3 August 2001 | alice liddell
Unprecedented and extraordinary - Chris Morris is a Jonathan Swift for these yahoo-ridden times.
In these brightly Orwellian days, where cynical governments can smile 'Trust me...' and know we will fill in the blanks 'I'm lying' and not care; where 'biting' satire is left in the sole hands of a cricket-loving impressionist; where the laurel of 'great comedy' is placed on the head of yet another formulaic spoof of fly-in-the-wall documentaries; in these grimly shining times, Chris Morris is a dark beacon of sense, moral fury, fierce intelligence, intransigent vision; a man of endless, astonishing invention, intimidating energy and a gleefully, pranksterish sensibility.
The problem with today's 'satire' is that it sets up an 'us against them' opposition, in which we snicker with the satirist at a host of immovable, indifferent caricatures. Most of our most prominent satirists are of the same generation, background and ideology of the ruling classes, and their humour has the flavour of locker-room ribbing rather than devastating anger. Most satire consists of an audience talking to itself, reassuring itself of its own worth, its own values against targets so clearly ridiculous they don't really exist. It is satire as easy listening, as reassuring as old socks.
The reason many people don't like Chris Morris is not because of the 'taboo' subject matter he tackles, but because he doesn't play fair, he doesn't play cricket. He never allows the audience the comfort of complacent complicity. if we sneer at another hapless celebrity duped into piously anguishing over some preposterous non-issue in an obscene public gesture of their own ethical value and depth, we are stating that we are truly 'authentic', that we would never be caught out, that our values are sound. And then Morris will insert a crass joke that strips away the warm cloak of lazy irony - an imitation of the author of 'A Brief History of Time', for instance - that repels us, shakes us out of a cosy 'us vs them' mentality, forcing us to face up to the complexity of what we're watching, or - shock, horror! - think for ourselves.
When I was watching the 'Brass eye' repeats recently, I was struck by how little they had dated, how exhilirating and intellectually stimulating, as well as cripplingly funny, they still were. Surely a media satire, with its inbuilt topicality, should become instantly anachronistic. You could argue that this is a damning indictment of a media that hasn't changed its mind-numbing habits in the last half-decade. I would argue, however, that 'Brass eye' is not really a media satire at all, or is not one fundamentally, despite its destructively accurate potshots at sensationalism, the paucity of media intelligence, a culture with a media that no longer records or reflects reality, but actually creates it, as in the recent case of a major Sunday newspaper printing photos of paedophiles, encouraging the public to savage them, conveniently creating the next morning's news. This is all an essential part of what 'Brass eye' does.
But it is more than that. Morris is our century's Jonathan Swift, and last week's 'Brass eye special' on media hysteria about paedophilia was his 'A Modest Proposal', a satire so savage, so angry, so uncomfortable, so ironic in the true, original sense of that phrase, that people mistook the satire for its object, because Morris held up a mirror to our society, a totalitarian, propaganda-corrupt culture posing as a democracy; and to ourselves, we who conceal brutal, fascist instincts under a guise of ethical concern. We didn't like it, and rather than acknowledge our own darkness, we tried to smash the mirror. Like Swift, Morris has always been more concerned with language and ontology than the media per se, the way words no longer mean what they are supposed to mean, in the way the advance of media technology has created an illusionistic world in which 'real' people have to live, in which we try to make the illusion real, to devastating results. And yet, again like Irishman, the sheer invention with which Morris records this communicative decadence channelled through language, liberates and gives some hope - but only if we accept the challenge of 'Brass eye'.