Bathos On The Big Screen: Jurassic Park and Sons of Anarchy

(x-posted to PopMatters and The Valve)

Years ago, I remember my father saying that he had managed to watch Pulp Fiction because it was a “comic book.” I hadn’t been able to make it all the way through, because I was sickened — I mean physically, not in some abstract moral sense — by the violence and cruelty. My father pointed out that when Uma Thurman is revived from her drug overdose, and hears somebody ask her to “say something,” she says: “Something.” In other words, at one of the most dramatic and visceral moments in the film, a line of dialogue is inserted to prove that it’s all pretty much a laugh.

Dramatically, this device is known as bathos, a term Alexander Pope invented and which applies to his own writing, above all to his wonderful poem “The Rape of the Lock.” Without wishing to dwell on too many different examples, I would suggest that contemporary film and television are deeply, continually bathetic. Why should this be the case? In what unexpected ways does it reveal cracks and faultlines in our own relationship, as individuals, to our society?

I was reminded of the Pulp Fiction conversation recently when I turned on the television and started watching Jurassic Park. As you might remember, during the scene where Sam O’Neill and his family are being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the dinosaur appears in the rear-view mirror, above a clearly legible notice that says “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” The entire dramatic momentum of the scene is interrupted for this joke, which is there to remind the audience that it’s only a movie, after all. The same pattern recurs later in the film, when O’Neill’s son is electrocuted and falls unconscious to the ground. He had been holding on to an electric fence and counting to three. When he wakes up, he opens his eyes and says “three,” just like Thurman in the Tarantino film. Again, whatever sympathetic investment we may have made in his well-being is mocked by the film.

One could find never-ending examples of this move in a contemporary television comedy like Weeds. To me, it’s even more interesting to track bathos in a show like Sons of Anarchy, which is supposed to be a serious, intense, and gritty biker drama. When the show begins, the biker gang is at risk because one of the bikers forced two Mexican women to fellate him while they were imprisoned in an arms warehouse. (They are illegal immigrants, paying for passage to the United States.) The women are burned alive when the warehouse burns down, and the gang worries that DNA evidence from ingested semen will incriminate the gang. So they arrange to distract local law enforcement and dispose of the bodies. When several of the men return to the grisly sight of the burned corpses, one says “Tell me they looked better than this when they were going down on you.” Rimshot! In a later episode of the show, a friend of the gang has a bullet wound in his buttocks, and a biker has to keep his finger in there to avoid having the man bleed out. This leads to an extended discussion about whether or not the finger in the ass is gay. Hilarious!

Yet as anyone will tell you, the reason to watch the show actually has little to do with the specific one-liners that flow staunchlessly from these various subplots, any more than the reason to watch Weeds is to find out whether or not a small suburban marijuana dealership will survive. Instead, we watch S. O. A. to see three main characters wield power — Gemma, Jax, and Clay — and we watch Weeds to see Nancy Botwin wriggle and writhe her way out of difficult situations. The laughs are a chaser. All of these shows are about getting paid: in Jurassic Park and later in shows like The Wire, characters are paid for being competent professionals, and competency is the point. The incompetent park developer and the incompetent computer guy (Wayne Knight, Seinfeld‘s Newman) are juxtaposed with skilled hunters, hackers, chaos theorists, and so on down the roster. Meanwhile, in shows like Weeds, people get paid just for being who they are. Nancy Botwin possesses an almost magical competence regardless of whether she is running her own operation, working as somebody else’s drug runner, or doing a normal job as an assistant for Matthew Modine. Modine actually hires her because she has faked the work experience on her resume. It shows initiative. We might also link characters like Nancy Botwin to supernatural characters like vampires (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, etc.) or True Blood‘s Marianne, who have plenty of money and little to do other than to be celebrities of a sort, impressive in the eyes of others.

In a film like Ocean’s 11, you can see both sides of this dynamic. Some of the characters are there because they have special skills (e.g. the Chinese acrobat), and some are there because they are specialness incarnate and can do anything (Mr. Ocean). Not surprisingly, this divide often falls along racial and ethnic lines, as it does in Soderbergh’s film: the Puerto Rican member of the Sons of Anarchy is the resident hacker, and the accented Scotsman is the medic, while Ron Perlman’s Clay Morrow is simply the President.

This is the real source of our investment in what’s happening on screen. The characters in Jurassic Park deserve to survive the rampaging dinosaurs not because people, generally speaking, deserve to live, but rather because we deem them, in that memorable economic phrase, “too important to fail.” The dinosaurs are a test of their competence, just as the burned corpses are a test of the biker gang. The bathetic sabotage of our sympathies helps to free us from the uncomfortable bonds of compassion, and from enmeshment in a common social order, in shared problems of quality of life. Oscar Wilde eerily predicted our modern situation when he wrote that “it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” If The Old Curiosity Shop were produced for television today, a premier actor such as William H. Macy would play Daniel Quilp, and critics would applaud Macy’s “riveting performance” as the Machiavellian hero of the story — who, they would warn us, “only grows more complex” by Season 2. Anxiety is a selfish affliction, and it has a right to be, since it comes from an instinct for self-preservation. Yet in post-industrial societies where the economy has been basically hollowed out, and where the perpetual anxiety of having the wrong skill set is compensated by the hope of being paid simply for being oneself, the dominant mythic narratives come to reflect a frightening loss of sympathy, and a desperate attempt to make sense of ugly things by turning them all into opportunities for excellence. We don’t, personally, want to be dismissed with a chuckle, but objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.