Since the fall of antiquity, satire as a word, concept, and genre has grown beyond generic confines to become an increasingly pervasive quality of everyday life. Whereas in ancient Greece satire referred to a specific poetic genre, today the satirical slant has become as instrumental to the television set as it has become entwined with our personalities. Some have characterized satire as an essential agent of free speech in a free society, while American political satirist Jon Stewart seems to see it as more of a privilege. The fact remains, satire exists outside of the realm of genre. A satire isn’t necessarily funny or parodic. In fact, sometimes satire borders on being insidious.
Satire is basically it’s own beast, unchained upon the free world and gobbling up genres in it’s wake, tearing down civilizations like a giant monster rampaging through Tokyo. At times satire becomes so sneaky that we can’t even see the satirizing going on. Still, there’s a few modes of expression you can look out for to be clued in. Say what you will about the inauthenticity of irony, but irony is certainly one of the most common costumes for the satirist. Alongside parody, irony makes the crux of what characterizes America’s satirical streak. You’ll see it everywhere from the most pedestrian television commercials to passing fashionable fads.
As far as the cinema goes, ever since independent directors started taking the reins of their own productions we’ve seen a slew of films satirizing the Hollywood movie business. The film industry’s self-reflective satirizing can be thought of as a microcosm of the larger process of satire, that is to point out the flaws in a given system, be it a political system or an entertainment industry, with a winking eye and wagging finger and an optimistic wish for motivating change within that system. Think of it as a sort of diagnosis which alone does not necessarily include a cure. The role of satire is simply to point out the absurdities and atrocities, not to be the panacea.
With the upcoming release of Lake Bell’s impressively specific movie-trailer-voice-over-industry satire, In a World… It’s obvious that the movie business isn’t done making fun of itself. In a World… is just one example in a long list of Tinsel Town satires, a member of a family of films that run the gamut from hilarious to earth shatteringly bizarre, nevertheless always containing that glimmer of satire that the forefathers intended for us when they penned out the bill of rights.
Wet Hot American Summer – The Great American Parody
David Wain’s 2001 theatrical debut, Wet Hot American Summer, is oftentimes mistook for a simple spoof movie. Sure, Wain and company brilliantly replicated the essence of the vapid early 80s comedy movies they were parodying, but Wet Hot American Summer never resorted to emptily replicating any direct scenes from the films of that decade. Instead, Wain and co-writer/star Michael Showalter created a story about the last day of camp that feels as much like one of the films it parodies as it is obviously a wry defacement of the underdog optimism, rampant homophobia, and shallow materialism of the eighties.
While that’s a hefty load to take on in a spoof movie, Wain accomplishes the task with the graceful subterfuge of a Kremlin-bred ballerina. From title sequence, to the soundtrack, to the costumes, to silly touches like the inexplicable use of a body double in this low metabolism chase sequence, you can see how the film makers went above and beyond the call of duty in recreating the nostalgic airs of the era they were poking fun at.
So, how did this spoof manage to overcome the limitations of parody and manage to get into all the social commentary I mentioned above? Through clever gags and memorable scenes like when the underdog softball team is too apathetic to even compete, and the impromptu new-age gay wedding of two of the counselors. Or take this legendary bit where the camp counselors follow an hour long trip into town from it’s innocent beginnings and fun in the sun to its eventual consequences in a crack den. It’s scenes like that which really point to Wain’s bend against topics as far reaching as the fear mongering involved in Reagan’s war on drugs.
For whatever reason, Wet Hot American Summer never really took off with the mainstream. Still, it gathered a strong enough cult following and most everyone of the film’s stars went on to be influential faces in Hollywood over the course of the 2000s. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend taking a look. David Wain’s debut is funnier and more intelligent than it seems to know, and obviously a lot of the social criticisms were lost to the film’s affable inanity. Wain’s gone on to have a great career, finding success with Role Models (2008), and luckily it’s looking like the team’s set to reunite for another satirical parody sometime soon.
Scream – The Great Social Satire Slasher
Scream was something of a phenomenon when it was released in 1996. A slasher film that takes place within the context of a reality where the youth knows and understands slasher tropes, a whodunit where the characters use their knowledge of the type of movie they’re in to solve the mystery, and on top of all that it was a great slasher flick in and of itself. A film that delivered on the terror and mystery of the very genre that it satirizes. Taking on the horror film industry and the sensationalist news media to boot, Scream went beyond the theatre to solidify itself in the American consciousness inspiring an easy Halloween costume for a generation of witless kids.
For director Wes Craven, Scream was something of a redemption piece. As the slasher genre which had been in part launched by Craven became tired and redundant under a constant stream of increasingly mind numbing sequels, Scream was everything the genre needed for a fresh start. From its iconic “What’s your favorite scary movie?” opening scene, Scream played with slasher clichés, like that tired When a Stranger Calls opening, to tell the story of a killer inspired by horror movies brutalizing his peers who were raised on scary movies.
A great example of this self-aware aspect of Scream, is the well known Rules for Surviving in a Horror Movie scene. This scene, credited to screen writer Kevin Williamson, depicts perfectly the irony of a cast of characters understanding the dramatic space they occupy (“predictable!”). Beyond being a witty comedic device, Scream’s self-aware irony allowed the filmmakers to play with the narrow confines of horror movie logic and create an innovative, genre-bending slasher that went on to inspire a new wave of horror movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Blair Witch Project.
In a bit of larger tragic irony, the Scream series, through it’s mediocre sequels (though the recently released Scream 4 being a slight exception), became a victim of the very disease it had aimed to cure. Ghostface became another played out slasher like Freddie and Michael Myers before him. Add to that the fact that the American slasher film has pretty much sung it’s swan song at this point and it’s easy to overlook the cultural impact that Scream had at it’s release. You needn’t look much further than the next entry in this list to remember what a splash Wes Craven’s meta-slasher made in the pre-Cabin in the Woods (2012) world.
Scary Movie – The Great Social Satire Slasher Parody
To say that Scary Movie (2000) has had it’s legacy tainted by horrible sequels would be a bit of an understatement. More accurately, everything that Scary Movie had represented has been left for dead and buried underneath the mad hallucinations of the maniacal directors who took the series’ reins after the departure of the Wayan’s brothers with Scary Movie 2 (2001).
While being decidedly low-brow, and pushing on the borders of good taste with a hefty shove, Scary Movie happened to also point out all the things that movies like Scream get wrong. Instead of settling for hollow mimicry like the movie franchises it spawned, Scary Movie made fun of much more than well known slasher scenes in and of themselves. Taking the spoof genre a step further, Kenan Ivory Wayans injected a vital aspect that was missing from Scream, black people.
By comparison to Scary Movie, Scream is so obviously deficient in this territory. The worldview of Scream was so undeniably white washed that Dawson had to call and ask for his creek back. Looking back, this is an important aspect of Scary Movie that I was woefully unaware of when I watched it as a kid. I thought it was funny because it was a silly parody, but I was a child and that is how children watch movies. Seeing scenes like this again reveal just how much Scary Movie was a film about racial and cultural difference. The funny thing is, there’s nothing subtle about any of this, this is obviously what the movie is about. From outright references to Dawson’s Creek, and the film’s diverse cast, this was a movie about much more than replicating known horror tropes.
I’m going out on a limb here and risking any weight I have as a critic by saying that Scary Movie is a film of overlooked cultural imperative. It’s a shame that the series had to go the way it did, from bits and pieces of Meet the Spartans (2008) and Disaster Movie (2008) I glimpsed when I used to work cleaning movie theatres, I think I’m safe in deploring those films as completely lacking in any sort of merit. Anyway, I’ll vouch for the Wayans brothers any day of the week. Besides its social implications, Scary Movie reveals another important quality of a satire. That is, the ability for humor to dis-empower the things that scare and control us, to make benign the threats of the world. If it wasn’t for Scary Movie, perhaps Scream would still horrify us, ehh probably not.
Tropic Thunder – The Great Big Budget Hollywood Blockbuster Satire
I think, like a lot of people, the thing that really drew me into Tropic Thunder was the idea of Robert Downey jr. – a method actor, method acting as a method actor who in turn is method acting as a black Sergeant during the Vietnam War. It was an unprecedented and bold casting call that immediately told you that Tropic Thunder would certainly be much more than the big budget films it parodies.
Gifted with direction by Ben Stiller, a graduate of the same early nineties sketch comedy trend as Wet Hot American Summer’s David Wain, Tropic Thunder did a terrific job satirizing the kind of movie that it, on one level, actually became. Through multiple uses of meta-fiction, like fake movie trailers, fake movies, fake actors, and a fake production, this movie is buried under so many layers of artifice that the actual intentions of the filmmakers can be a little difficult to get a handle on, seeing as the movie is itself a big budget action-comedy. Obviously, one target of the comedy and satire of Tropic Thunder is the Hollywood celebrity machine, but I can’t help noting that the film’s cast is entirely made up of big name celebrities.
Either way, Tropic Thunder is a challenging film despite it’s indulgence in the decadence it aims to deride. Remember, the meta-fiction employed by Stiller here was at one point a highly experimental literary trend, only recently have wide audiences proven capable of digesting this sort of poioumena, a post-modern technique pioneered by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov. The meta-film in question here is called Tropic Thunder, a big Hollywood adaptation of a Vietnam veteran’s supposedly non-fictional memoirs. The funny thing is, that both within the context of the film’s plot and within the context of the film within itself, the memoirs are a farce. The book on which the film within the film is based turns out to be a total lie, a lie which leaves the cast of celebrity actors depicting fictionalized celebrity actors up the stream without a paddle and in the face of real danger.
Even though Tropic Thunder employs many of the issues it aims to satire, it is also just a genuinely funny movie that captured the attention of a large audience despite the grand scope of its meta-experimentation. The complete package works on multiple levels, it’s a satire that plays inwardly against the Hollywood production, outwardly against the cultural celebrity machine, all the while managing to invite, rather than alienate, a paying audience who are really at the bottom of the whole joke.
Mulholland Drive – The Great Satire of the Unconscious
If Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of the fourth genre within the Ancient Greek drama tradition can be said to be parody (maybe satire’s a fifth), then David Lynch’s 2001 opus Mulholland Drive must belong to a genre situated somewhere innumerous. The film stands so far off of the fringes of normalcy that calling it a satire is a bit limiting, even though satire is certainly an element involved in Lynch’s evanescent vision. Without trying to encapsulate all of the disparities in this classic movie, I’ll try to focus on one theme of this labyrinth of a motion picture, that is the superficial tinsel town fantasy and glorification of celebrity.
This theme of superficiality plays out not only within the plot of Mulholland Drive but also becomes one of the main internal conflicts within the internal world of the main character, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts). Betty is a hopeful newcomer to Los Angeles, hoping to see her name in lights. Unlucky for Betty, rather than finding herself in an optimistic Hollywood dream replete with diamonds and spotlights, she has entered into a nightmarish Lynchian L.A. where delusion and reality become indistinguishable and ultimately entirely destructive.
Film scholars have gone at length to attempt to interpret the meaning of Mulholland Drive, rather than trying myself to give the film an all encompassing critique I’ll say this, David Lynch’s cultural satirizing in Mulholland Drive is as much aimed at Hollywood producers and hopeful actors as it is aimed directly at a generalized and superficial American estimation of the self. Betty is tortured by her failings in becoming the actress that she imagines herself to be, some may say so much so that she progressively retreats towards an inward world of fantasy.
Lynch’s film, with its parody of Soap Opera façade, is obviously, at least in one respect, an important if nearly incomprehensible bit of recent pop-culture satire. If it seems as though I’m being a bit stand-offish in my analysis of this movie, it is with good reason, check out the movie for yourself. Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s most mainstream picture, while still questioning our human understanding of reality, which plays upon Hollywood phoniness to comment on the fallacy of the American dream.