Dr. Dawg

The high art of 'Tiger King'

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The recent Netflix series is not everyone’s jug of hooch, but Tiger King is a a serious work of art—a brilliant inverted comĂ©die de moeurs that refracts America in the Age of Trump. Once you step back from its visceral entanglements, if you can, it rewards the critical gaze.

The grotesque is hardly new in art. From Goya to Kafka, from Francis Bacon to Shakespeare, this figure, not wholly evil, excites both revulsion and empathy at once. Joe Exotic is just such a recrudescence of a trope that appears throughout art and literature, from ancient Greece and Rome to the present day. Helpfully, however, he didn’t have to be invented: he is a genuine objet trouvĂ©, lying in wait for his audience.

The Tiger King is, to use the current term, a mash-up: distinct and dissonant threads of American culture are here assembled in one individual. Joe is not so much a person as a human collage. You really couldn’t make this guy up without a meth assist: a gay, polygamous redneck with a collection of big cats, a man prone to bloviating self-love and fits of rage, and one with a less-than-reverent attitude to the rule of law. (He ran for President of the United States in 2016. Don’t laugh.)

The risible phrase “based on a true story” should, however, be kept in mind. “True story” is a contradiction in terms in the first place, and this is at one more remove, reminding us of Plato’s dark view of art as a lie about a lie. But that’s what narrative is, of necessity: facts are selected, bent or fabricated to fit a tragi-comic tale.

Only in present-day America could such a narrative be constructed, yet it has a kind of mythic resonance about it. Joe is a classic bouffon, the quintessential odd-looking outsider, surrounded by his gang of lesser characters: toothless, armless, or lowlife grifters looking to score. He’s doomed—we know this instinctively—because jesters do not become kings. Their performance is always edgy and defensive; they know where the real power lies, and part of their attraction, I suspect, is the inevitability of their subjugation should they step over the line. The Lord of Misrule has a very short reign, one that serves to reinforce, in a kind of participatory theatre, the order that it mocks. And Joe’s ignominious end is the conclusion we are waiting for.

Tiger King is, therefore, a morality play, but within those narrative bounds it’s a subtle one. This is no stylized war of good versus evil. Those of us who watch this thing to the end do—admit it—empathize with the protagonist to some degree, especially when his chief antagonist is the annoying, sanctimonious and overly-cute Carole Baskin. Their skirmishes are often funny as hell, other times not so much, but Joe gives as good as he gets until the inevitable forces fell him, and there are moments when we (or at least some of us) find ourselves cheering him on.

A word about the animals. No cruelty is depicted in the series: on the contrary, we see Joe nuzzling with his tigers as though they were house cats. They look well-fed enough, too, dining on their expired Walmart meat—which also fed his staff. But for those who oppose zoos on principle, and object to using animals for human entertainment, there’s plenty of reason to switch off the TV after a few minutes.

For those others who can swallow the premise, though, Tiger King offers the possibility of a full-on engagement with modern-day myth. But be warned: like all myth, Tiger King is—to borrow the words of the series’ full title—chock full of murder, mayhem and madness.

[Acknowledgements to my friend Terry Rudden, who encouraged me to expand on a couple of remarks I made on Facebook. —DD]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 30, 2020 4:44 PM.

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