The outrage machine’s workings, as explained by Frank Drebin’s mistakes.
If the uproar over Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar — in which the title role is obviously staged to look like Donald Trump — sounds eerily familiar to you, then you might be a Naked Gun fan.
On Monday morning, journalist and editor Jared Keller pointed out on Twitter that a scene from the zany 1988 spoof The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! contains a gag that reads like it’s ripped, literally, from today’s headlines.
Here’s the clip:
In it, the mayor warns Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) that she doesn’t want any more trouble like last year’s on the south side. “Understand?” she says. “That’s my policy.”
“Yes, well,” he says, looking more than a little pompous about it. “When I see five weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of 100 people, I shoot the bastards. That’s my policy.”
“That was a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, you moron!” she shoots back at him as Drebin stares and then gulps. “You killed five actors! Good ones!”
I asked Keller (who said he’s subscribed to the “Frank Drebin Theory of Politics” for years) about the clip. “There’s a growing cottage industry of reexamining pop culture from the past several decades for clues to Trump’s ascendency, but this clip from one of the most raunchy and raucous comedy franchises of the pre-9/11 era — one centered on the ascendency of milquetoast incompetence within institutions of power — is particularly depressing,” he said.
The Trump era, more than any other presidency, seems tailor-made for a pop cultural reading. Everything from Citizen Kane to Lego Batman seems to forecast the president’s rise — not to mention many of Shakespeare’s plays. And as Vox’s Caroline Framke pointed out, last week’s James Comey’s testimony before Congress was a genuine pop culture event that felt like a reunion special for the reality show that is the Trump administration.
And the Naked Gun resonance is so close that it almost feels like someone’s trolling us. “Life imitates art, just three decades later and in the worst possible way,” Keller said. “Frank Drebin is the perfect avatar of modern-day law-and-order politics: Overwhelming oblivious, belligerently simplistic, and blindingly white.”
While the resonance between the Naked Gun scene and the Julius Caesar outrage is really just a funny coincidence — I think — it also points to the problem that’s at the root of the whole Shakespeare in the Park incident. The “outrage machine” on the internet and in the media is often fed by a fixation on bite-sized, surface-level readings of cultural artifacts that don’t take into account the fuller context. It’s like focusing on the language rather than what the language is saying.
When Drebin sees “five weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of 100 people” without realizing he’s seeing a play, it’s not all that different from seeing five actors stabbing someone who looks like the president and failing to realize what the point of the story is.
Drebin’s response to his surface reading is to “shoot the bastards.” In this case, at least, one hopes life will not continue to imitate art.
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