What Has Happened To The Spoof?
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Surely modern movie satirists can do better? And don't call me Shirley.
Last week, the film Vampires Suck was released to theatres. The film appears to be nothing more than a complete parody of the Twilight saga, and I am sure that at some point in time I will watch it merely because of that fact. However, the filmmakers behind this latest spoof are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who started out in 1996 making the entertaining Spy Hard, but have gone on to make movies such as Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and several other films of this genre. Their films basically take several popular movies of a particular genre, make fun of them, then throw in a lot of current pop references which will be out of date within a year or two. While I may not be in their demographic, they seem to do well at the box office, and I have talked with a lot of people that have found their films very humorous. But I wonder where the parody film really went askew.
Parody comes to us from the ancient Greeks, whose parodias were light-hearted, satirical takes on the epic poems of the time. Over the centuries, parodies, spoofs and satires have been there to either poke fun at serious works, or to get a jab in at those who needed to be taken down a step, but done in a way that was non-threatening. Often, they made some social commentary. And more often than not, they made the intended audience laugh.
The inevitable parody film came about in the 1920s, with Stan Laurel starring in spoofs of popular films and film genres. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin parodied Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator, and the Three Stooges starred in the short You Nazty Spy. Hitler would of course be a favorite target of one of the masters of the parody film, Mel Brooks. His first film, The Producers, was a story of a washed up Broadway producer trying to make a quick buck by producing a terrible play, Springtime for Hitler. Brooks would go on to spoof several genres: Horror (Young Frankenstein), Westerns (Blazing Saddles), Historical Epics (History of the World: Part I), Sci-Fi (Spaceballs) and even Hitchcock films (High Anxiety). His last two films, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, didn’t quite have the same spark that his earlier films had, but it would be hard for any filmmaker to come close to those treasures. Utilizing some of the most talented comedic actors of the day, Brooks made films that have stood the test of time. And in those pictures, was usually able to address social issues of the day, especially the issue of racism in Blazing Saddles.
The 70s also saw films from the British comedy troupe Monty Python. They had their own fun with historical epics with their 1974 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and spoof of the King Arthur legend, and with Biblical epics, with 1979’s Life of Brian. Brian is the tale of a young man in Judea during the time of Christ. Through a series of comedic mishaps, he collects a large group of followers who are convinced that he is the Messiah, but all he wants is to be left alone. While the film never actually pokes fun at Christ in any way, but rather at religious dogma and blind following of said dogma, it nevertheless came under fire from religious groups as blasphemous, and became a cult classic before it was ever released.
The film takes humorous looks at daily life in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, political fanaticism, and even ends with a brilliant crucifixion scene that has to be seen to be believed. Their last film, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, spoofed everything from religion, medical practitioners, politics, and even Ingmar Bergman films, but while funny, never quite hit the same notes as their first films. It’s still worth owning, though.
"Modern filmmakers looking to make a parody should go back, look at those earlier films, and take notes"
The 70s also saw another group of filmmakers delving into parody. Jim Abrahams, along with brothers Jerry and David Zucker, brought out 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, which has the feel of a feature length version of Saturday Night Live, only funny. It spoofs popular commercials, film trailers, and educational films, and finishes with a humorous take on Enter the Dragon, entitled A Fistful of Yen. While moments of the film may seem dated, such as the faux commercials, the film is still funny. The team went on to make Airplane! – the first of Leslie Nielsen’s comedic roles – which spoofed airline disaster movies. The 80s continued to be good to them, with Top Secret, a film about a rock performer traveling to the Eastern bloc, and The Naked Gun, a film version of the short-lived television program Police Squad, starring Nielsen as Detective Frank Drebin. They also entered the 90s with Hot Shots, a parody of military films such as Top Gun, and a sequel, which poked fun at Rambo and other action films of the 80s. Later films include the mildly entertaining Jane Austen’s Mafia, and take on gangster films, and the last two installments of the Scary Movie franchise.
Other filmmakers have entered into the foray with their own humorous looks at popular movie genres. Ezio Greggio gave us 1994’s The Silence of the Hams, which mainly spoofed Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, but also poked fun at other thrillers. Some were quite funny, and some, like 2000’s 2001: A Space Travesty, are really worth missing. Most of these films feel uneven, taking scenes from a wide array of films in a particular genre, and mashing them together to make a movie, trying to tie them all together with a few characters, but not actually providing much when it comes to actual story. Joel Gallen, director of Not Another Teen Movie, said that the script he had been given was just that, a bunch of unrelated jokes based on scenes from popular teen movies, but nothing to make them one, cohesive story. And the reliance on pop culture references in these films makes them feel dated within a year or two, which keeps them from being rewatchable (you know, as if the terrible jokes didn’t already keep you from watching them). Jokes about Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga might make your audience laugh, but in ten years’ time, who’s really going to care?
Modern filmmakers looking to make a parody should go back, look at those earlier films, and take notes. Even if all you’re doing is making fun of a particular film series or genre, you shouldn’t skip out on decent storytelling, which is what any film really should be about.
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