A deadly beast hooked on nose candy might be exactly what the environmental movement needs.
I took a psych course in college taught by a professor named Frank. Not your typical academic, Frank wore an undersized sports coat barely containing his gargantuan biceps, rocked thinning hair held together by gel and barber’s heroics, and wore a lot of necklaces. It is unknown to me where Frank originally hails from, but I know in my heart that it was New Jersey.
This is an article about Cocaine Bear, but I need to start with Frank because he was a psychologist who fed cocaine to pigeons. That was his whole gig. And in an abstract sense, that’s OK! There are probably respectable researchers around the country who feed coke to pigeons for perfectly good science reasons. But the thing about Frank was that if you lined up 20 dudes off the street and were told “one of these guys feeds cocaine to pigeons for a living,” you would have picked Frank 10 out of 10 times.
In a walk along the rolling green, late for class one day, I asked Frank how he got there. His response was a shrug, a wolfish grin, and “because they let me.” Cocaine Bear has an unmistakable “because they let me” Frank energy that I don’t know what went into Universal Pictures greenlighting it.
Of course, there is only one reason to see Cocaine Bear, and that is because you would like to see what happens when a bear does cocaine. The plot of the film, which is based on a true story, is straightforward. Drug smugglers drop cocaine out of a plane. A bear finds said cocaine. The bear turns the mountain red in pursuit of more cocaine.
Many people are surprised by the lowbrow blockbuster’s ecological angle, which is interesting. Elizabeth Banks, the film’s director, insists that her movie is about humanity’s hubristic desire to dominate its environment. “If you fuck with nature, nature will fuck with you,” she summarizes.
Indeed, if Cocaine Bear violates our expectations about what environmentalism looks like, it is because American consumers are accustomed to environmental discourse that is characterized by piety and a dash of mournfulness. The tone of most “green” messaging is solemn, accompanied by a minor soundtrack and grave warnings. Above all, environmentalist content—whether a feature film or a World Wildlife Fund commercial—is invariably didactic. It would have us learn something, and through that education, inspire us to act. Almost all environmental discourse in America is predicated on the old-fashioned idea that people must be taught a lesson before they will take any sort of action.
Disasters like Snowpiercer or Children of Men make for brilliant cinema—but they don’t inspire the can-do attitude necessary to combat the very ecological crises they explore. My classrooms are mostly populated by bright-eyed Environmental Studies majors who want to save the world, and yet watching films and documentaries about ecological catastrophes often seems to dampen their enthusiasm for activism. “What’s the point of trying?” one student asked me in office hours after watching the bleak apocalyptMany disaster films, like Snowpiercer or Children of Men, make for brilliant cinema – but they don’t always inspire people with a “can-do” attitude to take action when it comes to combating the very ecological crises these films explore. My classes at school are mostly populated by environmental studies majors who want to save the world, but after watching films and documentaries about ecological catastrophes it often seems that their enthusiasm for activism diminishes. One student asked me this question in office hours after watching a documentary about an ecological crisis.
Nicole Seymour—an environmentalist and English professor at California State University—has asked a provocative question: If pious messaging doesn’t inspire change, what if environmentalism might “work” better by becoming more irreverent? More ribald and less self-righteous? Silly rather than somber? More about giggles than guilt? Seymour calls this cheeky posture “bad environmentalism,” which she defines as “environmentalism with the ‘wrong’ attitude— without reverence or seriousness—and while also having a positive impact.”Recognizing this kind of environmental despair in herself and among her own students, Nicole Seymour—an environmentalist and English professor at California State University—has asked a provocative question: If pious messaging doesn’t inspire change, could irreverent bad environmentalism work better by motivating people to act? More ribald and less self-righteous? Silly rather than somber? More about giggles than guilt? Seymour calls this cheeky approach “bad environmentalism,” which she defines as “environmentalism with the wrong attitude-without reverence or seriousness-and while also having a positive impact.”
In this sense, it may be beside the point whether or not Elizabeth Banks’ film about a black bear who rides the white lightning is quality “cinema.” (The inevitable “is this a good bad movie or a bad bad movie?” debate has already started). Ultimately, Banks’ film may prove too polished to enter the pantheon of other preposterous cult classics—like Sharknado or The Room—whose creators straddle a delicate line between inept and idiot savant. Likewise, I would not go so far as to suggest that Cocaine Bear makes for game-changing environmental propaganda: I do not imagine most audience members will have an intense reaction to it.