I happened to catch the new film by director Bobcat Goldthwait over the weekend, “God Bless America”, and I think it is a wonderful jumping off point for a serious discussion about human nature. If you are not familiar with his work as a director, he is an enthusiast of extremely dark satire. His set-ups are about the most bizarre and disturbing you could imagine. In fact, the plot of his latest, about two very different individuals who hook up and go on a killing spree of America’s stupidest and meanest personalities because they are fed up with American culture, is probably his least controversial in my mind. That will give you an idea of the kind of dark territory he lives in as a filmmaker. “God Bless America” is not a great piece of cinema. The rants about different aspects of American culture the two leads engage in can range from justified to trite to completely out of touch. But as a conversation starter, it has real value, as do all of Goldthwait’s films. So what conversation is he trying to start?
By the very nature of his methods and the materials he is using, Mr. Goldthwait will certainly turn off a fair number of mainstream viewers. But the feature of his work that will turn off those people is exactly the thing that is most interesting and valuable. His great gift as a filmmaker is to take the darkest and most disturbing inclinations of human nature, let his characters indulge in them, and then make us as viewers relate to those characters. Of course, this is not a journey everyone would be willing to take, because we are most afraid of the darkness that exists within us all. We prefer to look at whatever it is that drives people to commit heinous and disgusting acts as a mysterious evil that is other to us. We rush to condemn anyone who could commit such acts as inhuman, and we do not dare attempt to put ourselves in their shoes or believe we or anyone we know could be capable of such atrocity. The truth is, the dark and evil deeds of men and women are not other, they are part of human nature.
There are no easy answers to questions of why humans commit such atrocities upon each other and the world around us. However, one merely need to look at any point throughout human history to see that ‘evil’, as we classify it, is a part of human nature. If it were not, history would look quite different. But evil is indeed a classification, a societal judgement, subjective in nature. According to the Bible, to kill is a sin, an evil. However, we have developed so many different classifications for killing that it can be judged anywhere from evil to heroic, depending on the circumstances. What is evil changes over time as society changes, and what is evil can be different from culture to culture, although globalization and technology are moving us closer every day to a universal judgement, which does not make it any less subjective.
However, when it is presented as black and white in the public arena, we lose valuable lessons and information. Because what evil really represents is a catalyst for change. If everything were fine all the time, there would be no need to change, and therefore no need to move forward, to evolve. The term ‘necessary evil’ probably exists for this reason. It is not that an evil rises up from nowhere magically or comes from some outside place, it is that either the societal judgement changes, or the form of an existing evil changes in response to new technology or opportunity. Show me a utopia, and I will show you a person waiting to figure out how to exploit it, or a person already exploiting it who has not been identified yet. This does not make me a cynic or a nihilist, far from it. It makes me a believer in change, in evolution, and in the evidence of all of civilized human history. Look at democracy, once thought to be the height of societal structure that would bring freedom and prosperity to all. And now look at the situation we are in as a country and the ways in which our democratic government is failing us. It is begging for a change, for an evolution, but we have not yet reached the tipping point where we identify and point out the evil in it and rise up to force change, though we may be close.
Let me get back to Mr. Goldthwait now. He forces us to not only look at and accept the dark side of human nature, but he actually makes us sympathize with his characters who act on these dark impulses if we give him the chance. More than that, he makes us angry at the society and its members who would judge these people as evil. Now that is a gift, because if we can do this in the setting of a film, maybe, just maybe, someday we can do it within our actual society with real people. When we can look at the student who shoots up his school, or the ‘terrorist’ who blows up a building, and try to understand what it says about what in our society needs changing, then we will have reached a place of significant power. When we merely brand these people as evil and scapegoat them for larger societal problems, we are losing out and slowing down the process of evolution.
As long as we have the ability to judge good from evil, there will be evil. It we lose that ability, or evolve beyond such a simplistic black & white worldview, then evil will be gone, because it is a concept of our creation. I propose that we can eliminate evil not by eliminating the side of human nature that leads to evil deeds, but by changing our understanding of what evil is, and what purpose it serves. I applaud Mr. Goldthwait for boldly advancing a different view. If you wish to check out his work, I suggest you rent “World’s Greatest Dad”, as it is his best film, with a brilliant performance by Robin Williams. (P.S. – sadly, the trailer I included is rather tame and doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how dark and amazing the premise of this movie really is)