The history of satire in film is rich and fabulously varied. At its best, the art is incalculably more enduring (that is, more socially pertinent, imaginative, and flat-out entertaining) than the thing that's being satirized. Of course, this is basically the goal of all social criticism (and even private vendettas), but not every writer/director has the vision and wit to spin straw into gold.
From classic satirical movies like Tony Richardson's The Loved One (which pretty much cremates the niceties surrounding the western way of death) to Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie, which turns in-the-box concepts of group therapy into out-the-ass concepts of poop therapy, mockery is never at a standstill in cinema. Below are examples of satires better than what they satirize and movies better than their inspiration; of films that took everything from totalitarianism to overpopulation to Hollywood itself to task.
Meta comedy, eat your heart out.
- Photo: MGM
Most people probably envision "dystopia" (in the incarnate sense) as grey, despairing, and filled with mindless automatons, but Woody Allen's 1973 romp Sleeper depicts it as a Pee Wee's Big Adventure-esque theme park of sorts. The film's story centers on Miles Monroe, a neurotic, frizzy-haired heath food store owner who is cryogenically frozen without his knowledge or consent.
Monroe is revived 200 years later by scientists from an underground movement against the police state, who ask him to become a spy for the resistance; they also regard him as their only living historian, since most of the world's artifacts and records have been destroyed. At one point, they grill him about unidentified photos they've found among the rubble, and he grills them about the state of things: "Are there any strange, futuristic creatures I should know about here? Like something with the body of a crab and the head of a social worker?" ... "This is a photograph of Norman Mailer, a very great writer. He donated his ego to the Harvard Medical School".
The futuristic landscape resembles a campy, genetically-engineered garden of Eden; it's full of Technicolor-bright fruits and vegetables as big as houses. With its Chaplinesque slapstick and cynical wit, Sleepers definitely beats out grimmer, more humorless depictions of Orwellian doom that are ... perpetually and increasingly ... everywhere.
- Photo: Warner Bros
Dog show participants are a breed unto themselves, and so are Christopher Guest and his fabulous troupe of comic geniuses. Best in Show, the 2000 mockumentary masterpiece from the creators of fellow-mockumentary masterpieces Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, chronicles the behind-the-scenes sagas of various competitors and their canines.
Leslie Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw) is a withered, practically mummified millionaire whose trophy wife, the Anna Nicole Smith-esque Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge), is engaged in an affair with her dog trainer, Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch). The two eventually launch American Bitch, "a magazine for women and their dogs, which focuses on the issues of the lesbian purebred dog owner”.
There's also former teenage nymphomaniac Cookie (Catherine O'Hara) and her hapless husband Gerry (Eugene Levy); and Meg (Parker Posey) and Hamilton (Michael Hitchcock) Swan, a neurotic yuppie couple who "met at Starbucks ... not at the same Starbucks, but after we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street." Their dog, Beatrice, whom they take to group therapy sessions, is supposedly traumatized after accidentally witnessing them having sex.
Best in Show is uproarious from start to finish, and surely infinitely more entertaining than any canine beauty contest.
- Photo: Universal Studio
"Get that for me, would you, Deirdre?" a cheerfully preoccupied Yorkshire mother asks one of her many children when a baby casually plops out of her womb onto the floor in The Meaning of Life. The brainchild of the original Monty Python troupe, the film is a brilliant satire of just about everything: sex, death, war, medical malpractice, corporate greed, and much more. But it's perhaps most celebrated for its uproarious treatment of Catholicism's aversion to birth control.
Michael Palin plays a devout mill worker who, along with his wife (Terry Jones in drag) has decided to donate his brood-o-kids to "scientific experiments" (the family can no longer afford to feed its hundredfold children, and the Church forbids contraception). The following musical number, Every Sperm is Sacred, is Palin's attempt to explain why he can neither "have his balls cut off" nor furnish his wife "with some sort of pessary" (as a couple of his kids suggest).
It's a delightful number in which everyone, including corpses passing by in hearses, is invited to reproduce and contribute a quantity of sperm; and it's much merrier, and more rousing, than overpopulation.
- Photo: MGM
If you're an Oliver Stone fan, and you've read the annotated version of his script for JFK, in which he "substantiates" all of the information in the film, you already know that he thinks the military-industrial complex is an odious thing, because you know the war-mongering capitalists, government officials, and military personnel at the heart of this nefarious cabal are responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
If you need a refresher, Dwight D. Eisenhower (who, lest you forget, was a five-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe) said in his final speech as president:
"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Paul Verhoeven's buckwild, ultraviolent satirical masterpiece Robocop lampoons many things, including the corporate response to urban blight in 1980s America, the social influence of advertising and television, the drug war, and America's dark fascination with fighting the fear of crime by creating a police state.
If you know anything about the Iraq War, just one of the many conflicts some say was fueled by the military-industrial complex, you know then-Vice President Dick Cheney was handing out tens of billions in government contracts to his cronies, more than 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, and that Erik Prince, Blackwater founder and brother to Betsy DeVos, hoovered up federal money while his mercenary soldiers ran about Baghdad committing war crimes.
You can be damn sure Robocop is way more fun than all that. And far smarter and more deceptive. And way more innovative. Everyone together now: "I'd buy that for a dollar."