About the Author:
I am currently finishing my first year as a Literature student. This essay was for my Philosophy and Culture class, which focused on comedy, what makes it funny, and the emotions that trigger laughter. Jokes can communicate more than people realize, which is what prompted me to make the connection between the film Wild Tales (2014) and its opposition to the politics expressed in Facundo (1845). I hope this essay encourages readers to think more about how society is structured and why, as this kind of mindset is what sparks positive change. In the future, I want to create something influential enough to inspire someone else, thus starting a creative chain reaction that continues for years to come.
Prof. Brian Redekopp
Philosophy 913: Philosophy and Culture
Facundo and the Funnies: How Wild Tales Reevaluates Civility vs. Barbarity
The suppression of primal desires, while unnatural, is a compromise that humanity has made to maintain its modern foundations. Violent urges have been deemed improper and uncivilized, especially in the wake of educational, technological, and moral progress. The dichotomy between civilization and barbarity has been extensively explored in a number of works, with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s book Facundo being considered the most significant contribution to this discourse in Latin America (Echevarría 2). The author’s conclusion is that the only way to eradicate savagery, the root of all dysfunction and depravity, is through the establishment of cities (Sarmiento 15). The Argentine anthology film Wild Tales, written and directed by Damián Szifron, scrutinizes this idea’s validity in the contemporary age. His movie utilizes comedy, more specifically the relief theory and gallows humour, to express how cities and other systems used to inspire civility arouse an animalistic but essentially human rage that is impossible to quell.
Sarmiento’s 1845 literary work Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism uses a combination of historical fact and striking prose to convey a warning against the dangers of barbarity. The book can be divided into three main parts; it describes the origins of Argentine nature, then reprehends wild brutality through the fictional dictator Juan Facundo Quiroga, and finally delivers a critical admonishment of the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas (Celarent 718). In the first section, Sarmiento imparts his theory that barbarity is bred in the country. Due to its vast plains, it is easy to avoid interaction with others, which impedes social development and leads to poor communication skills (Sarmiento 48). The inability to solve problems through conversation (or discussion?) promotes the use of aggression as a means of survival. It also conditions those in rural areas to behave without accountability, as they are isolated from the consequences that their actions may have on others. Finally, existing in the wild encourages the cultivation of physical strength over intellect, which is another contributor to the countrymen’s adoption of barbarity. Such undesirable characteristics are perpetuated by a lack of facilities present in these areas. In fact, progression towards superior moral and intellectual ideas is presumed impossible due to how unmanageable it would be to equitably distribute schools, hospitals, and other resources (55). In contrast to the picture he paints of rural life, the author describes cities as containing “laws, ideas of progress, means of instruction, some municipal organization, [and] a regular government” (53). The compact structure of these districts makes socialization necessary and services accessible. This is the groundwork for what he considers a civilized way of life. Multiple scholars have pointed out the contradictory nature of Sarmiento’s veneration of orderly systems, as the main enemy of Facundo was notoriously cold and calculating. Rosas sought to crush his opposition through strategic means, using totalitarianism to carry out “systematic annihilation” (Fishburn 306-307). This lends credence to Szifron’s interpretation of civility and barbarity, which suggests that urban life and its constrictive practices can be just as brutal and provoke the same kind of primal aggression found in the uninhibited country.
Over a century and a half later, Wild Tales was created. It is composed of six different vignettes, each depicting ruthless acts of vengeance. The film being split into unrelated episodes keeps the audience engaged, while also emphasizing the pervasiveness of anger in everyday life. Each story’s villain is a representation of modern-day fixtures. Psychiatry, loan sharking, driving, bureaucracy, legal corruption, and marriage are at the centre of each segment respectively. The commonality that they share is their presence in urban settings. There is no need or opportunity to monitor one’s mood swings, cheat the law, or uphold a binding contract in the rural environment that Facundo describes. The systems and ideas that exist in civilized society are intended to restrict the possibility of having a destructive outburst. However, this results in a rage that builds inside and is without an acceptable outlet. Szifron understands that this pressure to hold back passion is almost tyrannical, and that there is pleasure in fighting against it (Ali). The dark humour in Wild Tales comes from the release of emotional tension. This sense of relief only lasts temporarily, as each story ends in some sort of failure to defeat what the protagonist is fighting against. The audience is aware that any attempt to retaliate against values integral to life today is pointless, and the film’s gallows humour functions as a way to help us cope with our lack of control regarding our emotions and surroundings.
The relief theory is most commonly associated with Sigmund Freud (Morreall). His belief was that humour occurs when a build-up of negative energy is identified as unneeded and released. Laughter can equally be caused by letting go of the psychic energy that is used to repress hostility (Morreall). This method of comedy is clearly observable in Wild Tales, especially in its third story: “The Strongest” is about an Audi driver who cuts off a man in a mud-caked car, only for him to get a flat tire. The other man catches up to him and takes his revenge. What follows is a bloody, scatological, and destructive fight that results in both of their deaths. This story is particularly pertinent when comparing its themes to Facundo, as it clearly demonstrates a clash between the rich and civilized and the poor and savage. Despite this story being supposedly above violence, the man from an urban area is the instigator of the conflict. This proves that barbarous rage is able to sustain itself in any environment, including cities. In the tale, the victim of abuse fights back through murderous means. Rather than the humour coming from a release of superfluous energy, viewing this character who insists on “reacting where most of us would repress” (Mercader) relieves the tension caused by our innate violent urges. This calls into question the idea that energy has to be deemed unneeded at all for the relief theory to apply. Alternatively, the film acknowledges that negative energy is unstoppable, but gives the audience permission to laugh at it.
Gallows humour is used between members of the same peer group to boost morale in times of hardship (Palmer 58). In the movie’s case, it serves the function of comforting those forced to cope with artificial systems that feel unnatural and alienating. The fourth and sixth segments of the anthology most accurately portray this. In “Little Bomb,” a man gets his car towed for parking in the wrong zone. He contests the ticket at the government office, but they refuse to hear his side of the story. Being unable to penetrate this unfeeling urban structure, he sets off a bomb that destroys the towing office as the ultimate act of revenge. “Till Death Do Us Part” is set at a wedding, where the bride discovers that her groom has been unfaithful. She has sex with a cook as retribution and announces to her husband that she will continue to cheat on him with anyone that shows her love. She explains that he is now trapped in their marriage, as she is determined to take everything from him if he tries to leave. These stories all present misfortune as inevitable and beyond the control of the protagonists (Speier 1354). Whether it be unreachable administrators or the hurtful actions of others, our fates often lie in unknown hands. The desperation to take charge, which is perceptible in every character in Wild Tales, is inherent to all people. It is when we are unable to do so that rage takes over and we act impetuously. Through their failures, the film shows that even though we impose constraints on life, like the legal system or marriage, it will never be orderly. Dwelling on the possibility that it can be only creates dissatisfaction and anger. Instead, it is important to soothe the unalterable with humour (1358). The movie’s gallows humour allows the audience to indulge in the fact that bad circumstances are inevitable and efforts to stop them will be fruitless. We will always struggle against systems that are unnatural to us and will want them to change. By accepting this notion and learning to laugh at the complex situation we have put ourselves in, we will be able to reach what is closest to true civility.
In conclusion, Wild Tales uses relief theory and gallows humour as small parts of a greater goal, that being to critique intellectuals like Sarmiento and their belief that urban areas eradicate barbarity. Rather, the forced internalization of primitive aggression only begets more of it.
Ali, Lorraine. “Oscars 2015: Argentine director’s ‘Wild Tales’ hits on universal tensions.” Los Angeles Times, 19 Feb. 2015, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-wild-tales-director-damian-szifron-20150219-story.html
Celarent, Barbara. “Review: [Untitled].” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 117, no. 2, 2011, pp. 716-723.
Fishburn, Evelyn. “The Concept of ‘Civilization and Barbarism’ in Sarmiento’s ‘Facundo’ – A Reappraisal.” Ibero-Amerikanisches Archiv, vol. 5, no. 4, 1979, pp. 301-308.
Mercader, Sofia. “Primal Screaming – an interview with Damián Szifron.” Latino Life, https://www.latinolife.co.uk/articles/primal-screaming-interview-dami%C3%A1n-szifr%C3%B3n
Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humor.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Metaphysics Research Lab of Stanford University, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/humor/
Palmer, Jerry. Taking Humour Seriously. New York, Routledge, 1994.
Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism. Translated by Kathleen Ross. Introduction by Roberto González Echevarría. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003.
Speier, Hans. “Wit and Politics: An Essay on Laughter and Power.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 103, no. 5, 1998, pp. 1352–1358.