I’m not sure if there is anybody out there reading this blog, but if so, then I would ask you to turn away from my work for a minute and look at something Matthew Walther published in The Week. It is a commentary on the rise of suicide in the United States, and the sad reflection this presents of what is supposedly the most prosperous nation on earth.
Suicide has always been of interest to me. Death was one of my first conscious concerns, and with suicide being perhaps the most scandalous of methods, it was naturally very absorbing to me. One of the results of this casual imagining was, for me, the normalization of suicide: at an early age, suicide became, in my eyes, a commonplace act of everyday existence. It was around this time that I watched the film Bad Santa, the protagonist of which is openly suicidal. Plenty of films depict suicidal people, but where Bad Santa differs is in the absence of sympathy for the titular character’s compulsion to self-destruction. The director is very clear in his view that, were this character to take his own life, it would be the natural ending to his miserable life.
The previous sentence was undoubtedly inspired by one of Walther’s statements, delivered in the most poignant paragraph of his most recent piece: “Taking drugs is not a reprieve from the misery of what you do with the rest of your time but the consummation of it.” Willie, the suicidal man of Bad Santa, spends his days almost literally drowning in booze, drinking himself into psychosis in a desperate, ill-fated effort to distract himself from the ugliness of existence—his own existence as well as that of the grotesque and mendacious American society in which he is cursed to live and work. He doesn’t want to be here, and while he is obviously not the only person in this country to be overcome with disgust at what he sees around him, his unhappiness is singular because it cannot be counterbalanced with something positive, something pretty. To him, even beauty is a source of disgust, as is witnessed in the opening scene, when he scowls at a group of successful people, all of whom are too busy having a good time to notice the miserable drunk to their right.
Bad Santa has been an annual tradition of mine since I was twelve years old. I have watched it on Christmas Eve every year since 2004—with the exception of 2015, which was easily the saddest year of my life, a year I was too depressed to watch any of my favorite movies. This year, however, I watched it on the night before Thanksgiving, which also happens to be when it was first released to theaters in 2003. During this viewing, I couldn’t help but notice how much has shifted culturally in the last fifteen years, as Bad Santa all too clearly demonstrates. In the days of the film’s debut, it was considered one of the most shocking mainstream releases in American cinematic history—not nearly as alarming as, say, A Clockwork Orange, but then again, Bad Santa is largely bloodless and nonviolent. How does a film with only one real act of violence possibly qualify as “shocking”?
It was shocking because it was truly transgressive. Violence is transgressive, but only superficially: because it is visceral, it can be “understood”, for lack of better word, equally well by both a child and an adult. Accordingly, it stands on very narrow ground for textual analysis: recently, I tried to write a comparative study of the violence in two versions of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the subject matter is not nearly as interesting to me today as it was when I was younger. Bad Santa, on the other hand, was transgressive morally: it depicted behavior that was bizarre and frightening to “normal” Americans because it followed a mentality and viewpoint—a negative mentality and viewpoint—that are so very foreign to the “normal”. Drinking to excess is one thing, but drinking to excess because one sincerely despises the people who comprise American society? Such was a bridge too far, even for many of those who claimed to enjoy dark humor.
However, the standard American mentality has changed considerably since the winter of 2003. It is no longer out of the ordinary for one to express contempt for society at large, although very few people choose to follow the example set by the folks who made Bad Santa and convey their disgust through salubrious methods. It is much easier, and more popular each day, to aim an assault rifle at a crowd of people, although this requires something more than animosity towards the culture that this crowd supposedly represents; this requires hatred for oneself, as well, a hatred so intense that even Willie’s alcoholic self-erasure could never consume it. We can understand that there is a profound difference between the restricted, if ambitious, bitterness of Bad Santa and the unloosed biliousness that, regrettably, has come to define the American experience.
Unfortunately, the two are often mistaken, and the fearful conclude that Bad Santa’s socio-cultural critique is the intellectual precursor to a real-life massacre. Plenty of other people make the same conflation: entire masses of unlearned nihilists and self-indulgent ignoramuses—the apathetic of America—wrongly believe that Bad Santa speaks to them, that the filmmakers share their slothful rejection of every form of virtue. These people, who are terminally lazy in thought and in morals, see in Bad Santa an endorsement of their noxious and destructive way of life. Could it be that they have blinded themselves through their endless sleep? Have their powers of perception, including self-perception, atrophied so irreversibly that they can no longer see the characters who defy their shameless way of life, in particular that of Thurman “the Kid” Merman? Did they miss the film’s entire final act, wherein Willie’s lifestyle is finally condemned and, at long last, rejected? Did they even watch the same film as I?
The proliferation of apathy in the United States has buoyed Bad Santa, elevating it to the rank of a cultural standard. But by the same course, the film’s transgressive potency has been muted, or at least substantially reduced. There has been, and there will continue to be, analysis of the characters’ strange behavior, in particular their sexual pursuits; what has ended is the discussion of how awful it is to watch Willie mistreat so many children. He swears at them and their parents, he ridicules their appearances and wishes, and so on and so forth. It was that element, the fact that he was doing all of these awful things to children, that took the film into an unfamiliar category of immorality. However, American culture has become so lurid in the intervening years that this factor has long since ceased to be considered. Our reaction is the same as it would be if he were doing these things to grown-ups.
I don’t pretend to know what this particular shift of mentality reveals. It is a straightforward case of moral degradation, or does it speak to something deeper, like the infantilization of America in general? Whatever is inhibiting Americans’ moral reflex, we exhibit this handicap in our response to Bad Santa, in our idea of Bad Santa, in our knowledge of it. Possibly we pause for Harvey Weinstein’s name in the opening credits, but only if we look away from our phones for sufficient time to read his name in the first place. More likely, the movie passes by with only minimal notice, yet still we will say this movie is essential, we need this film, it is part of us. If we are in love with this film, then we are brutally neglectful of our lover, and that will not end well for any of us.
Matthew Walther reminds us of our moribundity romantic when he enumerates a few of our daily sins as gluttonous consumers of electronics. After clarifying the crucial distinction between social media and community, he reminds us that “watching pornography is not human intimacy”. Could it be that social media is pornography? If so, then the trespassing of social media upon our actual lives, the lives we live outside of social media, is appalling maladjustment. And if this is truly our standard, then what can we expect of our progeny, especially if we have already forgotten, to draw from Walther’s gruesomely familiar portrait, that “taking your children to a restaurant and handing them an iPad game is not parenting”. If we are unashamed of this behavior, then it should come as no surprise that we have lost our ability to see Bad Santa in its proper context. We are as blind to the film as the human beings of Willie’s world are blind to the horror around them, to the horror they are.
As horror becomes unconscious, scarcer becomes the capacity to acknowledge horror. The decline of reading, not just as a form of leisure but as a practice of the learned, follows the atrophy of our critical faculties. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” Such an ideology engenders a relative peace: the environment is quieter in the absence of complaint, but it is precisely there that complaint, when expressed, is stated very loudly. The man—or, now in some cases, the woman—who perpetuates a massacre is criticizing this society of horrors, unconscious that this criticism can only perpetuate the horror in question. His criticism has no more grounding, no more reason or validity, than the nihilist’s applause of Bad Santa.
Working through this mess of misconceptions is actually much simpler than we are led to believe. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that champions and praises destructive compulsions; ergo, it is unacceptable to inquire as to the source of these toxins, toxins permeating the national body. We are left in the dark are forbidden to turn on the lights, even though the switch is just on the other side of the room. As long as we continue to dwell in darkness and to believe there is nothing else to see, it cannot come as a true surprise when death, a voluntary immersion in the never-ending dark, becomes the preferred solution of so many Americans.