Barbenheimer: Pity, Terror, and the Lord of Misrule

Barbie/Heimer mash-up courtesy of

I don’t know why more people writing about the Barbie and Oppenheimer double feature don’t mention Aristotle.

That probably sounds pretentious. However, since the New York Times just featured an op ed criticizing the new football kickoff rules by invoking the Greek sensation of ataraxia (sublime contentedness), I probably have license to Go Greek in my little blog post. (Plus I ranted about it the other day, and my people said “go for it!”) I saw Oppenheimer last week, and all I could think about was Aristotle: Pity and Terror, the essence of tragedy. Barbie is about the world turned upside-down in a different way, where the absurd takes center stage, and the Lord of Misrule becomes in charge: comedy at its core.

Double-feature=comedy+tragedy. Yin/Yang!

Comedy/Tragedy Adobe stock photo.

So let’s go back to high school, basic Aristotle, basic Shakespeare, too, and talk about these movies in terms of how they fit the definitions. Plus, this is a double-movie review. A twofer!

Quantum Storytelling from Christopher Nolen

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of this tale of pity and terror, was the physicist whose pioneering research at Berkeley led him to be chosen to spearhead the Manhattan Project that developed of the atomic bomb. After World War II, he parted ways with some of his colleagues on whether to use atomic power and diplomacy or whether to develop the hydrogen bomb. He ended up losing his security clearance during the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, in part, because of political maneuvering by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss. Strauss was later turned down for a cabinet post. That’s the history; that’s the story.

On a side note, I haven’t seen so many great shots of my alma mater since The Patty Hearst Story (which I watched being filmed, back in the day).

Go Bears! My alma mater as backdrop! Warner Brothers photo.

The movie weaves in and out of these three stories in a way that is confusing at first, then becomes clearer as the three “timelines” converge. This is Christopher Nolen’s forte. Remember Inception, jumping in and out of dream states? And Tenet, when time was moving back and forth at the same instant? Perhaps Nolen was easily bored as a child. On the other hand, it’s a cinematic way of explaining one aspect of physics, which is that time can distort if you treat it as a variable. Think the movie as moving around a black hole.

Frankly, I was poised to dislike the film simply by the fact that it was being touted as “pure visual poetry” and clocking in at three hours. I knew it was going to be under-edited. I wasn’t wrong on that score, and the first half hour is filled with quick cuts of the tortured man and images of fire and bombing. Big time pretentious. If Oppenheimer was only about the development of the bomb *the horror, the horror* I wouldn’t recommend it. But I think Nolen goes further, and the film succeeds because it goes past that.

Oppenheimer’s Tragic Flaw

Back to Aristotle. He wrote (in The Poetics) that tragedy is a drama which creates feelings in the audience. Specifically, pity (for the suffering of the protagonist, the main dude) and terror (for imagining that suffering for themselves). Watching a good tragedy is supposed to produce catharsis, and you know when you’ve had a good catharsis, because that’s the three-Kleenex movie (Avengers: Infinity War springs to mind). Not the jump-scare but the “I can’t stop thinking about that” feeling. The tragedies I studied in school never had that effect on me, so I didn’t really understand what Aristotle was talking about. I never felt pity for Hamlet, that indecisive wienie, or terror for Macbeth–c’mon, dude killed his boss who was a guest in his house, he gets what’s coming to him. But Pity and Terror may just be the right words for watching the angst of a man who develops a world-ending weapon.

The real Robert & Albert, photo from LIFE magazine.

You can see the haunted look on Cilian Murphy’s face after their test is wonderfully, horrifically successful. By then, the Nazis have surrendered, and the original impetus for developing such a devastating weapon is gone. But after all the time, effort, and theory invested, they couldn’t not test it; they couldn’t not use it, and generals and presidents being who they are, they couldn’t not use it twice. Oppenheimer tried, via political lobbying, to slow down the chain reaction that was started, but that only got his security clearance removed. Later on, he got a medal, which only made him feel more guilty. That sense of responsibility is one thing he shared with the other smartest guy in the room, and Oppenheimer’s exchange with Einstein–cluelessly misunderstood by Lewis Strauss–is a little gem.

The other idea of Aristotle’s that gets tossed about when discussing tragedy is the tragic flaw of the main dude. Macbeth’s is ambition; Othello’s is envy. IronMan’s is his need to be in control of everything. This movie made me think about Aristotle, so we had a discussion: what’s Oppenheimer’s tragic flaw? We decided it was his scientific hubris. He was usually the smartest guy in the room, and even when they were all smart guys, he was adamant on doing things his way. He didn’t think it mattered if he hung out with anarchists, cheated on his wife, pissed off people he worked with who had important connections, ignored them when they tried to besmirch his legacy. Nothing mattered as long as he could see if his theory worked. Nolen himself is quoted as saying that he thought Oppenheimer was most of the ambiguous and paradoxical people, “which, given that I’ve made three Batman films, is saying a lot.”

Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss, jealous and mediocre. Universal Pictures.

This movie is effective because it isn’t just about the development of the weapon but about the aftermath for those involved. And it’s even more interesting because we have a half century of perspective to look back and think about it, knowing that the US and USSR built up arsenals in the Cold War to destroy the world ten times over, and that capability is still out there. Yet (knock wood) it’s not been used since 1945.

True tragedy has to end with death or disgrace for our main characters, no happy endings! No Romeo & Juliet leaping up unharmed, like they do in a Dickens novel. Oppenheimer ends up obsessed with the horrific potential of his work, hearing (as someone once said, can’t remember who) the cries of his victims. How could he end otherwise? But the movie blunts our catharsis by telling Lewis Strauss’ story, too, and letting us feel a little satisfaction that political toadies don’t always win the day, either.

Now, Aristotle also said he thought tragedy was the most important type of theater, and critics have been echoing that ever since, ranking tragedies and “serious drama” above comedies. Only about eight Best Pictures Oscars have been comedies. But as much as I liked Oppenheimer, I think Barbie is going to give it a run for its money. If Oppenheimer is the quintessential tragedy, then Barbie is the quintessential comedy.

Barbie and the Feast of Fools

Aristotle did talk about comedy, though he didn’t think it was as important as tragedy. Classical comedy involves the element of turning upside down. (By the way, if you ever want to read a really dry and unfunny work on comedy, read Freud’ on the topic’s essay “Humor.” ) Comedy needs to be about the absurd. Early Europeans celebrated a “feast of fools” where there was a Lord of Misrule, where the prostitutes, beggars, and thieves ran the show. Or think of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata,” where women go on strike, refusing to have sex with men until they end their war.

Barbie, Warner Brothers.

Greta Gerwig’s film Barbie fits right in with this idea of absurdity piled on top of absurdity. What’s particular smart about the story is how upside-down things are repeatedly flipped, until everything is disoriented. Barbie begins to feel strange things happening in Barbie-world, and she goes on a vision quest to the real world–which might sound weird but makes perfect sense for the movie–to put things right. If this was a movie made for children, she would find out that she just needed to be Barbie all along, and The End.

But this is not a children’s movie, so that’s just the beginning. Barbie’s story is mirrored by a single mom who–as wikipedia puts it–“catalyzed her existential crisis by playing” with her daughter’s old toys after said daughter has decided Barbie encourages unrealistic beauty standards. Layers upon layers. There’s Barbie being dressed down by a 13-year-old for looking unrealistic, and Margot Robbie, the attractive actress playing Barbie protesting that she’s not “stereotypically pretty,” while a narrator’s voice interjects into this toy/fake/cinema world “Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.” Even Christopher Nolen would applaud the Russian-doll story within a story at that point.

Wait, there’s more! Ken ends up as a tag-along to Barbie’s story, and when he discovers in the real world that macho men run everything, he decides to return to BarbieLand and turn it into the land of Mojo Dojo Casa Houses. The Lord of Misrule is put in charge, the women dolls are subjugated, and this fun little comedy gets very dark. Oh, sure, there are chase scenes involving roller skates, speed boats, and pink Corvettes, but when Ken and his Mojo Dojo bro dudes take power, there’s a bit of that Handmaid’s Tale feeling that’s a bit too much like a catharis. Every female in that audience is thinking, I need this to have a happy ending, and this isn’t it.

Establishing the patriarchy, but first the Big Fight! Warner Brothers.

Fortunately, Ken’s attempt at systematic repression falls short, as Barbie and her newfound companions manage to distract them into having a big fight. There is a happy ending, and fortunately NOT a marriage, as was traditional in medieval comedies!

The best part of the movie–for women, at least, according to the Internet commentary and to me and to everyone I’ve talked to about this–was America Ferrera’s inspiring speech. To convince the Barbies of their ability to overthrown Ken’s imported patriarchy, the real world single mom character talks about the bizarre conflicting expectations that our culture imposes upon women:

You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

The movie is fun and entertaining, but the speech is a masterpiece. It’s so good and so important that it becomes the incantation that women use to snap the other Stepford Barbies out of their Mojo-Dojo-patriarchy-trance. It’s what make Barbie especially effective and universal. Comedy takes the world and turns it upside-down so that you can see it more clearly. Oppenheimer is about That Guy and what He Did that maybe puts us all at risk, but I can’t really relate to him. I can relate to every word of the speech.

…You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

Life is the Theater of the Absurd

The reason to see both of these movies together is that yin/yang experience. Human beings can learn from both comedy and tragedy, and they go together. The world is full of absurd terrors and awe-inspiring beauty. I hang out in the Middle Ages a lot: imagine the Black Death and cathedral at Chartres. World War I and Picasso. We ride down the river between near extinction and breathtaking beauty. Tragedy and comedy help us steer.

Comedy excels when it speaks to real issues with important themes. This is, for me, why Barbie or Everything Everywhere succeeds in showing us about the normal world within its upside-down world. The other type of comedy, the banana peel slapstick stuff or people getting very drunk, is fine for a laugh but not excellent.

Then, there’s the black humor inside tragedies. You have to have a scene that breaks the tension every now and then. Besides, end-of-the-world absurdity is just as funny. How could people create weapons to end their species? That’s f’ing hilarious!

Oppenheimer & General Groves choosing site for the test. Photo from LIFE magazine.

At one point, the nuclear physicists working on calculations for the chain reaction come up with a mathematical possibility that they won’t be able to stop the reaction. There was a bit of “black humor” between the scientists, and then between Oppenheimer and General Groves discussing whether or not the math worked out. You know, if we got the decimal place in the wrong spot, then maybe we’ll ignite the atmosphere and destroy the earth. The nature of giant bombs has an inherent absurdity to it. Funny/Not Funny.

But the merchandising opportunities are apparently HUGE! You can’t make this stuff up, AMC Theaters…

Author’s Note: Thank you, Larry Frazier of my high school AP English class, for explaining comedy and tragedy so coherently that it stuck with me for 45 years. I’m still not sure it was absolutely necessary to read Freud on humor, though.

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