The tragedy is marked by the terrible ending, by the ending written in the stars. This has been the case since the fifth century BC, when this form of fiction flourished in Athens. But now the tragedy seems to be getting too much for us. What do you want, after two years of pandemic, you might think. Yet it goes deeper: we have become so accustomed to shaping our own lives that we are terrified of unexpected turns and unfavorable outcomes. As a result, we miss something essential: purification.
The aversion to tragedy makes itself felt in the reactions to the BBC drama series A Very British Scandal, about the tumultuous 1960s marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. British viewers are furious, they find the series oh so “Miserable” and “depression”.
The new Netflix movie Don’t Look Up, in which a giant comet threatens to destroy Earth, is receiving similar reviews. Allergic Shows the reviewer of the British newspaper The Guardian for the pedantic tone towards climate deniers, mixed with hysteria along the lines of „We’re all going to die.”
The story, in short: a comet is heading for Earth, but few recognize the danger. In fact, the more astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy and his student Kate Dibiasky (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) try to convince the US president (played by Meryl Streep) of the danger, the more she underlines that “her” scientists have become a come to a different conclusion.
Don’t Look Up rubs unpleasantly against the real world. It’s easy to spot in the unwitting head of NASA Dr. Scott Atlas, one of Donald Trump’s key advisers at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In Madame President’s son we see Donald Trump Jr. again. (The comet impact is, the astronomer says, 99.7 percent sure. Aha, shouts the son triumphantly, so that’s not 100 percent!) In the CEO of a tech giant, who will take down the comet and mine for precious raw materials, discern we Amazon boss Jeff Bezos.
Also read: Laughing at the big clapperadatsch
The funny thing is, in Don’t Look Up Ordinary people don’t want to see the comet either. The more scientists try to convey the message of damnation, the more they drown in a sea of irony and entertainment. Look at that comet for God’s sake! shout the astronomer and his student. fake news! the president ripostes, and her fans chant in agreement: “Don’t look up!”
The arrival of the comet is unpredictable, and that also applies to a new corona variant in our own world, where we are now dead tired. That’s because of the uncertainty. The idea of man as the plaything of fate seems increasingly unpalatable. How vulnerable? We have learned: life is malleable. We determine, we ‘participate’, we are ‘self-reliant’. And if that is not possible (that comet is simply there), then a short circuit will occur. Then we deny the tragedy and indulge in the pleasure of the algorithm.
Fear and pity
Ironically, stories like Don’t Look Up to come when called. Tragedy has, after all, been the fictional form that brings enlightenment for centuries. Full of fear and pity, according to Aristotle the basic mechanisms of tragedy, we look at what the characters go through. Then we experience the horrible ending as a purification, so that we can move on with satisfaction, even with a sense of pleasure.
But this is where the shoe pinches, because our lives now consist of a large splash screen against fear and pity. Your algorithm won’t bring you stories that pop through your bubble of satisfaction. The idea alone! And this is getting worse, in these corona years. purification? No, bright spots, that’s what we want. Good news. comfort food. But a bright spot has never made anyone a better person.
Miserable, depressive stories about the bad in man, tragedies full of „sound and fury, signifying nothing”, as Macbeth mutters, end-of-time disaster movies — we need them, now more than ever.
That’s why Don’t Look Up very well. The film is satire, but because so much in the story reflects our own world, it turns into tragedy, much like Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War classic. dr. Strangelove (1964), in which the earth is blown up as a result of a bizarre series of misunderstandings in the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The end of Don’t Look Up is beautiful, all catharsis. The comet has struck, the family is sitting at the table, the extermination will follow in a few minutes. You can feel the fear, suffering comes naturally. Then they go to pray. And only the most unfeeling viewer who then goes to mock. I mean, if you look ironically at this moment of deadly seriousness now, you’re hopelessly lost. For here we see the acceptance of chaos and arbitrariness, even divine providence, if you will.
No, such a tragedy offers the only real bright spot that makes a person bounce.
Correction (December 31): An earlier version referred to an astrologer instead of an astronomer.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 31 December 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 31, 2021
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