July 24, 2012

Forgiving vs. belittling satires

In falling-crime times, a less threatened populace begins to withdraw more into their own little worlds, and so don't feel as attached to others. Naturally satire assumes a central place in their culture, particularly of the more snarky kind. Suddenly everyone thinks they're so witty, and begins to lambast the superstition, exuberance, and balls-to-the-walls atmosphere of an earlier phase in their history (typically a rising-crime period, when things were the other way around).

Still, while satire may not come as naturally to the supporting and fun-loving people of rising-crime times, they continue to be made, albeit in a more forgiving and sympathetic way that fits better with the zeitgeist. Unlike a snarky satire, that only aims to blast The Other, these forgiving satires work on their own as an example of the very thing they're poking fun at. They walk a thin line between being an unabashed example of the genre and an overly self-conscious parody.

This stylistic ambiguity is typical of the culture of rising-crime times, in contrast to the more fanboyish and "fisking" works put out in falling-crime times. It allows the audience to both enjoy the work as an example of a guilty pleasure genre, while also gently reminding them that they shouldn't take it too far -- that there is a certain silliness in it, but that it's OK as long as you're subliminally aware of it.

Just considering the most recent rising and falling-crime periods, the only exception to the snarky kind of satire of the past 20 years is the running series of posts at the website Stuff White People Like. You can tell he (and the readers) really do like a lot of that stuff, so it works as a fan site for yuppie trends. At the same time, he does continue to rib the audience for its bogus claims of inclusiveness and diversity, which everyone realizes are not as big of a priority as showing off your Mac toys and hiking gear.

In contrast, all those Scary Movie kind of movies are satirical, but they don't actually work as horror movies, epic movies, and so on. Family Guy lays the sarcasm on real thick for everyone but their own lazy Harvard mafia approach to writing sit-coms.

Toward the end of the last rising-crime period, though, people felt free enough to make and watch movies or TV shows that were forgiving satires. It began with one of the funniest movies ever, Vacation, which parodied the road trip and family bonding movies by reminding us how much the open road wants to fuck you, and how easy it can be to blow your cool around your family. In spite of that, though, we really do feel the Griswold family growing closer over the course of their odyssey, and it makes a terrific road trip movie. Tell me you don't feel the wind blowing through you hair each time they play "Holiday Ro-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oad."

This Is Spinal Tap not only worked great as a (fake) documentary of a metal band -- near the height of metal's popularity -- but also as a parody of the genre's more out-there tendencies: Medieval imagery, all-black album covers, turning it up to 11, etc. In comparison, Airheads from 1994 was pretty weak, although it was at least watchable, unlike satires from further on into the falling-crime period.

The writer of Heathers, Daniel Waters, says his goal was to make the teen movie to end all teen movies. It not only works great as another entry in the genre, but pokes fun at some of its hyperbolic features -- the star-crossed romance, where the bad boy turns out to be a full-blown psychopath; the urge to get back at your frenemies, which ends in serial murder; the orgy of emotion about saving the youth generation; and the one-dimensional portrayal of parents ("Kurt buddy, I don't care that you really were some... pansy." "Will someone tell me why I smoke these damn things? -- Because you're an idiot -- Oh yeah, that's it.")

After a deluge of buddy cop movies, The Hard Way allowed itself to lovingly mock the genre's conventions -- stupefyingly mismatched partners, one of whom is on the brink of a meltdown, the moment when one apparently falls from grace and has to be supported by the other, etc. The self-awareness is emphasized by the central plot device, where a tree-hugging Hollywood actor wants to pretend to be a detective in preparation for an upcoming role, while working alongside and learning from a real-life loose cannon. At the same time, it's an awesome action flick where we actually connect with the two detectives as they search for a serial killer running amok in the big city. This is definitely one of the most under-rated movies; if you haven't seen it yet, make it next on your list. It's almost up there with Beverly Hills Cop.

The generally saccharine nature of romantic comedies -- aka chick flicks -- keeps them from taking even a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach. It has to be the perfect story for the perfect princesses in the audience. But L.A. Story was about as close as we're going to get to one that satirizes while still fulfilling the basic goals of the genre. It gets a bit too self-aware at times, but usually not in a way that wakes you up from your absorption in the story. Also caringly parodied here is the "let's pack up and head out to California" genre, which since the '90s has died out as the state has held less and less appeal as America's own paradise.

And then there was the slasher film. I'm not talking about the self-consciously campy ones. It's hard to both satirize the genre and still pull off the aims of such a movie, which require a suspension of disbelief -- that something so out of the ordinary is threatening you, a feeling that evaporates once you're aware of how formulaic the story can be. I'll give honorable mentions to Candyman and the very late entry of Urban Legend, while passing over Scream as too unrelentingly self-aware to fit with the rest of the movies in this post.

However, the one that stands out the most is Wes Craven's New Nightmare, also a late entry from 1994, which is a lot like Scream but with almost no interruptions of the "hey guys, you get it?!" variety. It's a great slasher flick on its own, and it retains the supernatural tone of the original Nightmare on Elm Street, which sets up a clever blurring of the barriers between the real world and the world created by the screenplay of the earlier Nightmare movies.

The most prolific director in this style of film-making by far was Paul Verhoeven. RoboCop was not only a kickass sci-fi action movie by itself, it commented on several of the genre's traits that, if indulged, would lead us off into wacko territory. For example, putting too much faith in the police (or vigilantes) instead of neighbors watching out for neighbors, or feeling an emotional connection with a robotic savior that can feel nothing for us in return.

Total Recall was an even greater badass sci-fi action flick, with even greater comic relief than "I'd buy that for a dollar!" -- the chatty too-friendly robot driver of the Johnny Cab. Like RoboCop, it was also a hilarious send-up of the genre, especially the utterly careless attitude toward human carnage. How can you forget the perfect black humor in the shoot-out scene on the escalator?

Finally, Basic Instinct took a pretty good stab at parodying the erotic thriller, although a few too many lines of dialogue are meta-aware, and it keeps us from fully getting into it as a plausible erotic thriller movie itself. It's not so much Sharon Stone's delivery, which is always straight-faced, but the content of the lines themselves -- "Have you ever fucked on cocaine, Nick? It's nice." "You know I don't like to wear any underwear, don't you Nick?" Etc. Verhoeven's over-the-top approach is better suited to both satirizing and excelling in the action genre, but for something that's supposed to be more subtle like a thriller, the exaggeration prevents it from being a great example of the genre itself. It's an entertaining movie, just not as great as RoboCop or Total Recall.

Now, what popular genres did Twin Peaks not parody to perfection? The soap opera, the teen melodrama, the slasher / horror movie, the Happy Days nostalgia for the pre-'60s era in a smaller town, the rebirth of Gothic novels, the rebirth of film noir, the detective procedural, the buddy cop movie... shit, that's just off the top of my head. And yet it excelled in all those styles as well. Given its serial format, drawn out over several TV episodes, I think it was easier to find the right mix of satire and affection during a certain scene. They could go more in one direction for awhile, and come back toward the other direction in a future episode. It doesn't matter if it ultimately flew off the rails and devolved into camp. For a good run, from the pilot through the solving of Laura Palmer's murder, it achieved a fusion of parody and tenderness that I haven't felt from anything else.

I could be missing a few other examples, but that sums it up pretty well. I'll follow up sometime soon with case studies from earlier periods.


  1. Huh, just a few days ago I saw a link on the MSN homepage:

    "Cheesy 80s movies worth seeing"

  2. In the movie Shrek, it turns out that the beautiful princess is actually a green ogre. When Shrek kisses her to turn her back, she remains an ogre. This is an obvious parody of the closing scene of (1992) Beauty and the Beast, where the heroine kisses the Beast and he transforms into a stunningly handsome blonde man.

    It is a cruel satire. I know grown women who still cherish that scene from Beauty and the Beast; yet the implication in Shrek is that they were shallow and naive for doing so. I can only imagine some embittered nerd conceiving Shrek, with some hag producer approving it.

  3. As far as in an earlier period, the only thing I can think of right now are the James Bond movies. They were parodies of earlier spy tales which took themselves too seriously. The villains were ridiculous and the sexual innuendos over-the-top - but despite this, the movie still delivered. People were still delighted at Ursula Andress walking out of the water, or at the strange ways that Bond villains would kill people.

    The later Bond movies became over-serious, abandoning satire altogether. In Goldeneye, the villain was a realistic former disgruntled agent, left adrift from the end of the Cold War. (Contrast this with the demented nerds who were the bad guys in the earlier movies). Could have been an interesting concept for another movie, but not what was expected from 007. The female heroine was a traditional damsel in distress, not a sex kitten. And the female bad guy, "Onetop", was mean, aggressive, and, predictable for the era, numbingly overt.

    The ones with Daniel Craig are even worse, totally devoid of humor or playfulness.

  4. "South Park" and "Shaun of the Dead" are two hugely popular satires from the falling crime era that I would describe as "forgiving". Unlike the awful "Scary Movie" franchise, "Shaun" actually works as a zombie/horror film. I would also argue that a number of recent slasher remakes -- "I Spit on Your Grave," "The Hills Have Eyes," Last House on the Left" -- show real affection for the genre.

  5. It is a cruel satire. I know grown women who still cherish that scene from Beauty and the Beast; yet the implication in Shrek is that they were shallow and naive for doing so. I can only imagine some embittered nerd conceiving Shrek, with some hag producer approving it.

    I don't think that's the intention, to say that.

    Unlike the awful "Scary Movie" franchise, "Shaun" actually works as a zombie/horror film.

    Hot Fuzz is pretty good as well, I'd say.

    The later Bond movies became over-serious, abandoning satire altogether.

    But doesn't this begin with the Daltons?


    From a UK perspective, we tend to associate biting satire with the 80s and the Fatcha years - Spitting Image and lots of angry left wing comics. There's certainly a lot of satire against subcultures around in the present British zeitgeist (just read the comments on the Guardian website and you'll see legion bitter leftwinger with English degrees trying to cram elaborate satires into a single sentence) - the prominent satirists in the UK are probably Charlie Brooker, Chris Morris, Armando Ianucci, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell. But it's hard for me to say that we actually have more satire.

    I don't really see much difference in the satire really, just that it's oriented perhaps more towards the uncool and less towards the powerful. Class comedy satirising social climbers seems not to be a prominent genre in the UK any more - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_humour#British_class_system - that seems to just stop after the early 90s.

    I feel like we've always been a much more satirical culture than the US, that said.

    What do you think about this agnostic:


    "Satirical literature can commonly be categorized as either Horatian or Juvenalian,[19] although the two are not entirely mutually exclusive.

    Horatian satire, named for the Roman satirist, Horace (65 BCE – 8 BCE), playfully criticizes some social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humour. It directs wit, exaggeration, and self-deprecating humour toward what it identifies as folly, rather than evil.[citation needed] Horatian satire's sympathetic tone is common in modern society.[citation needed]


    Juvenalian satire, named after the Roman satirist Juvenal (late 1st century - early 2nd century CE), is a type of satire that is more contemptuous and abrasive than the Horatian. Juvenalian satire addresses social evil through scorn, outrage, and savage ridicule. This form is often pessimistic, characterized by irony, sarcasm, moral indignation and personal invective, with less emphasis on humour. Strongly polarized political satire is often Juvenalian."

  6. "I don't think that's the intention, to say that."

    I just thought it was lame. Instead of getting the beautiful princess, the message is that Shrek should accept her as a green ogre. I may be reading too much into it though.

    "But doesn't this begin with the Daltons?"

    Never saw the Dalton ones. From what I've heard, I think the Dalton movies at least tried some amount of parody. the Daniel Craig movies essentially abandon any element of satire whatsoever.

    Some other examples would be the remakes of the Jason and Freddy movies. The Jason remake has over-the-top nudity and violence, which quite consciously mocks the older movies.

    The Freddy remake wasn't belittling, but it was overly serious. They give Freddy an elaborate backstory about how he molested the main characters, make him into a typical serial killer rather than a monster. The original first two Nightmare movies were much scarier.

  7. "enalian satire, named after the Roman satirist Juvenal (late 1st century - early 2nd century CE), is a type of satire that is more contemptuous and abrasive than the Horatian. Juvenalian satire addresses social evil through scorn, outrage, and savage ridicule. This form is often pessimistic, characterized by irony, sarcasm, moral indignation and personal invective, with less emphasis on humour. Strongly polarized political satire is often Juvenalian.""

    In this case, though, I think the blog author is talking about satire of movie genre forms, not politics.

  8. The original Scary Movie was made by different people than the later " Movie" ones that tried to ride on its coat-tails. I believe some of the Airplane/Police Squad guys were involved in Scary Movie.

    The first "Casino Royale" parody of James Bond novels came out before any actual James Bond novels. And Austin Powers rather lampshaded its debt to the earlier "Flynt" Bond parodies with James Coburn. Which reminds me that "Murder by Death" seems to take place in the same universe as "The Cheap Detective".

    Hot Fuzz was indeed a great movie. But they originally intended to have a romantic interest for the protagonist, then dropped that character and kept much of the dialogue, which comes out a bit strange. Another great bit of limey satire is "Four Lions", whose creator was previously known for lampooning the paedophilia panic with his show "Brass Eye".

  9. I think the lovingly mocking humor of the early-90's Simpsons is a great example of this. I can never keep straight what counts as "satire" and what doesn't, but it definitely mocks its own themes even as it adores them.

    When the Simpsons gets preachy and unfunny is when it takes on political themes directly (usually via Lisa). It loses its innate fondness for Homer, Bart and the other "bad" characters and becomes a way for the show to simply berate un-PC people. Not surprisingly, these episodes become much much more common in the late 90's and early 2000's to the point that there were episodes on homo marriage (always good), border security (always bad), and the entire movie was about environmentalist crusading, complete with noble Eskimos who teach the Simpsons how to live at one with nature. Totally unwatchable, and unsympathetic.


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