Traumedy in times of crisis

How a film genre is giving a particular spin to reality.

    Traumedy in times of crisis
    Ann Dowd, from left, as Nell, Sandra Bullock as Jane and Reynaldo Pacheco as Eddie, in satirical comedy Our Brand Is Crisis [Patti Perret/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP]

    In the recent comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Tina Fey's rookie war reporter falls down every pothole in Kabul.

    At first she thinks the local people are "Afghanis" (that would be the currency). Peeing while out on patrol proves problematic. The marines point out that her rucksack, which is orange, may not be combat-effective: "Where are you going to hide it? Inside a f****** sunset?"

    Based on the book The Taliban Shuffle, an account of journalist Kim Barker's stint in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Fey's life in the Kabubble is all shambolic encounters with politicians and peasants, and close shaves washed away on the heavy expat partying scene.

    Standard pick-me-up in this particular outpost of First World Problems is a dose of stiff cynicism.

    The kind of shell-shocked comedy displayed by Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has been on view a fair bit recently; treating real-life big news events with gonzo-style abandon. Thrusting Westerners, mostly Americans, out of their comfort zones, the new style even has a name: traumedy.

    'Traumatic comedy' 

    The term "traumatic comedy" was used by director Adam McKay to describe The Big Short and its caffeinated, panicky realisation that the financial markets are going down. Here, it means national tragedy played as screwball comedy; the four trader protagonists ahead enough of everyone else to fill their pockets - but still enmired.

    Farce is the response in The Big Short to being buffeted by socioeconomic winds; the bracing realities of foreign living produce the same effect in other recent traumedies.

    As well as Tina Fey's Afghan excursion, there was Sandra Bullock's Our Brand is Crisis, set during a fictionalised version of the 2002 Bolivian presidential elections.

    READ MORE: Brazil's evangelical film

    Her political consultant, shilling for the loathed standing president, gets off to a similarly laughable start as Fey: vomiting into a wastepaper bin during her first meeting with her client, giving rousing campaign speeches in the wrong language.

    There's at least one other hapless overseas jaunt in development, too: A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil, an adaptation of South Park writer Jane Bussman's detour into reporting on Ugandan child soldiers.

    'Real-life scenarios are already outlandish' 

    The traumedy-on-tour has its roots in the suave ironies of mid-century English folk-abroad capers such as Our Man in Havana and The Lady Vanishes. The Last King of Scotland and Argo are updated versions of the same, their protagonists dancing awkwardly to foreign rhythms.

    But traumedy's mood of mania as a coping strategy in crazy times comes from the excitable likes of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. Unlike those films, though, traumedy isn't explicitly satirical.

    Caricatural totems such as Catch-22's Major Major Major, or M*A*S*H's freak parade of a military unit, lampooning straight society, could make easy countercultural mischief in simpler times.

    But 21st-century realities, blurring the lines between the powerful and the powerless on which satire thrives, have outgrown those kind of games.

    Nowadays, we don't need to exaggerate the scenario, because - our distempered times far more minutely documented by modern media - the real-life scenarios are already outlandish.

    Journalists becoming over-embedded, spin doctors getting lost in the details, short sellers cannibalising carcinogenic banks ... traumedy is maybe the first genre outside documentary to fully appreciate how truth is stranger than fiction. Add Chris Morris's Four Lions to the file as well. Its daft suicide bombers would seem like traditional hyperbolic satirical constructs were it not for their fact that their bumbling jihad is all too familiar from news - and Twitterfeed titbits: ISIL fighters lionising Jumanji when Robin Williams died, et al.

    READ MORE: Can a film please China and the West? 

    It's tempting to chalk off traumedy - especially when it's centred on that most hapless of creatures, the American overseas - as primarily a US concern.

    But it would be truer to say it's a Western one; a kind of freakout in the face of an increasingly bewildering world in which default American and European pre-eminence no longer applies.

    One traumedy speciality is taking perverse pleasure in watching players in the new hierachies jostle for position: Fey, for example, spends most of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot playing hard to get with the besotted Afghan attorney-general because she needs information from him.

    This Pashtun peacock loses the upper hand when he turns up at the Westerners' party pad in order to show off his dancing prowess.

    Then there's how the cocksure politicos in Our Brand Is Crisis are - the irony! -  betrayed by their own candidate, who breaks his election promises and sells his country out to the IMF.

    These reverses are the geopolitical equivalent of slamming doors in a farce. But is this punchdrunk hysteria the best way of engaging film-goers with the wider world? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does become more interesting when it calms down and grounds itself in something serious: foreigners losing their perspective abroad and how, in the case of journalists, this affects their reporting.

    There are limits, though, to how much pedagogy a film can indulge in, as The Big Short acknowledges with cheeky braindumps such as Margot Robbie in a bubblebath explaining junkbonds. Traumedy's comedic blitz certainly grabs the attention. If it leaves anything in our whirling brains, it's a reminder to take a quiet moment to consider the meaning of overwhelming times.

    Phil Hoad has written about cinema for the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, The Independent, The Face and the Big Issue. Formerly the Guardian's global box-office analyst and Dazed & Confused's film editor, he specialises in the effects of globalisation on cinema.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



    How different voting systems work around the world

    How different voting systems work around the world

    Nearly two billion voters in 52 countries around the world will head to the polls this year to elect their leaders.

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    The great plunder: Nepal's stolen treasures

    The great plunder: Nepal's stolen treasures

    How the art world's hunger for ancient artefacts is destroying a centuries-old culture. A journey across the Himalayas.