Sorry to Bother You is a 2018 dystopian sci-fi satire of the kind we don’t see much of anymore, because most of our examples have been embalmed and pinned to butterfly boards. It’s a 1984 for 2018, a snapshot of the Brave New World we’re all living in. It’s the true heir to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, because thirty years of trying to make a Don Quixote movie have officially driven Terry Gilliam insane. (Seriously, some warlock Cervantes fan must’ve hexed that text and anyone who tries to adapt it. Similar to the curse Alan Moore placed on all his work after the From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movies sucked.)
Sorry to Bother You is the one theatrical feature I saw last year that I feel comfortable calling “great,” without at least twenty minutes of waffling qualifications. You should see it if you haven’t – right now. And if you have, you should join the rest of us in solidarity. We have nothing to lose…not even our chains. We sold them for scrap to pay for gas money so we could get to our crappy jobs on time.
That’s the other reason we haven’t had as many dystopian sci-fi satires as we once did: the world we’re living in is a dystopian sci-fi satire of itself. A demented game show host is president of my country at a time when we’re fighting seven wars (that I know of) and steadfastly ignoring the eighth war we should be fighting against the weather itself. Unless we’re the 1% of the 1% of the 1%, we haven’t seen a real raise in forty years. Our jobs, assuming we have them, universally suck, and the stuff we can buy with the money from our jobs just keeps getting worse. Movies are giant commercials for their own tie-in merchandise. TV shows are filmed on higher quality cameras, but that didn’t upgraded the writing, it just made everyone buy new TVs. Video games are delivery systems for their own online casinos, where you use real money to buy fake money to buy a chance to gamble on a sweet paint job for your fake gun. And with your luck, it’ll probably turn out to be “Grey” or something. Oo-oo, grey. Our cups runneth over with suckage. And how the hell’s a body supposed to satirize all that? Most of it’s not even funny, just aggressively, stupidly absurd.
On the other hand, a lot of it’s absurd. String enough absurdities along and you create an avalanche and those are always funny. Take job interviews. The lower you go down into the hell that is the “sales industry” the more of a farce they become. Just once I would’ve like one of my future managers to say, “I don’t care if you’ve got experience for this, I’ll hire damn near anyone.” The moment that happened in the first scene of this film I knew, “This one’s a keeper. Somebody’s been there.”
Sorry to Bother You is the story of Cassius “Cash” Green – just a dude from Oakland trying to get by in our slow-motion apocalypse. Maybe move out of his uncle’s garage so he and his girlfriend, Detroit, can get it on without the automatic door exposing them. He joins the telemarketing firm RegalView and eventually has some success selling encyclopedias to…whoever’s dumb enough to buy encyclopedias these days. (Keep ’em for bookshelf ballast, Chief.) He finds this success by discovering his “white voice,” (overdubbed by David Cross). As an older coworker, Langston, (played by Danny Glover) explains to him, “It’s not really a white voice. It’s what they wish they sounded like. What they think they’re supposed to sound like.” As in, “Hi, this is Dave with SomeBullshitCompanyThatWentBankrupt. Sorry to bother you, but I’m just calling to save you a bundle on long distance phone service…” Ugh.
This gets Cash a promotion to the top floor, where RegalView sells I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-slave-labor, provided by its number one client, WorryFree. WorryFree is the OmniConsumerProducts of this movie’s dimension, if you crossed OCP with Amazon’s warehouses. Led (as so many OCPs are these days) by a coked-up, Silicon Valley shithead named Steve Lift (played wonderfully by one time Lone Ranger Armie Hammer), who’s like a cross between Steve Job, if Jobs had had an actual personality, and Richard Branson, if Branson hadn’t run out of ideas in the mid-80s. Lift has a plan to increase the productivity of his ever-growing, lifetime-contracted workforce by decreasing their humanity. Lift makes the mistake of sharing his grand plan with Cash, so it’s up to Cash to stop it…provided he can find anyone who’ll believe him. Or who cares.
That’s the spoiler-free, elevator-pitch version of the movie, and you should know by now that I care about spoilers as much as most people care about the ants on their countertops. There’s a bit in the first ten minutes, where Cash goes into the VIP room of a local, low-rent club. He finds no room to sit, no one to have a conversation with, gets a drink spilled on his shirt…and yet still comes out saying, “That’s some baller shit.” This is a massive spoiler for the entire rest of the movie. The kind of thing some of us used to call “foreshadowing.” So: fair warning and last chance. Go see this movie because it’s good. And I’m about to talk about it.
The good thing about dystopian sci-fi satires is, you can indite pretty much every level of your society for all it’s bullshit in one go. Most of the bullshit revolves around creating buzz and has fuck-all to do with any other goal. The actual goal is to make more money for people who’re already rich, but the rich and their running dogs are still (in spite of everything) squeamish about saying that out loud. Instead, our day-shift managers dress up mundane tasks in the language of warfare and organized crime to try and make stupid bullshit sound cool. We have to “bag and tag” our sales prospects like a squad of telemarketing Chris Kyles, but also pretend our workplaces are all one big, happy family, and asking for a raise is just as gauche as asking for more allowance money when it isn’t your birthday. Our managers would argue that social capital is more important, because of course they would. They’re managers – they got out of the sales game as soon as possible. At least Erik Prince pays his mercenary army a living wage…as far as I know.
But everything old is new again. That’s why mercenary armies and legal slavery have made such big comebacks. Just as bad, but dumber than ever, drenched in twee slogans, like a vampire that sparkles. “Stop worrying and get WorryFree,” the commercial for our villain’s company says. Because when your only other options are things like “telemarketer” or “sign twirler” or “charge your family members rent so you can pay the inflated mortgage on your over-valued house until the bank takes it from you anyway”…well, the evil voices in your head start to chatter about, “Three hots and a cot,” like Cash’s uncle says. Like we all used to say…about prison. Take it from someone who was a telemarketer while his girlfriend was a sign twirler. Though mine never asked me to stop talking about the sun exploding. She was all about those zombie apocalypses.
Working front-line sales (see? Even I slip into martial metaphors) is an exercise in constant humiliation. As such, the film’s illustration of what it’s like, with Cash literally dropping into the lives of total strangers, is spot-on. Cold-calling catches people at their most intimate moments, and either they hang up on you immediately…or they start telling you about the everyday horrors of their lives. Here’s a person so obviously and desperately aching for a single moment of true, undiluted human connection that they’ll tell you – a total stranger, completely unbidden – about their husband’s insanely expensive cancer treatments, say…and you’ll have no choice but to “stick to the script.” It’s disgusting and degrading and you feel like an asshole doing it…because you are. You’ve been turned into one out of what you tell yourself is necessity. It’s no wonder sociopathic bastards rule everything around us, and that we are constantly pressured to become sociopathic bastards in order to get ahead. “I finally feel like I’m good at something,” Cash says, once he starts selling. Whether you’re good at something worthwhile doesn’t even enter into it…until it’s too late. Why do you think I quit in 2010 to try and get Internet Famous?
In the sales trenches, Cash meets union organizer Squeeze, and that’s the most science fictional thing in this film, hands down. During my ten-plus years doing Regalview-level work, union organizing existed in a limbo, somewhere between a fondly hoped-for dream and a literal joke. “Gee, this sucks,” we’d say, as we huddled around the smoker’s ghetto, complaining about the latest dumb thing we’d be forced to do, “we should form a union, ha-ha.” The fact everyone is not summarily fired the moment they do their first protest is the second most sci-fi thing in this film.
Instead, Cash is promoted. That’s the “meritocracy” people talk about – kick the talented upstairs before they give the rest of us any bright ideas. Sure, you’ll abandon all your friends to drudgery and miserable toil…but hey, at least you’ll get to drink on the job. There’s a lot of drinking up on the top floor, with the other Power Callers. Granted, the extra money will help you pay off the family debt and get a space that’s all your own…but even that, relatively miniscule, once-taken-for-granted amount of power will alienate you from your friends. And significant others. “I’m about to get paid,” Cash says, the first time he crosses the picket line. “We’re all trying to be paid,” Squeeze retorts, and if we don’t all hang together, we’ll most assuredly hang separately.
Contrast Cash with Winston from 1984, Sam from Brazil, and Guy Protagonist from Fahrenheit 451. (Bernard, from Brave New World is a coward and a narc, so fuck him.) All four of them begin as low-level drones of the systems their trapped in. Guy is a loyal enforcer…at first…while Winston and Sam know how fucked they are thanks to their positions as shit government employees. All can only impotently rail against their systems in the utmost privacy. Cash begins as a survivor, just trying to get along, but his total lack of ideology allows Sorry to Bother You to dramatize how his system (our current system) turns even the most well-meaning into Winstons, Sams and Guys. All three of them began their radicalization out of what they mistook for love, because they lived in fascist bureaucracies that legislated love out of existence long before their stories began, leaving them nothing to fall back on but their own hormones. Cash begins things in a stable relationship, but his lack of awareness of how the system’s changing him strains that past the breaking point. He becomes a bourgeois bastard, the most annoying person to live with, because all they truly care about is “trying to get paid.”
Cash’s love-interest, Detroit, is a parable of the modern arts and how we artists (and yes, I’m still pretensions enough to count myself and all my colleagues among them) interact with the bourgy bastards of the world. We’ve been trying to shock them out of their drone-like complacency for over 200 years. It’s been loads of laughs, but all it really seems to do is make them more reactionary (as long as reaction comes with the correct, local brand signifiers). This in turn makes us try to shock them even harder with increasingly self-defeating, and occasionally self-destructive, pieces. Usually riffing on Marina Abramovic’s “Rhythm 0,” only you recite excerpts from The Last Dragon while people throw shit at you. That’s what separates your performance art from the sadistic game show that everyone in this movie’s world watches every night – “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me.” That, and the size of your audience. Even the so-called avant garde is drowning in ruinous nostalgia for the 1970s. What is this, the 1990s? Still?
Even if you get big, what’s the point? The top of the socio-economic heap is overrun with narcissistic dipshits, so bored with their world-traveling, orgy-filled lives that their fondest wish (apart from making more money) appears to be getting away with saying the N-word in public. And they have the gall to call themselves “rational.” “This isn’t irrational,” they’ll say, about their latest dumb-ass plan, whether its cars with auto-pilots that can’t stay between two straight lines, blood-testing machines that don’t take blood samples, turning people into horses so they can lift more boxes per minute, or turning your best salesman into a horse-person so he can be your controlled opposition. The Matrix, which built-in it’s own controlled opposition to patch over an original, systemic flaw it never adequately addressed, was immanently rational in its own solipsistic way. That’s the problem with rationalism: these days, most people use it as a synonym for what they already believe.
There’s a book about this, called Voltaire’s Bastards, by John Ralston Saul, and if more people had spent the 90s reading him than Christopher Hitchens bullshit, the world would be a much better place. Here’s a not-at-all-random quote: “Almost without exception they are bullies. Primarily this appears to be intellectual intimidation. Combined with the use of secrecy and systems manipulation, it is used to frighten people on the practical level of their incomes, pensions, and careers.” And here’s another, from a little later: “The technocrats are hedonists of power. Their obsession with structures and their inability or unwillingness to link these to the public good make this power an abstract force — a force that works, more often than not, at cross-purposes to the real needs of a painfully real world.” But please, feel free to write me a novel-length comment about how you just know Elon Musk is going to save us all because he watches the same cartoons you do. Sounds imminently rational.
That’s the other side of all the pointless conspiracy theorizing these days: the waiting around for a savior. Most of the creep-tastic shit in our world occurs right out in the open and you can find it without going down any rabbit holes that lead to Anime Nazi message boards. There will be no more Woodwards (the one we have has gone way down hill in his old age), no more Bernsteins. The rich stopped caring a long time ago, secure that their money can and will let them get away with…whatever. You can catch them committing their various crimes against humanity on video and all your exposé will do is make their stock rise faster. The one thing – the only thing – that’ll even begin to make a difference is if we all unite into an overwhelming, revolutionary force and overthrow this goddamn, shit-sucking, vampire capitalist system.
It won’t be easy. The cops will shoot us and beat us down, or let their fascist friends do it while they look the other way…but guess what? They’re already doing that, even in my own Fair City of roses and water. Our current Chief of Police is from Oakland, just like this film’s writer/director, Boots Riley. She got the job because her predecessor got caught skipping out on training exercises and having subordinates sign in for him. And he only got the job because his predecessor straight-up Dick Chenney’d a friend while they were drunkenly bird hunting. Like I said, we’re ruled over by total dumbasses and don’t have much left to loose.
Except our illusions that we live in a normal, functional society. Those are the hardest to give up (both in our reality, and this film’s) because most of our society is designed to keep them intact. Which is why artists keep feeling the need to couch their societal critiques in sci-fi dystopias. They’ve always been more about the year they were made in, and that’s been true since way before Orwell transposed those last two numbers in his title. The punchline here being Boots Riley finished this script in 2012, and we’re only seeing the movie now.
It took this long because the independent movie funding scene – insofar as it ever existed – has been massively hollowed out by corporate conglomeration, and the fact everyone wants to try and be Netflix now. That’s obviously bad…but it’s hard to see the universe where this came in 2012 being any better. I remember 2012, and we were all so dumb back then.
Had this movie come out in 2012, it would’ve been either willfully misinterpreted, or worse: Ignored to Death. In fact, it kind of was. Once Boots finished the script, he made an album of the same name…and I didn’t hear about it until last year, when the film came out. Again you fail me, internet, so I’m giving Riley props myself. Don’t let this one slide into the memory hole. See Sorry to Bother You. It’s good. Because it’s true. “Maybe the artist is being literal.”