COMBATING SPIRITUAL NUMBNESS: COVID-19 AND THE NEED FOR UTOPIA

This is my forty-third day at home, which means that technically I have passed quarantine, a period which used to mean forty days, and not as it does now a variable period of time extended by Government decrees. Today, Sunday, children have been allowed to take a one-hour walk for the first time in weeks, and this feels as a turning point of sorts, even though there is no way we can predict what lies ahead of us. Minister for Universities Manuel Castells announced this week that the new university year should be started in September with caution, taking into account the high probability of a second bout of infection. He spoke of classrooms that should be occupied only partially to guarantee social distancing (why is this not called personal distancing?) and that would be disinfected between sessions. This is so impractical and preposterous that I think Castells meant that in practice we’ll stay online for at least one more semester. I personally prefer that to taking overcrowded trains to travel to UAB, or speaking to colleagues and students from a distance of six feet, and wearing a facemask.

For those of us fortunate enough to continue working at home, this is a ghostly crisis. Life maintains a certain level of normality until the ‘other’ world appears. This consists of the persons working to guarantee our everyday routine: supermarket cashiers, bakers, food market sellers, sanitation workers, workers at factories and fields, employees of tech companies that guarantee we can work online, those who make sure we can still get water, power, gas, petrol… etc. For them, the changes caused by Covid-19 must be very different from what they are for persons like myself, but, then, where are they supposed to discuss them? Twitter, I guess. And, then, there’s the really scary ‘other’ world, the one we see grossly misrepresented in the media and, if we are less fortunate, in person in the hospitals. It’s hard to imagine the level of terror that doctors and nurses, patients and relatives, have been putting up with while the rest of us discuss the boredom caused by lockdown or the limitations of the Netflix algorithm. That, I think, is a key problem: the experience we have of Covid-19 is communal as no other experience can be except a war but, as it also happens in wars, personal experience is very different. Some self-isolate in total comfort and will suffer no significant trouble, for others the virus is the end of life as they knew it before, or the end of life full stop.

Raül Magí, who writes the blog Les Rades Grises: Una Mirada a la Literatura Fantástica, asked me recently to write a few words about the future of dystopia after Covid-19. You can find my contribution and many others by persons I admire very much in the Catalan SF/fantasy circuit here: https://lesradesgrises.com/2020/04/19/com-seran-les-noves-distopies/. I believe that making predictions of any kind makes very little sense. Nobody making predictions about 2020 back in December 2019 would have imagined the catastrophe we are now going through (even though Wuhan was already in deep trouble). On the other hand, it takes time for traumatic experience to be fully understood and even though we now rush to discuss new events as soon as they begin to happen (Netflix already has a documentary series about Covid-19), what this crisis really means will only be grasped perhaps in the 2030s, supposing it is over by then. The best fiction and autobiography about WWI started appearing in 1929; the Holocaust only became the topic of countless publications from the 1960s onward. I told Raül this and then I added that I hope to see many utopian fantasies of reconstruction (Slavoj Žižek has already written a book proposing a new form of communism, though I’m not sure I would support that) and also an end to dystopia because, I wrote, “this is a genre we can only enjoy as long as we enjoy a safe, comfortable lifestyle, which is what we have lost now”.

I am very much aware that this lifestyle has been so far enjoyed by a privileged minority in the world, to which I belong as an academic but also as a citizen of the Western world (though I’m not forgetting the millions of fellow-citizens who have lost all safety nets). The crisis caused by Covid-19 has so many angles that covering all of them is practically impossible but try to imagine what it is like to be a refugee, a person in a war zone, homeless or poor and then have the virus threaten your life on top of that. What is at stake right now for us, the privileged, is, leaving aside the brutal economic impact for all, a sort of spiritual numbness. Spain has been very hard hit not only because the early signs of the pandemic were disregarded (that has happened in many other countries anyway) but also because our lifestyle involves plenty of personal contact. We touch each other a lot in comparison to other cultures, tend to be gregarious, and think of our lives as extended networks beyond home. Now we are asked to obey personal distance and that is a main ingredient of what I am calling spiritual numbness. Online contact has many advantages but it is not the same as face-to-face contact. What the virus has brought is a total suspicion of proximity which must be already having a devastating impact on intimacy at all levels. If the Government decreed tomorrow that we can go back to normal in about one month, I fear that my own personal sense of abnormality will persist and it will take me time to get close to people again. On the other hand, I think of the Germans demanding that the Government of the Balearic Islands opens up the territory to tourism again this summer and I realize that their selfishness is also part of this spiritual numbness I am describing. Who are they to say that our lockdown measures are unnecessary, I wonder? How can they be so unfeeling?

The other reason why I dislike dystopia, apart from its inherent hypocrisy about privilege, is its destructiveness. What we’re going through is a mild form of dystopia in comparison to what a far more aggressive virus could have caused; a scientist recently claimed that Covid-19 is but a poor apprentice in comparison to HIV, though, of course what makes the new coronavirus so effective is its very simple strategy of contagion. Anyway, in dystopian fiction when a society is devastated and needs to focus on pure survival, it soon becomes apparent that all the skills developed since prehistory are useless. Only hunters, farmers and, if the post-apocalyptic society is lucky, low-level technicians are necessary (I mean smiths, weavers, and so on). In dystopia doctors become gradually useless because they require high-tech machinery; you only need to think of how the lack of basic protective gear has resulted in the death of many doctors and nurses, and how many patients have been lost for lack of respirators. Dystopia is a most potent generator, in short, of spiritual numbness for it makes you feel that if worse comes to worse, we’re done for. It also makes you feel your own intrinsic worthlessness. Why should I survive? Who needs academics in dystopia? What can culture contribute? One thing I regret about this crisis, though, is that it is not having the impact I expected in questioning celebrity. Musicians, for instance, are proving very convincingly that they do have a place even in current dystopia, but not even Covid-19 is helping us to get rid of all the superfluous celebrities that still persist in sharing their parasitical lives. Of course, they might think the same about me and my academic peers.

Utopian narrative of the kind I hope authors feel motivated to write, has the opposite effect: instead of making you feel useless, it asks how you might contribute to building a new society and it provides ideas about how to do it. This is why we hardly have any utopian narrative. Writing dystopia is very easy because it consists of imagining how a privileged world can be dismantled layer by layer: the aliens invade, the climate changes, a plague goes rampant, the economy collapses and one by one the comforts that we know vanish, from voting in democratic elections to eating every day. Dystopia consists of thinking how things could be worse, but for that things have to be good enough, otherwise the loss is not felt, the suspension of disbelief does not work. Many are reading or watching dystopia now for the sake of comparison (was the Spanish flu of 1918 worse than Covid-19?) but this is, I insist, numbing. All energies should go now to taking advantage of this horror and imagine a new way of doing things. Many others are asking for utopia now but I think that the impulse could be best consolidated by potent new utopian fiction. Otherwise, we’ll go back to that false sense of security that made us doubt climate change or the use of vaccines. That recent but already lost time when we felt that we could afford the luxury of enjoying dystopia because it would not happen in our lifetime. Well: here it is, now see how you like it.

Covid-19, I insist, is killing many persons and will kill many more but, above all, it might kill our ability to act in humane ways, which is a result of all-pervasive dystopia. My pharmacist told me that considering the world’s population (7.5 billion) and the average mortality rate, we should expect at least 3,000,000 deaths. The 1918 flu, caused by a virus of avian origins, is estimated to have caused 50 million victims; WWI caused about 40. Those 90 million are the breeding ground for what came next: spiritual numbness so deep that fascism grew out of it and then WWII. 3 million, even 10 million, might seem a relatively low figure but it is gigantic if we think of how unnecessary this crisis is. By this I mean that this is the 21st century and we should be moving towards a utopia with no biological warfare (supposing the virus came from that), minimal animal farming and no wet markets (if eating a wild animal was the cause), and little interfering with nature (third hypothesis). We humans are naturally vulnerable to infection and viruses appear to be far cleverer than we had assumed, but we have increased our vulnerability a hundred fold by following spiritually numb, selfish ideas in our relationship with our so-called civilization. Now we’re paying the price of having abandoned utopia because, guess what?, it is supposed to be boring… It is supposed to be participative, and that is the real reason why it has been abandoned both in narrative and as a political project (with the main exception, I think of feminism).

I hope that by next year, I can reread this and laugh at my fears and anxieties because Covid-19 will have disappeared, or be at least under control. I also hope that by then we will already see a change in the perception of dystopia and utopia, with the latter beginning to dominate over the former. That however may be in itself just a utopian hope, in the sense of pure wishful thinking.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: MORE GREAT DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (2000-2020)

I woke up this morning thinking ‘ok, time to write a bit’. But, what about? I wanted originally to rant and rave about the absurd ideas that I have come across these days reading new bibliography on Wuthering Heights but it is hard to put one’s heart into academic stuff as if this mattered in the current circumstances. Then I told myself ‘maybe you need to write about the black mood you’re in, in case anyone shares the feeling’ but, though I might do that next week, I don’t feel rational enough today (add to this that it is raining quite hard). Besides, everyone is writing opinion pieces about the impact of Covid-19 and I don’t see what else can be added, except a huge scream (no good to fill a post). It’s a no-win situation: Covid-19 seems to be the only relevant matter and it is next to impossible to think of anything else, but at the same time thinking of the coronavirus is exhausting and one needs to focus on something else… or go mental.

So, for the time being, I’m going back to the elective course I’m teaching and offering another round of recommended documentaries. They are filling in my time beautifully and if you have problems, as I’m beginning to have, reading fiction for pleasure because it is hard to stay focused, then watching documentaries is a good alternative. The list that follows has a first section on gender/sexuality and a second miscellaneous list which I have called ‘Icons of America’.

2011 Miss Representation, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1784538/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro. Siebel is also the director of The Mask You Live In (see below), which is a sort of companion piece to this film. As the clever title indicates Miss Representation describes how the media misrepresent women’s image to keep us enslaved to a view of who we are which only favours the interests of corporations, which are the interests of patriarchy. It created quite a stir but then, typically, it has taken almost a decade for a variety of younger women’s movements to do something more or less effective about the same issues.

2012 How to Survive a Plague, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2124803/ by David France. The plague here is AIDS, for which, we must remember, there is not yet a vaccine even though the disease has been around for thirty years. France documents the efforts of ACT UP and TAG to transform the deathly plague into a chronic condition many persons live with through long years. Exactly what we need right now: a plan to stop the new plague based on people’s own activism and regardless of what the incompetent politicians in government do.

2012 The Invisible War, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2120152/ by Kirby Dick. You may recall how in G.I. Jane (1997, Ridley Scott) Demi Moore’s character, a Navy SEAL trainee, is raped to teach her the lesson of how to endure that kind of attack in combat. Dick’s film shows how rape is used in real-life to teach women in the military the lesson that they are not wanted. What the brave survivors who learned to fight together teach is another lesson: being raped by your own brothers in arms, men you trust, is much worse than anything that can happen in combat –and should never be covered up the military hierarchy.

2014 She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3319508/ by Mary Dore. This documentary should be mandatory viewing in all (secondary) schools and universities because it is a thrilling overview of how Second Wave feminism started and unfolded. With plenty of original footage and interviews with the women protagonists, it is indeed not just a documentary but a document of immense interest. Of course if you see next Miss Representation you also become aware of how much is done daily to repress women’s defence of our own personal freedom.

2015 The Mask You Live In, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3983674/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Another documentary that should be mandatory viewing, in this case for offering an exceptionally accurate and straightforward exposure of how patriarchy is damaging masculinity. The ‘mask’ refers here to the patriarchal demand to be tough, express no emotion and be in control, which is turning many men into unhappy persons and in the worst case scenario suicidal mental wrecks.

2019 At the Heart of Gold: Inside the US Gymnastic Scandal, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8299654/ by Erin Lee Car. Prepare to cry your heart out. Dr. Larry Nassar, posing as a lovely, trustworthy friend, managed to abuse sexually hundreds of American girl gymnasts, including those in the USA Olympic team. He told girls that his gross manipulation of their bodies was just medical treatment, which left his victims confused and feeling guilty for suspecting their ‘friend’ of a misdemeanour. Until a girl unconnected with the world of gymnastics sounded the alarm about Nassar’s methods… and the rest finally awoke to the reality of what had been done to them.

2001 War Photographer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309061/ by Christian Frei. The Swiss director documents here the amazing career of American war photographer James Nachtwey (who is not really retired yet). The film shows a selection of Nachtwey’s iconic works, interviews the man himself (who comes across as incredibly serene) and follows him into combat using ingenious photography technology. Wondering whether it is right to invade the intimacy of the victims of man-made disaster Nachtwey concludes that he is a necessary witness. He is also a most humane one.

2006 Finding Vivien Maier, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2714900/ by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof bought at an auction a box full of old negatives which, when developed, turned out be photos by an unknown master photographer. His search led eventually to the discovery of Vivien Maier, an anonymous woman who had worked as a nanny in New York and who, as her secret hobby, documented life as she saw it. This raises many questions: would all trace of Maier have disappeared without Maloof? How many geniuses we have never heard of have been lost?

2010 Bill Cunningham’s New York, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1621444/ by Richard Press. A delicious portrayal of a unique man. Cunningham was a New York Times photographer for many years, in charge of documenting street fashions and social events connected with this field. Humble, not at all in love with luxury but with a sharp eye for personality and innovation in fashion, Cunningham left an amazing legacy while keeping his personal life and identity protected from inquisitive eyes.

2003 My Architect, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0373175/ by Nathaniel Kahn. The architect in question is first-rank American architect Louis Kahn, here portrayed by his son, Nathaniel. Note that the title is not My Father, or My Father the Architect, because what Nathaniel explores here is the question of why workaholic geniuses like his father cannot really be good parents. Or husbands, for Nathaniel was Louis’s extramarital son. Nathaniel does admire his father, and gives a loving account of his main buildings, but he still wonders why those took precedence over family life.

2005 The Devil and Daniel Johnston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436231/ by Jeff Fuerzeig. This is a strange documentary a strange artist mainly because, as happens with the documentary on Cobain (see next), much of the material used here comes from the artist himself. Johnston suffered from mental disorders that went undiagnosed for a long time, and whose imagery closely connected with the religious beliefs of the family ha had tried to leave behind. The documentary focuses on the issue of whether Johnston’s musical and artistic genius came from his mental imbalance, implicitly suggesting it did.

2015 Cobain: Montage of Heck, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4229236/ by Brett Morgen. A terrific ‘montage’ of artwork, videos and handwritten texts by Cobain himself and his family, complemented with key interviews, Morgen’s film approaches Cobain from childhood to his suicide on a quite intimate basis. The image that emerges is that of a happy child for whom suddenly life turned badly after his parents’ divorce, and who was heading all the time towards disaster. Everyone loved Cobain for his music but he only loved drugs, because, quite clearly, he didn’t love himself.

2015 Janis: Little Girl Blue, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3707114/ by Amy Berg. A candid portrait of Janis Joplin, America’s most extraordinary (white) blues singer and a woman who taught herself how to be free. Unlike Cobain, Joplin comes across as a woman who loved her life but who, like him, could not control her addictions. In her case the tragedy was not caused by mental instability or lifelong depression but by a tragic accident in her chaotic life as an addict. John Lennon once said that people take drugs because society makes life unbearable but Berg’s film suggests that artists like Joplin just could not keep their distance from the deadliest fad of their times and circle.

2015 What Happened, Miss Simone?, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4284010/ by Liz Garbus. Nina Simone was rescued from oblivion by a 1987 commercial for a perfume featuring one of her songs. She had been a musical star, a powerful Civil Rights activist, and a singular example of female liberation in the 1960s but threw everything overboard to start a downwards spiral of her own making. Simone moved, of all places, to Liberia, stopped performing, resurfaced in France, drowned in loneliness and diverse substances… What happened, indeed?

2013 20 Feet from Stardom, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2396566/ by Morgan Neville. This is a bittersweet look at the mostly African American women who work as backup singers for top international stars. Talented and gifted with beautiful voices that illuminate many favourite songs, these women remain anonymous and, judging from what the film narrates, hardly ever succeed in walking those twenty feet. As happens with secondary actors, perhaps audiences simply should pay more attention to their contribution.

2017 Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5651050/ by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. An intimate portrait of classic Hollywood star Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga, produced by their son and brother Todd Fisher. News of Carrie’s sudden death were too much for her mother, and the film pays here posthumous homage to both. Bloom and Stevens explore not only their careers but also what it is like to be the child of Hollywood royalty.

2018 RBG, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7689964/, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Every time US Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) gets sick, the heart of progressive America flutters. When she goes the country will lose not only a beloved personality but also the person preventing the institution she works for from falling into the dark side of total conservatism. Cohen’s and West’s film is an undisguised hagiography, an in-your-face homage to a very special woman who does really deserve it. Mimi Leder’s recent On the Basis of Sex (2018), with Felicity Jones as RBG, also deals with her career.

2010 Marwencol, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1391092/ by Jeff Malmberg. I don’t see much point in making fiction films based on previous documentaries. In this case, I almost missed Marwencol because I didn’t like much Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen (2018). What is embarrassing in Zemeckis’s film is, however, fascinating in Malmberg’s. Mark Hogancamp was the victim of a brutal attack and, left to deal as well he could with the aftermath, he found comfort in building in his backyard a toy town, Marwencol, where he staged a WWII saga but also found healing. His photos are pure art of a personal, strange kind.

2016 Gleason, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4632316/ by Clay Tweel. Steve Gleason, a successful NFL football player, saw his life take a tragic turn when he was diagnosed with ALS. This film documents his making of a series of videos for the baby his wife expects, as both battle with the effects of this degenerative disease and become fund-raising activists. An admirable example of love for life against all odds.

Enjoy!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TIGER KING, WHAT ELSE?: THE VIEW INSIDE AND OUTSIDE AMERICA

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I’m currently teaching an elective third/fourth year course on Cultural Studies, taking as case study the representation of the United States in 21st century documentary films (see one of the volumes that has inspired me, Jeffrey Geiger’s American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation, Edinburgh UP (2013), here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/american-documentary-film/AA1BF73143D4FD1F33160FCA0CEDF3C9). I feel, therefore, bound to comment on Netflix’s current world-wide hit, the US documentary mini-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (released March 2020), though I certainly do not feel bound to recommend it. I saw it on two consecutive evenings and I must say that while the first four episodes (out of seven) were thrilling ad hilarious, the last three were less enticing, mainly because the directors, Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, somehow lose sight of the chronology of events in them. Incidentally, this is the first credit as director for Goode, whereas Chaiklin had already directed Last Party 2000 (2001), Lockdown, USA (2006, with Michael Skolnik) and Another World (2014, with Fisher Stevens).

Since the phenomenon around Tiger King is so gigantic right now –no doubt because the covid-19 quarantine has made the lurid series a favourite with audiences desperate for entertainment– it is arguably necessary to watch it and join the conversation. I don’t intend here to comment on the plot in detail but to take the chance to consider a) what makes a good documentary and b) how judgement necessarily varies if passed inside or outside the society portrayed in the film. I have noticed in work written by my students a worrying tendency to assume an insider position, using ‘we’ when in fact they should use ‘Americans’. I would agree that many aspects of American society are now universal, mostly thanks to 1990s globalisation, but this does not mean that US narrative, including documentaries, is not rooted in specific local concerns. ‘We’ are not ‘they’ and anyone who approaches American texts, and for that matter any foreign text, must bear this fact in mind. Of course, human beings have the ability to understand texts across cultural divides bigger than the one separating my students from the American films we’re analysing but I just don’t see US college students writing about a Spanish documentary using ‘we’.

A while ago I started preparing for my students’ benefit a list of criteria about what makes a documentary valuable, collated from several sources. Here it is:

• clear storyline (the documentary film tells a story, and if it tells several, these are presented in ways the audience can follow)
• powerful story/character arc (a good documentary makes us care about its topic, which does not necessarily mean that you empathize with the persons portrayed: it means that you google for more information the moment you’re done watching)
• originality of topic (the topic must be interesting and if it is not at first glance, then it should be made attractive by the film)
• quality of research /depth (audiences can see that an effort has been made to sustain the ‘truth’ presented with adequate fact-finding that can be double-checked)
• clarity of presentation / good narrative flow (or quality direction)
• creativity of presentation (also quality direction, though many documentaries while not necessarily creative narrate relevant stories extremely well)
• strong interviews (or actors’ performances, in case some scenes are staged, or most if the film is a docudrama)
• exclusive access (the filmmakers go where no members of the audience could not go, and have their subjects trust them as no one else did before)
• trustworthiness (the documentary stays as close as possible to the ‘truth’ which the filmmakers endorse, though this might not be the truth for other persons)
• complicity with audiences (the filmmakers assume that their audience is intelligent and do not patronize them)
• quality audio, cinematography, editing and music, with editing possibly as the most salient aspect
• adequate runtime (the film does not overstay its welcome, nor is its narrative too limited)

Just then I came across a similar list by a man who knows a thing or two about documentaries: Michael Moore. Here are his thirteen rules, summarized from IndieWire, 10 September 2014; https://www.indiewire.com/feature/michael-moores-13-rules-for-making-documentary-films-22384/), check the complete article for his comments. Please, note that he is thinking exclusively of the United States and addressing American filmmakers:

1. Don’t make a documentary—make a MOVIE (call yourself a filmmaker, not a documentarian, and don’t be ashamed of being entertaining or non-artistically inclined)
2. Don’t tell me shit I already know [taken verbatim] (and focus on the majority of intelligent US audiences)
3. Avoid the college lecture mode of telling a story.
4. Don’t make your documentaries feel like medicine your audience must swallow.
5. Make your left-wing position fun, as it used to be.
6. Name the villains and be serious about the political things currently going on in the United States of America, even if people sue you.
7. Make your films personal, let them show your concern to the audience.
8. Point your cameras at the media cameras and expose the lies and manipulation.
9. Make audiences care for documentary films as much as they care for non-fiction books and TV.
10. As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you [taken verbatim]; or, the people you disagree with.
11. Try to imagine what audiences will feel seeing each scene you have filmed, be emotional.
12. Less is more. Edit. Cut. Make it shorter. Say it with fewer words. Fewer scenes. [also verbatim]
13. Finally… Sound is more important than picture for Sound carries the story. It’s true in a fiction film, too. The image may suck, but never the sound.

Now, back to Tiger King. For me, the problem with this documentary is that it uses as bait its main issue –the exploitation of big cats for entertainment in American private zoos– but turns out to be far more interested in the exploiters. Not only the titular Tiger King, the bizarre Joe Exotic, but also other men in his circle (Bhagavan Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari, Tim Stark of Wildlife in Need, crooked businessman Jeff Lowe, and even a mafia boss whose name I cannot find). Whether straight or gay, like our friend Exotic, these men embody a sense of entitlement, over the poor big cats and over the persons they attract as lovers or as audiences with their zoos, that the documentary fails to question. They are all criminals but the only actions that are questioned by Goode and Chaiklin are those of the main female character, Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue. Willa Paskin complains in a Slate article that Tiger King chose the wrong villain to focus on, not just because Baskin is the only important woman among this circle of misogynistic men (that too), but most importantly because in this “sordid menagerie of human beings” she is the only one who cares for the big cats as a pro-animal activist (https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/tiger-king-netflix-carole-baskin-villain.html).

As I watched the documentary, I missed with growing concern this angle of the story. It is hard to believe in the filmmakers’ trustworthiness given that although their series avowedly intends to show disgust at animal exploitation, the abundant images of cute cubs will most likely result in more Americans visiting one of these awful zoos or trying to buy a big cat as pet. The documentary begins by noting that there are more big cats in captivity in America than in the wild in the rest of the world but, ultimately, only cares for the business and personal imbroglios of the men it portrays and to bash Carole Baskin, throwing as much dirt as possible on her. This is why, if I look at the two sets of rules I have offered above, I cannot say that Tiger King is a good documentary. If you ask me, I believe it is actually a very bad documentary, mere docutainment to fill in five and a half hours of harrowing covid-19 quarantine. There are much better documentary films and series on offer, even on Netflix, but in our times, I guess, audiences crave for this kind of trash.

Now for the insider/outsider view. Writing for The Guardian, American writer Jessa Crispin (editor-in-chief of litblog-webzine Bookslut, and author among others of Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017)), discusses Tiger King as “our world back to us –one run by megalomaniacs and amateurs”. ‘Us’, of course, means Americans, and she traces in her article a not-so-obvious comparison between the documentary and the current covid-19 reality, reading the mini-series as “the hidden realities of a society that can’t take care of its sick and poor” (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/tiger-king-reflects-our-world-back-to-us-one-run-by-megalomaniacs-and-amateurs). The point she makes is that Joe Exotic and Donald Trump are part of the same American socio-cultural landscape, despite the apparent class and occupation differences, which I grant. “We are the Tiger King. The Tiger King is us”, Crispin acknowledges in dismay, for “This bringing of the wild into our domestic spaces is, after all, what got us sick”. Please, notice that though the origin of covid-19 is not a big cat zoo in America, it turns out that the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 originated in a Kansas slaughterhouse. The disease documented in Tiger King, “the drive for power, the constant need for more, the willingness to remove any obstacle to what you desire, even by using violence”, or in short entitlement, is the reason why America “can’t pass regulations that would reduce real suffering” right now, in the middle of the coronavirus-related horrors.

As an American, Crispin has the right to criticize her own country, but do I? Do my students? One of them asked me how come that most of the documentaries in our list maintain a similarly critical position, and I replied that this is because I have cheated, selecting only those with left-wing credentials. Noticing that quite a few of these documentaries have right-wing counterparts I joked that next time I should teach a course on the Republican documentary –maybe I should, if only for balance. The question is that watching Tiger King as a Catalan/Spaniard/European I feel compelled to say that the United States, as represented in this mini-series, appear to be a very sick society. Whether I should or should not voice that opinion, it is hard to find anything positive in Tiger King, not only in the characters’ actions but in the filmmakers’ intentions. I assume that Goode and Chaikin were not thinking of international audiences, only of shocking US national audiences. Yet, they must have realized that their mini-series confirms a lingering suspicion: that the United States are past their prime as a world-leading society.

Even a far less sensationalist documentary, 2020 Oscar Award winner, American Factory (another Netflix-backed product) gives the same impression, despite dealing with a story of working-class heroic resilience against all odds. Why, in short, I’m wondering, do American texts oscillate between the simplistic patriotism of so many run-of-the-mill action films and the crudity of the true-crime flood coming out of Netflix? Can’t American filmmakers see how deeply eroded the image of the United States already is, nationally and internationally? Arguably, they do, and products like Tiger King should be read as a waking-up call, though the mini-series seems to be just another very American freak show.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/