Sunday, June 27, 2010

Laughs for doomers

Boris Yelnikoff is a self-described "Nobel-level thinker" who feels beseiged by "microbes," one of his many terms for people who don't see "the big picture." And, what's the big picture? He tells us in the first five minutes of Woody Allen's latest movie, "Whatever Works," when he says, "On the whole, I'm sorry to say, we're a failed species."

Yelnikoff, played by Larry David, is an aging former Columbia University physics professor who has divorced his wife, moved to a dingy (but affordable) New York apartment, and taken up teaching chess to children to support himself. While the movie doesn't explicitly tackle the many converging catastrophes of the 21st century--there is exactly one mention of global warming--it does provide a catharsis for one's doomerish side as we laugh at Yelnikoff's misanthropic pessimism and his general ability to be a killjoy. We even get a treatment of the concept of entropy that elicits laughs. Now that's a true doomer's delight!

The failed species remark indicates promise that the movie will provide laughs for doomers. This is confirmed in what is really an opening monologue in which Yelnikoff warns the audience as follows:
I'm not a likeable guy. Charm has never been a priority with me. And just so you know, this is not the feel-good movie of the year. So if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage....What the hell does it all mean anyhow? Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

That such a character could be the basis for a comedy is a testament to the genius of Allen. That this character could be the conduit for catharsis for the peak oil- and climate change-obsessed is a minor blessing. Yelnikoff tells us in the opening monologue that the daily news is enough to drive one to suicide as it did his father:

My father committed suicide because the morning newspapers depressed him. And could you blame him? With the horror and corruption and ignorance and poverty and genocide and AlDS and global warming and terrorism..."The horror," Kurtz said at the end of Heart of Darkness. "The horror." Lucky Kurtz didn't have the Times delivered in the jungle, then he'd see some horror. But what do you do? You read about some massacre in Darfur or some school bus gets blown up, and you go, "Oh, my God, the horror!" And then you turn the page and finish your eggs from free-range chickens.

Yelnikoff also demonstrates frustration you can believe in. How many times a day (or times a minute if you are watching any cable newscast) do the peak oil- and climate change-obsessed among us want to yell out, "You idiot, you moron, you imbecile!" Most of us are too polite to say it, so Yelnikoff says it for us (for various doomer- and non-doomer-related reasons) over and over again.

The continuing spark for the comedy in "Whatever Works" comes from Yelnikoff's liaison with a young, beautiful runaway from Mississippi. Desperate for food and shelter she accosts him in front of his apartment one evening and convinces him to let her in. She ends up staying, and eventually (spoiler alert), they marry. It doesn't last. But Yelnikoff is resigned in the proper entropic way: "The universe is winding down. Why shouldn't we?"

In the end, however, as is appropriate for a comedy, love conquers all, and the main characters land in fulfilling, if not necessarily traditional, love relationships. The film also examines the role of chance in life, an issue discussed frequently on this blog in both the financial and natural worlds. The film's focus, of course, is on chance in our love lives.

The movie never seems to have gained wide release, probably in part because it takes so many jabs at gun advocates and Christian fundamentalists--two of the main characters are fundamentalists from the South--and probably because of its relentlessly doomerish main character.

I recommend more than one viewing to get the full cathartic effects, and also because you won't catch all the jokes the first time through. If you are among the peak oil- or climate change-obsessed, how can you resist a film that uses Heisenberg's Uncertainy Principle and the fate of the ancient Mayans as setups for jokes?


Anonymous said...

Have you once considered that you COULD be entirely wrong and your doomerist obsession was nothing more than narcissism? It might brighten your day to at least consider it.

Kurt Cobb said...

If you would bother to read a fair sampling of my writing, you would know that I believe our biggest problem is not recognizing how uncertain the natural and social world around us is. I am not a doomer, if by that you mean that I believe it is inevitable that modern civilization will soon collapse. Nothing is inevitable! We live in a probabilistic world. We are left with judging the evidence and accepting that there is much that we do not or cannot know.

I only wish wild-eyed optimists such as yourself would actually pay attention to the growing body of evidence which suggests that the very natural systems that make human life possible are in trouble. But I would agree that rigid adherence to an ideology of perpetual growth will perhaps make one a happier person, but only if you are one of those who actually benefit from that growth. So many are having their health and livelihoods undermined by that growth for the benefit of the wealthy few.

As for whether it is narcissism to be concerned about the fate of human civilization, I rather think it is narcissism to be concerned only with one's own well-being. Would the world have been a better place if Gandhi and Mandela had become investment bankers?

Perhaps you would be wiser and more compassionate if you considered the possibility that you could be entirely wrong. Then, you might see that the path you are on won't necessarily make you or the world happier.

mattbg said...

I remember seeing this one awhile ago. It wasn't that memorable to me because it seemed like a mild continuation of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" character.

The way it was marketed reminded me of how the Jack Nicholson movie "About Schmidt" was marketed -- it was marketed as a comedy with trailers focusing on the darkly funny parts, but as you start watching your realize it's a relentlessly pessimistic movie that might even sicken pessimists if they came to the realization that a mirror was being held up to them.

Weaseldog said...

Have you once considered that you COULD be entirely wrong and your doomerist obsession was nothing more than narcissism? It might brighten your day to at least consider it.

Sometimes if I've had too much to drink, such thoughts enter my mind.

But then I sober up and remember my high school math, and the Laws of Exponents.

Weaseldog said...

The way I see my doomerism unfolding is a bit like the way an accountant would.

If we look at one side of the ledger with ever increasing costs that our management refuses to acknowledge or account for, and compare that to ever decreasing revenue, you can see that the trend is negative.

In the case of human society, the costs are rising exponentially. Our population is rising exponentially. Our consumption is rising exponentially.

And our income, the energy that powers our civilization, has flat lined and begun to decline.

And there you have it. In my view a doomer is someone that thinks that if you live way beyond your means for an extended period of time, something negative is definitely going to happen.

In this case, human civilization is going to experience a serious period of downsizing. It's what happens when your earnings are a fraction of your expenses.

'And always remember the longer you live, the sooner you'll bloody well die.' - Look at the Coffin (Irish Trad)