The police have always been fertile territory for mockery; from the bumbling cop who always misses the crime to the surly “good cop” who gets shot two days before retirement. In the last decade, however, that mockery has become problematized in and of itself, whether by people who think that the police should be above reproach or people who think that making light of the police normalizes their brutality. As such, police satire needs to walk a fine line where it can make sympathetic police characters—if they can even be made sympathetic—that do not hide the truth of racism and violence among their ranks. Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills, a VHS faux-instructional doc, comes quite close to that fine line, but doesn’t quite make it.
Armstrong presents Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), a custom made “good cop” who begins working as a small-town officer and learns what to do along with the audience. However, at the end of the first act, he becomes obsessed with a case and begins to question authority, going against the law—and the narrator—to solve the case on his own terms. This is where Jim becomes the stereotypical media cop who goes against the wishes of those above him, ignoring the rules of the video, and the rules of the ideal cop paraded by the police to distract people from their true crimes. Things get complicated in the second act, and the film becomes more and more convoluted, which at once adds to the comedy while detracting from the social commentary.
Survival Skills is held back because it refuses to go into truly transgressive territory. While the film certainly questions the police, it also creates a lot of unnecessitated empathy for them – empathy that actually harms the humour. Questioning an institution while refusing to call it out is an ultimately useless form of political art. The postmodern formalistic elements in the film’s composition are well done and there are a lot of timely jokes throughout, but everything just appears hollow within this non-political shell.
If you want a non-political comedy about a very political subject, you could do worse. But, Survival Skills could afford to be better than it is.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam