Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(5) (1994) 118-121
Satire has a long and honorable tradition. Long before Petronius and Aristophanes, sharp-tongued Neanderthals no doubt were busy `busting' family and friends for their foibles. Satire feeds on hypocrisy and corruption -- two aspects of human existence which (like the poor) have always been with us but never, it seems, in such abundance as today. "Seems," I say, because the world always is rife with real and potential disasters. Certainly, as we stagger toward the twenty-first century drenched in the blood of Rwandans, Croatians, Kurds, Haitians, et al, we have no dearth of millenialists such as David Koresh, the Waco whacko, and Ross Perot, that cheerful entrepreneur of gloom, to predict our hasty and thorough demise.
Eric Bogosian is not so sure, but he does insist we are in trouble. As he confesses in the introduction to Sex Drugs Rock & Roll, he himself is a walking contradiction: "I've spent most of my life stuck between idealism and hedonism, between selfishness and selflessness, between love and sex, between chaos and clarity." His personal contradictions, he argues, embody our nation's: "America is the land of overconsumption that loves to cry for the less fortunate of the world. America wants to be the strongest warrior and the ultimate peacemaker. America wants to live in piggish splendor and be ecologically responsible. America wants to have the highest principles but win the popularity contest. America loves itself and loves to beat itself up. America is schizoid."
Bogosian has been writing about, and "acting out," these contradictions for over ten years. In "Special Effects" (1984), written and directed by Larry Cohen, Bogosian plays Chris Neville, a "power" porno film director who aspires toward the snuff film of all snuff films by trying to get his murder of a starlet on the silver screen. Neville blurs the distinction between "real" violence and "screen" violence. Watching a film clip of Ruby killing Oswald, he is struck with the notion that there is no difference between real death and make-believe death. What "Special Effects" exposes is the cynicism, even criminality, of writers and directors toward violence. In "Talk Radio" (1988), written by himself but directed by Oliver Stone, Bogosian takes his anti-violence campaign one step [End page 118] further, portraying a talk-show host who takes on racism and sexism only to be blown away by a bigot. The plot mirrors the Denver, Colorado case in which an outspoken Jewish talk-show host actually was murdered by a racist. Here as elsewhere, Bogosian hones in on the ironies implicit in "free" speech: in fact, words may not only break bones but incite murder.
In Sex Drugs Rock & Roll, his latest emanation, Bogosian offers various contemporary types caught up in violence -- most obviously aggressors and victims, such as a David Mamet Speed-the-Plow slimeball corporate executive, a self-styled stud, a paranoid bag-man, and a cliche-ridden "Naked Artist." Reading the book (really the script), I was at first unimpressed -- puzzled and put off by the quasi-documentary nature of the material. How, does, for instance, the arrogant English Rocker lecturing against drugs while revelling in his memories of getting "wrecked" with his mates differ from the spectacle of a Keith Richard or Mick Jagger, say, regaling various vacuous talk-show hosts. Just what is it you're trying to say, Bogosian, I was tempted to ask.
But Bogosian is a satirist best viewed (or construed) as a performance artist, so I sought out the video (1990, Avenue Pictures) to see how the script played; and here Bogosian is terrific -- alive, jangly, intelligent -- each character drawn true-to-life, speaking his particular truth until, hoisted on the petard of his own language, he reveals his particular sickness. True, Bogosian sometimes seems to meander; but it is clear that his focus -- his "cri de coeur," so to speak -- is the urban violence we experience daily which operates both societally and individually. As the movers and the shakers squeeze their secretaries, their wives, their so-called buddies, often these victims don't know what hit them; they suspect conspiracies, imagine miracles, feign rescues. What emerges is a portrait of a feral society: survival not of the fittest but of the most mean-spirited.
In one of the longest and most jarring of the skits, "Stag," Bogosian creates a vapid young white ethnic whose pill-popping, wipe-out stag-party endangers his buddy's marriage. After recounting the shopping-list of drugs and booze they have ingested, Bogosian's "Stag" describes how he tried to cook because "I always get hungry when I do Qualudes," in the process setting fire to the kitchen. The stag party then staggers off to McDonalds where one of the bozo-boyos jumps a Hell's Angel, general mutual [End page 119] stomping ensues, and they are forced to flee to the car and race off with a Hell's Angel holding on to the door until, in a moment (so he tells us) of divine inspiration, Louie pukes on the Angel who lets go. What is truly remarkable is not Bogosian's rendition of sexist, random, "fuck it" violence, but the way he manages to convey, chillingly, how this Neanderthal is convinced he's not only funny but profound. He quotes his buddy's druggie nonsense, "Sometimes you have to spit in the devil's eye just to make sure you're alive," and ends by paraphrasing Bruce Springsteen, "No fucking surrender. Rock on."
All through the skits, there are phrases or attitudes that jar -- though they are not so far from the kinds of things we actually hear (or say) daily. The slimy exec of "Rock Law," for example, spits out, "I'm gonna eat his children," and insists, "I'm not shouting -- I'm discussing." The rapper of "X-Blow" imagines a God obsessed not only with tornadoes and tidal waves, but fresh horrors: "Or maybe I'm feeling real evil, I'll mix up some new disease, sprinkle it all over them homosexual faggots, fuck 'em up, make 'em miserable, make 'em cry and die a slow evil death." When he gets out of the joint this time, X-Blow promises to get himself "some new wheels and an Uzi, Man."
Like Kurt Vonnegut, Bogosian seems to be calling for a moral revolt against contemporary excesses; and he offers a liberal agenda -- without remedies. His "message" is open-ended, rhetorical; but one of his concerns obviously has to do with the ways contemporary America wrestles over our "right" to free speech. Does the First Amendment include or defend bigotry? Verbal violence, Bogosian suggests, abets physical violence.
Bogosian is good enough, I would contend, to invite comparison with two geniuses of performance art -- Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin; and one has only to catch the latest video comedians -- with their predictable routines on TV, sexual habits, and getting "wasted" -- to understand how special Pryor and Tomlin are. Pryor, in his videos, embodies a manic rage which hones in on racism and sexism to proclaim finally, mysteriously even, our common humanity and regret over his own "fuck-ups." Lily Tomlin has been well-served by friend and collaborator Jane Wagner whose literate, feminist script, "Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," isn't afraid to make fun of feminism and the contradictions of modern life; Tomlin's art, too, is skewed toward the disadvantaged and crippled [End page 120] -- Trudy the Bag Lady, Agnes Angst, etc. Their crossover audiences are interesting too: Pryor's inspired antics attracting an odd combination of disadvantaged and uncomfortable -- down-home "niggers" and "limousine liberals"; Tomlin's rueful cracked looking-glass drawing in not only suburban NOW-ERA women but their husbands.
As with Pryor and Tomlin, Bogosian is best appreciated "in action," as we watch his characters reveal their wounds and neuroses. What is the cost of a society built on "sex drugs rock & roll?" A lot, he suggests. Bogosian seems to be aiming at the very movers and shakers (baby-boomers and yuppies?) who might just be forgetting what or whom we are moving or shaking. We? Did I say we? But of course. As Pogo said, "We have found the enemy -- and the enemy is us." If we are left with food for thought, we must watch out for insecticide! Bogosian is unsettling enough to be interesting; while far from a ground-breaker, he is a man to be watched -- serious, funny, heartbreaking and disturbing.
Fitchburg State College
Department of English [End page 121]