Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.
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2 Comments

Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

2 responses to “Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

  1. My husband is a high school teacher in Maine. Lately, several teachers at his school have started hearing students use the word “Jew” as an insult (much in the same way people used “gay” ten years ago). This is an entirely new thing—none of the teachers in his school saw this word, used in this way, before the election. Now, it’s a “trend” to use it as an insult.

    This is one small story, one school, one group of kids. But in Harvard, MA, where I grew up, swastikas have started appearing in the boy’s bathroom in the high school.

    So, I’m saying that… I understand. It’s not funny anymore. A horror we thought was behind us has sprung up anew. There is nothing humorous about that.

    Like

    • Wow, that’s horrifying. I wonder if the kids deploying those symbols understand their meaning in the same way we do…and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is happening right around the time that WWII is passing from society’s living memory. That’s not the only thing making things “easier” for xenophobic, nationalist, and racist rhetoric and hate crimes to take root and proliferate, but it must be part of what makes this so prevalent.

      Like

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