The notion that modernity is the “End of History” is distressing for some philosophers. They imagine man peering over the mountain of history seeing the piled ages slope upward to his rarified zenith. How could the thought of climbing higher make any sense? Could a man on his deathbed have any zeal for the question of the good life? Could a creature whose whole being is turned backward have any hope of stepping forward?
In answer to such vexing historicism, Leo Strauss suggested that an escape from this philosophically untenable position could be effected via a historical ignorance so very thorough as to make modern man forget his modernity and thereby wake into amnesic freedom. In a way, though, this suggestion is cruel; not because it is ridiculous, but because it is hopelessly unrealizable. And yet “America: The Motion Picture” gives us pause.
Released by Netflix in late June, the R-rated animated film starring Channing Tatum as the voice of George Washington purports to be an account of the founding of the United States. But it is actually a fantastical escapade, jumbling a couple dozen famous Americans ranging from Samuel Adams to Geronimo in a hair-brained adventure to avenge the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Needless to say, the narrative takes various liberties: Washington is transmuted into a chainsaw-armed dude-bro, Thomas Edison becomes a Chinese woman, Benedict Arnold is an ambitious werewolf, Paul Revere an awkward jockey-cum-centaur-cyborg, and Big Ben appears as a British battlemech. Similarly, the chronology and character of major events are amended to suit the plot. For instance, the sinking of the Titanic takes place during the Revolutionary War and is inadvertently facilitated by the founding fathers. A generous review in the Wall Street Journal reports, “it’s a provocative way of teaching American nonhistory.”
To the untrained eye, this sort of film seems like nothing new. Historically revisionist films, and for that matter plays, have been produced throughout history. Even Shakespeare, whose renown for replicating in drama the truths of life—earning him from Laurence Olivier the accolade, “the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God”—did not condescend from modifying history to suit his purposes. Why then—if at all—is the movie’s relationship to the truth any different in a fundamental sense than that of the Bard’s English histories? Is Richard III’s prodigious, fictional hump really that different from Washington’s chainsaw arms? Arguably, Shakespeare’s inventiveness in the latter had a propagandistic rationale: bolstering the Tudor Myth of a depraved House of York.
By contrast, “America: The Motion Picture” defies description as propaganda. Though it conspicuously pays homage to various jewels of modernity—diversity, science, liberty, research, toothpaste, and the like—it does so in an unserious manner. For instance, when asked to explain science, Thomas Edison shows Samuel Adams her gloves, which can control bursts of electricity and which towards the denouement of the film are used to “reverse the polarity” of tea-laden clouds, causing the sky to rain beer, thereby turning the British army into red-blooded Americans. Instead of revising history for propagandistic purposes, it would seem the film is merely using it as a prop chest for a theatrical romp.
But such handling of history likewise has creditable precedent. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, unlike his English histories, is not derived from the story of any real personage or even period. What history does appear in it seems lackadaisically arranged. For instance, though the decade-long campaign against the Gauls the title character returns from at the beginning seems like an event from Rome’s height, the sacking of the city towards the conclusion seems like one from its nadir; the distinctive names of the major characters, though all realistic, were only prominent in different centuries; and similarly, though the political institutions appearing throughout all certainly existed, many never actually coexisted. Moreover, just as in “America: The Motion Picture,” the characters have a curiously anachronistic relationship to their history, major events of which are referred to or even just alluded to casually. More pointedly, quite as with the film, the drama’s internal logic is so heavy-handed that August Wilhelm Schlegel was obliged to opine that it was “framed according to a false idea of the tragic,” and T. S. Eliot, perhaps more poetically concise than the latter, that it was “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.”
But Shakespeare did not set Titus Andronicus in a history familiar to his audience. Rather, the features of Roman history he employed served more or less to dress his tragedy in a loose cloak of authenticity. “America: The Motion Picture,” on the other hand, is set in our history and the period and people it presents for our delectation are precisely those with which every American schoolchild ought to be familiar. When the film strays from the truth we can tell. That’s what makes it funny.
Notably, the creative talent responsible for the film, director Matt Thompson and scriptwriter David Callaham—the former known for his work on “Archer,” “Sealab 2021,” and “Frisky Dingo”; the latter for “Zombieland” and its sequel “Zombieland: Double Tap”—have built their careers on a very particular sort of humor. It is transgressive, but never actually provocative; is sexually suggestive, but not erotic; is surreal, but never absurd; et cetera. In the age-old contest of entertainment that has as its prize targets edification and debauchery, this sort of humor aims as amusingly as possible into the void between the two, eschewing laurels in favor of laughs—and only laughs.
That “America: The Motion Picture” is an exemplar of this humor is not only evident in its plotting, tone, and dialogue, but in its less than subtle denotation of the villainous British, which many of the principal characters have dubbed “the Fun Police.” Unquestionably, the fun being policed is that underlying the film’s verve.
Accordingly, the movie’s comedic innovation with regard to history corroborates the basis of historicist distress: If it is tragedy for a man to slip on a banana peel and die, but comedy gold when he pretends to—it follows that if historical consciousness entailing the impracticability of historical ignorance did indeed define and delimit modern man’s humanity, his peculiar humor would involve casually purporting just that ignorance. Put simply, in ages past we could make literature, propaganda, and art out of butchering history, but now we can make a joke of it.