The Last Days of American Civilization: The Poetics of Righteous Violence in Bob Goldthwait's Black Comedy God Bless America

by Dorothea Gail


“God Bless America,” is a 2012 film directed by the actor, writer, and comedian Bob Goldthwait. Building on a tradition of aestheticized cultural despair reaching back to Robert Putnam, Morris Berman, and the earlier film “Falling Down” the film depicts the last, terminal stages of an ongoing cultural crisis of community and civility in the U.S. Approaching the death of the civic sphere and the commons from a different angle than movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which target an amoral and antisocial economic elite, Goldthwait’s critique instead indicts the mass consumer majority of the population, portraying their descent into an omnipresent public theater of cruelty and boorish behavior that lies at the root of the decline of civil society. This triggers an anguished and despairing reaction from Frank, an Everyman character locked into a routine office job who is finally unable to tolerate the daily assault on his sensibilities from all those around him. Reeling from the diagnosis of a terminal illness Frank goes on a shooting rampage, killing a succession of character types that Goldthwait has picked out of the general media environment to illustrate the “new normality” – the daily freakshow of self-involved, infantile, and aggressive rudeness. Apart from examining the political and social assumptions behind Goldthwait’s cultural critique, the paper will investigate the formal rhetorical strategies he employs to carry out the critique. The film features strategies that link it to earlier “social problem” cinema of the 1930s and the 1950s – the omniscient main character’s voice, speaking from outside the mis-en-scene like a meta commentator, the use of dream sequences that shade imperceptibly into actual events and crimes, etc. Similar to the way Klaus Theweleit mobilized personal life narratives to construct a compelling vision of the role of violence in the inner subjective worlds of Fascism, Bob Goldthwait confronts us through the vehicle of morbid black comedy with the disturbing possibility that mass consumer democracy has failed, on the moral/aesthetic as well as political and economic level, to create a social world worth living in. Revealing the politics of the poetics, the film suggests how art can be used to addressing pressing issues of community without losing its ability to elicit admiration for its formal inventiveness.