Golis: Everywhere we look, our pessimism is showing

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Hours after it was nominated for the Oscar for best picture, we went to see “The Favourite.” It is a clever film, built around smart dialogue, gorgeous costumes, spectacular set designs and gifted actors.

The movie received 10 Oscar nominations in all, including Olivia Colman for best actress in a leading role, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz for best actress in a supporting role and Yorgos Lanthimos for best director. Come awards night, on Feb. 24, it might become the most-acclaimed movie of the year.

Still, no one would say that the creators of “The Favourite” were feeling good about the human condition. From first to last, this is one dark movie.

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott described it this way: “The best — and also the most troubling — thing about ‘The Favourite’ is its rigorously bleak assessment of human motivations and behavior. The palace is a petri dish aswarm with familiar pathogens of egoism, cruelty and greed.”

Leaving the theater, one wondered if we should give up all hope now, or wait until morning.

On the same day we went to the movies, it was reported that the long-time New York Times columnist (and PBS “Masterpiece Theater” host) Russell Baker died at age 93. This led to the republication of a 6-year old Atlantic magazine interview in which Baker talked about how much humor and politics have changed in recent years.

Baker, whose droll writing won him two Pulitzer Prizes, explained: “Everyone watches Jon Stewart, right? And they have the bleep thing when he really obviously says ‘sh—’ or ‘f— .’ and he’s cute about it. It’s a cheap laugh. It’s not funny. But the audience reacts.”

When it comes to Jon Stewart (who left “The Daily Show” three years ago), I’m one of those fans who laughed at those bleeps. Often we learned more about the hypocrisy of our politics from Stewart than we learned from the talking heads on the so-called news networks.

But I also remember a 7-year-old boy’s birthday party when one boy said “booger” and the rest laughed until they were red in the face.

Am I like a 7-year-old?

Never mind. It would be impolite to answer.

At the risk of sounding out of fashion, I am of the opinion that the cynicism of our time is distorting our capacity to separate what’s worthy from what isn’t. From movies to television to what passes for public debate, we seem to believe that civilization has lost its way and things are bound to get worse.

This is not to say that some pessimism about the trajectory of our history isn’t justified. Look around.

But we do need to be careful that we aren’t blinded to what’s right about the world. In case you missed it, you live in the most prosperous nation on earth — and on one of the most beautiful landscapes.

Also, if this was the year 1900, many of us would be dead.

So, there’s that.

His critics blame President Donald Trump, the former reality TV star, for the cynicism of our time and the coarsening of our culture. But it’s more likely that his presidency and his assault on social norms are the inevitable result of a couple of decades in which Americans came to be persuaded that nothing was trustworthy — not government, not business, not the press, not the people in other states or the people who live down the street.

In the 2013 interview — that is, before the political ascendance of Donald Trump — Russell Baker noted that a former Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, quit Congress to become a lobbyist.

“If that had happened in the days that I was covering the Senate,” said Baker, “he would have been disgraced. A senator giving up a Senate seat to become a lobbyist! That just wasn’t done. And they all do now.”

So which came first? Did we come to distrust our institutions because they were not trustworthy? Or did they become untrustworthy because we were programmed to think everything is untrustworthy?

Either way, we have come to the moment where we wonder how we can ever become optimistic again. We have come to the moment when a reality TV star is president and a brilliant movie seeks to remind us that people are no damned good.

Question: If we don’t believe in something, what are our chances for creating a better world?

The film critic A.O. Scott said of “The Favourite:” “A sentimental soul might wish for a glimpse of something else, but at the same time it’s hard to say that anything is missing from this tableau, which is also a devastating, flattering and strangely faithful mirror.”

It would be pleasant to be a sentimental soul again. Does anyone know how?

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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