As months go, September 2001 was properly shit, unfolding, as it did, in the rubble of the World Trade Center. This fatal event would go on to produce further deaths and opportunistic politics and stupid racism that continue to the present but, it wasn’t the only thing clearly wrong with the birth of a time of great desperation. My own tolerably abysmal career had taken a dangerously deep dive into the void of IT marketing and I was hardly alone in enduring meaningless labour in an era of meaningless culture. Many people in the west were now forced into such positions of “knowledge” work while brown people in service nations did the real grunt on our behalf and a good volume of the popular entertainment of the time didn’t even bother to satirise the absurd asymmetry of our labour.
We chose fantasy instead.
In 2001 the biggest literary event was the release of the odious and religious faux liberalism of The Life of Pi. The biggest local television event was the debut of Big Brother. Movies seemed to want to trump the cinematic terror of 9/11 with big-budget whimsy and we went to see Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and another Jurassic Fucking Park. In short, we wanted to look everywhere that we were not lest we see a hint of our own numb violent greed and consider for a minute that, perhaps, the “terrorists” had every reason to despise us. In 2001, we looked away because we could not bear the truth of what we had so ineluctably become.
It was in this climate of flag-waving hyper-racism, elves and magical dinosaurs that a single mainstream film dared to do as popular art really must and show us that we were fuckwits. The best, if accidental, post-9/11 critique of the culture and certainly the best ever piss-take of the fashion industry gave some of us the only cheer that year. Thank goodness for Zoolander.
I am not an especial fan of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson and have found many of their cinematic outings, both together and separately, to be artsy more than legitimately artistic. The Royal Tenenbaums, released the same year, was nothing more than an overweening mistranslation of John Irving and if it wasn’t for Stiller’s wonderful work on The Cable Guy (no, I’m not joking; this ’90s comedy really stands up) we could have dismissed him altogether as only a moderately funny tosspot.
But, in Zoolander, the pair managed to make us laugh not only at the fact of our own paralysing narcissism but, by means of the Mugato subplot, how that high if fragile self-regard was sustained by the labour of developing nations. With a mocking sideways nod to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, Derek Zoolander is programmed to maintain the market supremacy of the west when he hears a particular song. That this torture unfolds in a luxury day spa and not a state-run lab and that the music is not Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony but gay jizz anthem Relax is just perfect.
With the economic politics of No Logo and an eye for contemporary folly sharper than those beneath the spectacles of Clive James, this film was a welcome and surprising delight. Hansel’s end-of-history approach to the culture fuelled his scooter chase around whatever nation of “ancient wise people” took his fancy that week and Derek shed light on the rarely discussed urgent social problem of being really, really ridiculously good-looking. Together in their extreme sexual vanity, the veil of tolerance is ripped apart as they talk about the orgy of the previous night with its imported cast of “two Finnish dwarfs and the Maori tribesman”. The use of exotic peoples as fetish items is, of course, deeply offensive, but intended in the most marvellous and constructive way.
The film, whose sequel was announced in true fabulousness at the Valentino show at Paris Fashion Week last Tuesday, was more refreshing than an Orange Mocha Frappucino but not hotter, as it should have been, at that year’s box office than the singed flesh of Male Models who had burned themselves to death to the hits of Wham!. Zoolander became a DVD hit over time.
Derek was always ready to look at himself — “If I have a day off I’ll spend four to nine hours in front of the mirror, trying just a tilt of the head or a furrow of my eyelash” — but in 2001, we weren’t. As Hansel might say, “it’s a vanity of self-absorption that I try to steer clear of”. To avoid our own reflection and to outrun the risk of critique of a society so immoderately self-serving it had experienced attack, we had started on a fantasy binge. Middle Earth was a more suitable object for scrutiny than the labour camps of textile workers and the false lessons of Hogwarts more tolerable to learn than those as told by Hansel and Derek.
And Hansel and Derek gave us what-for with a prescience accessorised so well, much of its minutiae are still with us. Adults now ride stupid scooters much more than they did in 2001 and celebrities champion causes they barely understand, while sipping customised caffeinated baby drinks, with new force. The fictional Prime Minister of Malaysia, or Micronesia or whatever, has failed in his attempts to temper the cruel excess of the textile industry and women workers are actually burned alive for the fashionable west in Bangladesh. And the gap between liberal rhetoric and the reality it purports to represent is even wider, now. The important thing is not acting but being seen to care.
Derek, who advocates not reading because “words can only hurt you if you try to read them”, states his intention to found a school in his name For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too. When Mugato placates him with an architectural model of the institution, he is enraged by its size and complains that children won’t be able to fit inside it. It is plain that Derek cares but, like most of us not enough to bother thinking about how to transform concern into action.
Hansel, as the new generation celebrity, is even hazier about his intentions but assures us that they are good. After sharing his childhood fascination for the bark on trees and his adult fascination for Sting, he states his credo, “I care desperately about what I do. Do I know what product I’m selling? No. Do I know what I’m doing today? No. But I’m here, and I’m gonna give it my best shot.”
Zoolander, which remains masterfully funny, was too difficult for most of us to watch at the time of its release. In all likelihood, Zoolander 2 will probably be easy to watch and, in the habit of comedy sequels, woefully unfunny. Still. It’s enough that Zoolander was ever made at all and that its stars chose to reprise their surreal but believable nonsense at Paris Fashion Week. Thank goodness that back in 2001, someone took their crazy pills.