Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Who's Crazier, Who's Funnier?












Apparently there are two new cinematic satires out there, Bill Maher's funny (Maher hopes) nonfiction take on religion and some guy's feature-length "comedy," "American Carol," in which documentary-maker Michael Moore (a character based on him, that is) is given a Scrooge-like tour of what would have happened had the U.S. not fought in certain wars. The tour sounds more like the one George takes in It's A Wonderful Life, but oh well.

I won't see either of these movies because I'm boycotting Hollywood films. Just imagine how terrified Hollywood moguls must be of my boycott.

I don't think I'll even watch these films when they percolate down the electronic strata and end up on cable or "free" TV.

I think they'll be bad satire; that's the main problem. Long ago and far away, I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on satire, and I almost remember some of what I wrote.

The satire of Moore will be (is) bad because he's not a worthy object of satire, which ridicules vice and/or folly. As satire ridicules, however, it implicitly asks to be judged by the worthiness, the heft, of its target. For example, Jonathan Swift took on all of England, if not all of humanity.
In the cinematic realm, Mel Brooks took on the entire hallowed genre of the Western, as well as taking on the issue of race in the U.S., in Blazing Saddles.

Let's assume you don't like Moore's documentaries or you don't think they're very good. Fine. They and he still aren't vicious and foolish enough to fuel funny, worthy satire. Also, Moore never argued against all U.S. wars, just the ones lots of people have doubts about. Also, even if he's misguided, he's not mean, at least not in the way Scrooge is. Moore's a successful film-maker, a big moose of a guy, and a person with opinions, most of which are about social class, not war. Maybe you could squeeze out a three-minute SNL sketch on him--something about Michael Moore's Hollywood entourage, or Michael Moore in Cannes. There are some humorous possibilities there. Or Michael Moore dating Paris Hilton? That might be funny. For a moment.

But for a feature-film-length satire, you need to think big. Think Dr. Strangelove. The guy who got the financial backing for "American Carol" must have leveraged some moguls who simply don't like Moore and think he's too lefty. Maybe some of them thought the scene he did with Charleton Heston (when Heston was already clearly a bit befuddled) was gratuitous. Who knows? But satirizing Michael Moore is like satirizing Bruce Springsteen. If you hate the documentaries or the music or are bugged by the success or something, just say so, in an email, a blog post, or a review. Not in a full-fledged satire, for heaven's sake. The genre doesn't work that way.

Maher's satire will fail for similar reasons. Religion is indeed big enough to satirize (many have done it well, including James Hogg), but Maher's gone after small targets like a Jesus impersonator and some village (in Ireland?) that still pays homage to some kind of figure of legend. In the one clip from the movie I've seen, the Jesus impersonator says to Maher, calmly, "What if you're wrong [about God]?" (Maher is an atheist, of course). Maher responds, "What if YOU'RE wrong?" I had exchanges like this with my brothers when we were adolescents. The exchanges were not the stuff of world-class satire.

Maher also apparently presents such revelations that some people of faith use their religion as an excuse to commit violence and even atrocities, and that some religious people are hypocritical. Next, I suppose, he will reveal that some politicians are insincere.

Apparently, Maher has a "theory" that (all?) people who believe in a religion or even in God have a mental disorder. If that's the case, he'd better hope there's a God. Also, who's crazier (and sadder)? Someone who goes to church once a week, finds some fellowship and contemplation, and then goes out for pancakes, or a middle-aged stand-up comic running around with a camera crew making fun of Jesus impersonators or arguing with people about religion?

In the realm of the religious, the ones that seem foolish and vicious enough to satirize are the extraordinarily wealthy pastors of mega-churches who literally preach "the gospel of wealth." Just imagine what Jesus would think of these clowns, or how Jonathan Swift (or Mel Brooks) would satirize them.

I'd rather see videos of Maher talking to smart people who write about religion, people like Garry Wills, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and so on. They all have sense of humor, and they know a massive amount about religion. Wills even wrote a book on the very religious and very funny G.K. Chesterton, devoutly Catholic, satirical in a most British way, inventive--really a kind of grandfather to the Monty Python folk, artistically speaking.

Maher attended Cornell, if memory serves, and he seems quite confident in his intellect and his sharp social criticism. He's a smart, hip guy. He'd probably have fun arguing with someone like Garry Wills, and it would probably be funnier than "Religuous," his movie, with a title that's not funny.

A better satiric target for Maher (not that he cares about, needs, or wants my advice) would be ABC and its parent company--the ones who fired him for saying that it took more courage to drive a car-bomb than to bomb a city from 30,000 feet (I'm paraphrasing). They fired him from a show called Politically Incorrect for making a comment that was politically incorrect not in the sense that reactionaries take the term (as something that would offend feminists or liberals), but that was politically incorrect because some advertisers pulled their money from his show. Media conglomerates. Corporations that fund TV shows. Now, there are some targets worthy of first-rate satire. (But I guess it would be hard to get backing for such a film in Hollywood. )

But everyday, ordinary religious people? Michael Moore? Whatever you think of them, they're just not vicious, foolish, and powerful enough to sustain satire. It's a genre-thing.

Full disclosure: I'm Catholic, having converted from a spiritual stew of atheism, agnosticism, and Zen about 8 years ago. I attend a progressive Jesuit parish. I've met several parishioners and Jesuits who seem funnier than Bill Maher, but that's not his fault. My parish just happens to have some humorous, ironic people in it. The parish does insane things like distribute large amounts of food to families in economic difficulties (the religion, or not, of the families is not relevant to their getting food. There isn't even a means test, so Bill Maher is welcome to a bag of groceries). Yes, of course there are 3 masses per weekend in which the parishioners believe bread and wine are inspirited. If you think that's irrational, you're right. Hence the term faith. No, the parishioners don't think God is an old man with a white beard who sits on a cloud and directs traffic (one of Maher's favorite jokes). Incidentally, of the best naturally talented satirists I know is a product of Jesuit education. Hmmmm.

But it's not a religion-thing. It's a genre-thing. Satirists need worthy targets.
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