great the special effects were or how spectacularly people were shown dying in them.

Odd, don’t you think?

Since the ’70s, they haven’t gone away; in fact, there are more made today than ever. They may not always be top grossers, but they invariably get their share of the box office. War of the Worlds, Day of Destruction, Earthquake (again), Contagion, Godzilla, World War Z, 2012: Doomsday, Armageddon … the trend is still with us: in fact we cannot help but note that if anything the scale on which the disasters are realized is ever increasing. But I still think it’s weird.

How can you be entertained by your own destruction?

But people are.

“The only emotion people feel nowadays is interest or the lack of it. Curiosity and interest and boredom have replaced the so-called emotions we used to read about in novels or see registered on actors’ faces. Even the horrors of the age translate into interest. Did you ever watch anybody pick up the newspaper and read the headline PLANE CRASH KILLS THREE HUNDRED? How horrible! says the reader. But look at him when he hands you the paper. Is he horrified? No, he is interested. When was the last time you saw anybody horrified?”

— Walker Percy, in Lancelot

Reality TV

And it’s not just phony disasters. Think of how many people continue to be fascinated with the myriad conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma bombing or 9/11. Or think of how many people turn on the evening news or watch the internet for the latest details in this or that fiasco around the world. Slow motion replays of tidal waves engulfing costal Japan. Footage of raging California brush fires or the latest Kansas tornado. Mudslides in Honduras or China. Massacres in Somalia. Terrorists running amok in Kenya. Rocket attacks in Israel. Bullets pinging off helmets in Iraq. All kinds of fun.

Remember the brief and one-sided Gulf War of 1990, featuring General Schwartzkopf’s televised briefings of drones striking various targets? They called it the “Nintendo War”. And just after it was all over, I remember one wise guy posting the line, “Hey, how come they canceled that neat Desert Storm show?”

I think a lot of people felt that.

A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

Why do we laugh at disaster?

I’d like to think it indicated some kind of courage or hopefulness on our part, but I really don’t think it does. Really, it does not rise above prurient curiosity: we like to see destruction and death, and to ooh and aaah — not in sympathy, but in sheer amusement. We like other people’s disaster; and even when it gets close to home, as in the Louisiana hurricane or the Calgary flood, we get a thrill out of the very closeness of the thing — “Oooh, just missed me.”

Would we even flinch if our neighbor were murdered in his bed? Or would we watch the reruns of the cops picking up the bodies and call all our friends to pick up the feed.

I don’t know. I don’t want to be cynical about human nature … but sometimes, how can you not be?

The Bible talks about this. Peter says, “Scoffers will come in the last days. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of [the Lord’s] coming?’ ”

What are they asking for?

Jude says it escapes their notice. It escapes their notice that God is very, very good at judging the wicked. He’s done it in the past. He judged Sodom, he judged Egypt, he judged angels and he judged the whole earth in the Flood. Yes, the Lord knows how to keep the ungodly for the day of destruction

But they do not fear. Rather they mock — they laugh. They laugh even when judgment arrives. They do not recognize the signs of their own destruction. Rather, Russia rises and they are amused. Syria slaughters its Christian citizens, and they stand and watch. The Mideast explodes and threatens Israel, and they turn up the volume. The portents of disastrous plagues, environmental destruction and death rise around them, and they settle back in their La-Z-Boy recliners with a cold beer in one hand and a sandwich in the other, and watch how it all plays out.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

The Academy Award-nominated 1994 movie Quiz Show tracks the story of the infamous “21” game show fraud of the late 50s. The opening credits are set to the jazzy notes of Bobby Darin’s 1960 hit Mack the Knife. The film portrays how wayward academic and unlikely TV hero Charles Van Doren was lured by avaricious NBC executives to sacrifice his integrity and reputation to sustain their greed. When the deception was exposed, it culminated in a very public congressional inquiry, with Van Doren as the ultimate fall guy. Other than the permanent destruction of Van Doren’s credibility, the repercussions turned out to be negligible. NBC went on, its sponsors continued, quiz shows went on, the executives escaped responsibility and the American viewing audience continued to love its entertainment as much as ever. In the film, cynical NBC executive Martin Rittenhome quips to prosecutor Richard Goodwin in the aftermath, “The audience didn’t tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.”

The end credits of Quiz Show are also soundtracked by Mack the Knife. But this time, it’s Lyle Lovett’s slower and much more sinister rendition of the same tune, Moritat (1990). It is only then that the viewer gradually comes to realize the sort of horrible lyrics that have been hidden beneath the boppy Bobby Darren tune:

“And the ghastly fire in Soho,
Seven children at a go
In the crowd stands Mac the knife, but
He isn’t asked, he doesn’t know.”

“Mack” is a remorseless killer, an assassin of young women, helpless children and vulnerable old men.

We’ve been snapping our fingers to the sound of murder.

As the credits roll, director Robert Redford gives us a slow-motion pan of quiz show audience, everyone laughing and applauding, in slow motion. The effect is haunting. Smiles turn to the grimaces of jackals, laughter into a bellows of stupefied amusement, the whole scene into a cabaret of moron clowns. No one “gets it”. They’re just being entertained.

Entertained by their own destruction.

The End

Well, in his masterful poem The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot penned this oft-quoted line: “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.”

But T.S. Eliot was wrong. It ends in neither.

It ends in a roar of idiotic laughter.

1 comment :

  1. Should idle speculation be answered with idle speculation? Isn't that what you are doing here, perhaps in a sudden sense of frustration? What you are up against is probably hardwired biologically and spiritually and is mediated by adrenalin. A need to escape boredom, or in Star Trek parlance "to go where no man has gone before." This is really an ancient trend as shown in this article describing inscriptions on an ancient rune stone.

    The key to these ancient riddles may lie
    in a father’s love for his dead son

    This inborn trend seems to motivate certain types to seek out, and not care about, danger whether it be physical or spiritual. It's useless to fret about if that's not your cup of tea even if it often seems foolish. And, let's face it, it does often proof quite entertaining, and if it wasn't for the outlier types we'd all still be riding around in horse and buggy. I for one would not willingly have stepped into a heap of metal fully expecting it to lift me up into the air. So should we complain if that's what is needed to move the world forward? Should we all be sedentary by the rules kind of people and would that suffice to move the world forward?

    My opinion? I set a trap, because, think about it, how can anyone be more effective and quietly energetic in moving this world forward then that person who has allied himself with the most powerful force in the universe, his creator. No matter who you think you are, you are not able to go up against " Our Father, who art in heaven … thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven…"