I watched Filth last night, the 2013 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. James McAvoy is transformed in this - it might be the first utterly deplorable role he’s played, and I kind of want to see more of it.
It’s also made me think about the way I engage with art, in part because I couldn’t reasonably recommend this to most of the people I know. Part of the film takes apparent delight in offending anyone who isn’t a straight white male fuckup.
I say “part”, because this film is definitely satirical, but there is so much awful shit out in the world nowadays that claims to be satirical that I’m beginning to think that satire as a concept is starting to become a moral black hole. Which is tragic, but we’ll come to that.
McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson begins the film with a weird sort of animal magnetism attached - people float around him admiringly, women can’t resist him, and he’s so loaded with quips that you’re amazed at how always-on he is. He’s also someone who delights in chaos, often making everyone around him feel like shit while somehow coming off as the good guy.
Then, things start to break down. Robertson starts hearing voices and having horrifying hallucinations, and you suddenly realise that the frenetic, winking tone of the film’s first half has been coming from an extremely unreliable narrator - one who’s so plagued by his personal demons that he’ll do more or less anything to cover them up. In the closing minutes, that insane pace slows dramatically, and we get a glimpse of the pathetic figure that Robertson really is. Ultimately, the film becomes an indictment of the swaggering machismo he uses as armor, but to really be effective it needs some time to play with the concept. You need to believe in Robertson’s charisma so that you feel it when it’s taken away.
There is probably a version of this film out there that introduces the dichotomy of Robertson as he perceives himself and Robertson as he’s perceived by others in the opening minutes. That canny voiceover and electric smile, immediately contrasted with a bird’s eye view of the sorry excuse for a human being he really is. That would be a film I could at least suggest to other people without worrying, but I have a feeling it’d be utterly awful.
Because there are some things that require an explanation at face value in this film! Women are consistently seen as sex objects, gay men as disgusting, middle-class settled husbands as neutered cuckolds, differing ethnicities as shallow stereotypes, and Robertson’s coworkers are a cavalcade of figures that seem to only exist to be sneered at. Once the film gets into its third act, the reason for all of this stereotyping becomes clear - almost every side of Robertson’s prejudices has its roots in trauma and pain, and (vague spoilers here) it doesn’t even try to redeem him after the facts are on the table - but I’d be worried that for a lot of people, by that point it’d be too late.
Or maybe I’m wrong.
Here’s the thing: I’m fairly sure the reason why these notecards exist and the reason satire has become a dirty word is primarily because of video games. That’s not to say that bad attempts at satire aren’t found in books and films and TV - anywhere there’s bad writing, there’s bad satire - but there’s so much additional risk in video games, because they’re naturally flexible experiences. Even in point-and-click adventure games, an extra half an hour spent failing to grasp a puzzle can change the narrative experience for one person, and it isn’t usually point-and-click adventure games that are attempting to be satirical.
This is the reason why series like Grand Theft Auto and Watch_Dogs can’t be satirical no matter how hard they try or claim to be - when such a huge part of the game is devoted to letting players take the reins to their hearts’ content, it doesn’t matter how much you try and wrest it back. Showing up a character’s deplorability through a carefully-shot cutscene in a strip club is utterly meaningless if you then introduce endless lapdances as a game mechanic and let the game become Stripping Simulator 2014.
I think Grand Theft Auto V is interesting because, bless its ugly, misogynistic little heart, it’s certainly trying to be satire. But it’s also trying to have its cake and eat it - I’ll never deny that a large part of the game is about how anger is irrefutably tied to the modern ideal of American masculinity, and even that the game goes some way to lampooning that idea by showing it off - but the game also has to be fun and flexible whenever the player wants it to be, and you can’t tightly control the narrative when those elements are so essential to making a billion dollars in preorders.
The clever thing would be to intoxicate the player into finding the protagonists’ anger and sneering attitude fun, then pulling out the rug out from underneath them and exposing the horror of their acts, but GTA won’t do that. Even if it wanted to - and I can’t imagine that a game that full of dick jokes would ever want to - the form it takes as an open world video game means that it necessarily can’t.
It should say something that I feel deeply uncomfortable writing that kind of indictment of a game like Grand Theft Auto - not because I’m worried that fans of the game will go after me (fuck them) but because I’m aware that I haven’t really touched on the constant and pervasive misogyny of that game. That’s deliberate. I’m aware that it’s there, and I don’t think it gets a free pass because it’s waving the “satire” card; what I’m saying is that when you do go to approach something as satire, you can end up excusing a lot of stuff that, isolated, looks utterly terrible.
In Filth, McAvoy’s corrupt cop does and says a lot of truly awful stuff because by the end, we’re supposed to understand that people who do and say that sort of shit are the lowest kind of person - usually personal wrecks, but so embittered and unpleasant that you don’t even feel pity for them. But he has to do the bad stuff first. If the film pulled its punches in the rising crescendo of the first sixty-five minutes, then the dénouement of the end wouldn’t be nearly as effective. And it is. It hits you like a punch to the stomach. It’s knowing, and brilliant, and casts everything you’ve seen in a startling new light. But you have to re-examine an hour of horrors to really get the picture. Filth is not a film made for liveblogging.
That, ultimately, might be the root of bad satire. If we assume that creators claiming their work is satirical aren’t just doing so to cover their asses - and, idiotic as I think that people like Jeffrey Yohalem and Dan Houser are, I don’t think they’re being dishonest when they make that claim - then the awful stuff their games portray makes a sick kind of sense. Showing off the awful is almost a necessary ingredient of satire, and you don’t necessarily need someone standing off to one side holding a placard saying “LOOK, ISN’T THIS TERRIBLE" at the moment that the terrible things are happening as long as you account for it later.
But accounting for everything in games with open mechanics is basically impossible - even getting away from the mechanics, telling a story that lasts for thirty hours inevitably leaves a lot of loose threads. This doesn’t excuse the creators at all, incidentally - when you’re exercising satirical muscles, you kind of need to know what the hell you’re doing, otherwise you’re just being a terrible person, regardless of your intent.
There’s an argument to be made, of course, that Getting Satire Right is the least of anyone’s worries. I get that. I’m conscious of the fact that there are bigger fights out there. I want more stories with women at the center, and non-binary people, and ethnicities that are truly diverse, and sexual orientations represented in a healthy way, and if I’m being honest then I’d take any good story with one of those elements over the most perfect satire of What White Dudes Can Be Like. But I also want to be able to judge work on its own merits to some extent. Every work exists as part of a culture, and it’s a culture that churns out stories about straight white men so much more than anyone else that it can definitely get exasperating; having said that, an extremely good story about a straight white man is still an extremely good story. Sometimes, that’s enough.