The Trotsky: A Serious Comedy — C. M. Olmstead

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Our current moment is one of a tricky structuring. Philosophers and theorists of the day have proclaimed that we are living in irony, and that this ironic disposition of social life often subverts real social change. We are blinded and fail to confront this form. What needs noting is how the genre of comedy plays a particular role in this process. What if we were to take this comedy much more seriously and insist upon its truth, an unexpected course? To partake in a subversive satire. An answer is best articulated in Tierney’s comedic film The Trotsky (2009), a serious film for the Left.

The film tells the story of a Canadian teenager who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. Leon, unsurprisingly the main character, is absolutely convinced of this. He believes – and at various times points out how – his life-story closely mirrors that of the real Leon Trotsky with matching names, ages, and other items. My first thought was, ‘Finally! An excuse to call Canada a backwards country. Trotsky would have to appear again in an underdeveloped peasant economy.’ I am only joking, but who knows, maybe Canada is where the next revolutionary Left movement will emerge. The key point to be elaborated is Leon’s total lack of doubt and questioning of his authenticity.

It is obviously crazy that anyone would think they are the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. This is the general position put forward by many of the authority figures in the film. Leon’s bourgeois father expresses his disbelief and incredulity frequently during the dinner scenes. Retired communist activist Frank McGovern provides a similar reaction upon first meeting Leon. These characters’ attitudes towards Leon evolve over the film’s course, and by the end, McGovern is a true believer in Leon’s cause. Leon’s father even makes a kind of concession by gifting to Leon Mao’s Little Red Book. The question is not ‘Is Leon really Leon Trotsky?’ but ‘How do the others come to believe that he is?”

It is precisely the process of humor which allows this change to occur. The characters move from a position of disbelief, and through humor, to belief. For example, McGovern initially rejects Leon, refusing to be his lawyer, slowly begins to humor Leon, listening and ironically giving advice, and ends by vouching on his behalf to the authorities. With the father’s gifting of Mao’s book and the snarky comment on the inside to Leon, we see his father in a comedic, though endearing, transition. We can clearly see these stages, but the real truth of the matter is to be found in how this humoristic mechanism functions. Through understanding the ironic disposition of our own moment, we can learn to undermine its debilitating effects.

Humor in the film functions different ways depending on its performance. Leon is the only one not performing. The entire premise of his character is that he unequivocally, he genuinely, believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, and all of his actions are not simply what he should do but must do. Must because they will; there is no multiplicity in the interpretation of the future. Every action of Leon is structured by this ideology. What is interesting about this is the more Leon is rejected the greater his narrative grows. Of course, Leon Trotsky would face negative backlash! In this way, his narrative is fulfilled. This negativity is present in many ways. A notable example comes from Leon’s attempts to unionize his father’s factory. Leon begins by trying to convince the worker, Achmed, that his father is a fascist and, though we don’t hear it, presumably all the reasons why. In this particular scene, Leon is seen talking to Achmed while his father walks by, and Leon, in hushed voices, asks Achmed, “What is he?” to which Achmed responds, “a fascist.” The father quips from the across the room, “Achmed, I heard that.” What the father does not realize is that his control only propels Achmed to Leon’s side. I imagine Achmed thinking, ‘My god. He can hear everything you say everywhere. He is breathing down my back. I truly am not free!’ and would he be wrong? The father’s slipping control is his own doing.

But how does this relate to humor? Just as Leon’s Father’s brutishness hopes to pacify Achmed, humor is also used as a pacifying technology, but it functions again as a negativity providing for its own undoing. Humorous responses from the characters are, for them, a coping mechanism. By this, I mean that the characters’ use of humor is an attempt to avoid confronting the realness of the situation. It seeks a kind of stasis but enables just the opposite because it enables Leon to persist. In the multiple scenes during which the school administration confronts Leon, the Principal tries to pacify him by making jokes. The punchline of such jokes is that Leon is wrong, foolish, and ridiculous. In these moments, the Principal thinks he’s winning because of his audience’s – a fellow administrative official – confirmation of laughter. All the while, Leon maintains his composure and he continues to proceed in his narrative successfully. As previously mentioned, humor can also bring about belief in Leon. McGovern’s decision to humor Leon and ironically provide him legal advice doesn’t stop Leon; it allows him to continue. It enables his narrative to succeed. McGovern also thinks Leon is ridiculous, but in this case, his actions do not match the punchline. The students do this as well. At his suggestion, they make a ‘social justice’ themed dance, which the whole school attends, and they do a walkout when he calls for a strike. All the while not believing him, thinking he is ridiculous. They humor him but again it enables him. Is this because they actually believed in him all along? In a quite provocative example of just how this is true, one student jokingly yells at Leon, who is soapboxing, “I love everything you’re saying. Oh, sing it, sister! Yeah!” This humor is meant to be funny because of its ironic punchline. The ironic humorous response works against its intended social pacifying goal though. Leon does not feel ridiculed. He takes a position of no funny business.

What is the interplay between humor and seriousness? It is expressed quite directly in a scene where McGovern says to Leon, “It’s never real until it stops being funny,” silence, “…that’s a joke, Leon.” Leon’s not joking; it is real. This corresponds with another scene towards the film’s end. Leon has taken his principal hostage after his previous attempts to form a union failed. The failure of which only ensured Leon’s success. And while this is an intense escalation from petition taking to hostage taking by Leon, it was enabled by the authorities, the school administration, choosing to use comedy as a response in those past attempts. In an exchange between McGovern, operating as Leon’s liaison to police, and an officer, we come to the key moment of the film. After speaking with Leon, McGovern tells the officer, “He wants the school board commissioner to allow the kids to unionize and safe passage to Venezuela,” silence, “That was a joke, the Venezuela. He wants the commissioner brought down here.” For the police, this is no funny business. McGovern breaks from the spell of humor and begins to really believe in Leon because it is ‘never real until stops being funny’. After this, we no longer hear jokes from McGovern, and he expresses his sincerest belief in Leon when the school commissioner arrives. This is followed by the students arriving in support who rallied by Leon’s school comrades. Students who asked for it to no longer be funny. It is in these moments, that Leon becomes real and not an object of ridicule.

This process is entirely contingent upon one thing though: Leon’s genuineness. Leon takes who he is in absolute seriousness. Leon risks it all without perceiving it as such. This seriousness, which initially appears as object for ridicule, drives those around him to believe in his cause. This kind of structure can illuminate our current moment. Returning to the question of “What if we were to take this comedy much more seriously and insist upon its truth?” This corresponds with the rise of two notable American television programs: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Regarded as total beacons of satire, these media programs for all their wit and comedic critique of the right-wing have failed to stop the rise of right-wing leaders and politicians. They are ineffectual. Are its consumers just the principal’s associate laughing along while the right-wing pushes an increasingly successful racist, capitalist agenda? Humorous as pacification fails in this way. Donald Trump’s vulgarity is attacked and his personality ridiculed, but nonetheless his vulgar policies continue. Consider how the liberal media mocks Trump’s ridiculous desire to build a wall. What is Donald Trump’s response? Yes, I am going to build that wall! And you will find many supporters who joke about building it. And now the building of the wall is a central bargaining item in the United States’ legislative negotiation over immigration. This prompts me to rephrase my question: “What if the Left were to take the satirizing of itself much more seriously and insist upon its truth?” The principal says to Leon, “a revolutionary sans a revolution.” A common criticism made against those who espouse left-wing values often meant to demean them. While he is wrong of Leon, is this not true of the dominant neoliberal “left”? Regardless, the left should insist upon the seriousness of its satirizing as revolutionary cause.

And further yet, we can take examples from our very own Leon. Leon demonstrates the genuineness of his cause when a fellow unknown student, Skip, is sentenced to detention. Leon is willing to go to detention with you out of true justice, an entirely disinterested matter. Leon takes his values entirely seriously. The detention supervisor is in disbelief that a student would do such a thing. She attempts to make jokes at his expense, and Leon calls her a fascist. He wins the students over to his side even though they take his side out of the humor of the situation. Leon’s seriousness as object of ridicule works against itself. And I simply must point out one of the best jokes from this scene of the film. Skip asks if they can simply read in detention since there is no homework, usually a punishment in itself. The detention supervisor responds by saying no because she brought math worksheets. (She really is a fascist!) But to my point, this is the kind of positioning that must be adopted by today’s Left. Even if we fail, our cause will be strengthened by its newly recognized seriousness by others. Humor, with seriousness as object of ridicule, is leading us to overlook that which would free us. If no one is willing to take the cause seriously though, things will lay dormant. Take, for instance, the teacher’s lecture to the students about imagining if they were to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. He does this trying to appeal to their attention. They can’t imagine that and aren’t listening. And further yet, they are cracking jokes about the teacher’s class. But through Leon’s conviction and the newfound seriousness of his comrades, the other students do come to imagine and join a cause. So even while they ridiculed the teacher’s lesson, maybe the lesson won out.

This ideological form is present, more provocatively, in one of the film’s side plots: The mother’s lack of Jewish heritage. The mother is not Jewish, but the Father and children are. She attempts to do all the stereotypical things a Jewish mother would do. It is pointed out at numerous times that she is not actually Jewish, and it is a façade. During one of these moments, Leon seeks to console his mother saying, “You’re Jewish enough for me.” She is humored, and in effect, she is Jewish. (and maybe Leon does have a humor after all). Let us not simply believe but be revolutionaries like Leon. Let us be our own Chosen People. We are the people we’ve been waiting for. Let us take our cause to its utmost seriousness. This is not a call to “re-enact” the history of 20th century socialism as Leon does. We must still be strategic and think ahead. When right-wing media mocks the left for wanting universal healthcare, free housing, water, and more, we must fully embrace that this is who we are instead of shying away from what we think is meant to be ridicule. And even though we will make failures along the way, our struggle will not have been in vain. The more the Left fails and the more it is ridiculed, the more serious we must become. Only then can we break from the spell of humor. This is why The Trotsky is a serious comedy for the Left.

C. M. Olmstead is an undergraduate student of sociology and philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa.

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