“Gentlemen! You cannot fight in here! This is the War Room!” This iconic line is shouted by a fictional US President to a general and a Russian Ambassador wrestling on the ground in the Stanley Kubrick cold war comedy Dr. Strangelove or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1968). The irony of the phrase is boosted by the image of two high-ranking individuals tussling like children while the President has to step in as a kindergarten teacher. This moment, like the rest of the film, is part of the ancient art of satire. For millennia artists have used satire to ridicule those in power, and perhaps shaming their targets to improve.
History of Satire
The history of satire extends far beyond the small scope of film history. Some of the earliest recorded examples coming from Ancient Egypt. One of its earliest cinematic examples is the French short The Consequences of Feminism (1906) made by the revolutionary and sadly forgotten Alice Guy-Blancé, who is considered the world’s first female filmmaker. The comedic short depicts a gender role reversal, with men performing household chores and women in the workforce, smoking cigars and assaulting men. Though played as a joke, the short highlights the gender inequalities faced by women. In 1933 the Marx brothers made the farcical Duck Soup, about a dictator who starts a war with the neighboring country because of petty squabbles with an ambassador. Charlie Chaplin’s first sound film The Great Dictator (1940) directly satirized Adolf Hitler’s politics and mannerisms through the character of Adenoid Hynkel, played by Chaplin himself. The film ends with a Jewish barber disguised as Hynkel delivering a speech to the country. This speech, where Chaplin denounces the Nazis as “machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts” is extremely powerful to this day and still very relevant. Satire targets specific politicians, governments, and societies, but great satire outlasts the time it was made in and resonates later on, often because the problems addressed have not been resolved. Hitler may be gone, but there are still machine men. And it is the satirist’s job, or even moral obligation, to ridicule them and take them to the task.
As seen in previous examples, a favourite topic of satire is politics and the society at large. Dr. Strangelove (1968) viciously mocked both the United States and the Soviet Union, the military and toxic masculinity. In Kubrick’s dark comedy the Cold War is driven to the point of escalation because an American general believes that the Soviets have made him impotent through poisoning his drinking water. Kubrick’s point was that the fate of the world is in the hands of paranoid idiots and incompetent bureaucrats. There is also Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s most controversial work, a film still banned in some countries; Salò (1975). Four fascist figures of authority; The Duke, The Bishop, The Magistrate and The President, kidnap 18 teenagers and subject them to sexual assault and torture. Unlike most films mentioned in this article, Salò does not contain a single comedic moment, instead opting to express the terror of fascism as literally as possible. This is rare for satire, for even the darkest narratives often contain moments of dark humour.
Another topic that is often seen in satires is religion or religious authority. The most famous example is probably Life of Brian (1979), the Monty Python comedy that parodies the life of Jesus. Despite the outrage it saw at its release from nearly every Christian organisation, the humour is fairly harmless and Jesus himself is never the centre of mockery. The even more controversial The Devils (1971) from British filmmaker Ken Russell attacks the conflation of church and state, while also depicting orgies with nuns. The centrepiece scene where a statue of Jesus is mounted by naked women has never been officially released. But despite this outrageous imagery, The Devils is not anti-religion at all, instead, it is attacking the hypocrisy of some religious leaders. The protagonist is a deeply flawed but well-intentioned priest who despite his womanizing never loses his integrity.
There are also plenty of phenomenal satirical films on Hollywood or filmmaking. Often considered one of the greatest films of all time, Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) centers on a successful arthouse director being pestered by producers over his new film. The 139-minute long movie is about many things, but the comedic sections about shrieking producers, moaning actors, and surreal encounters with the Vatican are among its best. Legendary animator Satoshi Kon’s miniseries Paranoia Agent (2004) is about the extreme pressure felt by workers under Japanese capitalism, with one episode being dedicated to a production manager in an animation studio murdering all of his colleagues just to escape the stress. The target of John Waters’ little-seen Cecil B. Demented (2000) is the Hollywood studio system that does nothing but churns out sedimental and manipulative crap. Waters’ heroes are a group of cinema terrorists who gleefully disrupt family movie viewings, in a film that is as punk as it is self-aware, and just all-around a lot of fun.
Codes and Conventions
In literature, there are two primary modes of satire, both stemming from Ancient Roman writers; Horatian and Juvenalian satire. Horatian satire is the more light-hearted of the two, gently poking fun at general absurdities of modern society, characterizing its targets as flawed rather than evil. An example of a Horatian film is the fake documentary This is Spinal Tap (1984) which follows the fake British hair metal band on tour in America and mocks not just the inept band members, but every aspect of the music industry. But at the end of the day, it is primarily a goofy comedy. Another example would be the first Borat movie.
Juvenalian satire resides on the other end of the spectrum, the pessimistic and abrasive approach which deems its targets not as misguided, but evil. This form of satire aims to shock and appall in order to ridicule politicians or systems and is usually meant to be less comedic. Network (1971) is a fantastic example of Juvenalian satire, with its furiously angry and apocalyptic tone.
It satirizes the network television industry and proposes that in search of ratings, network executives would literally kill someone on the air. The Spike Lee film Bamboozled (2000) is a sort of remake of Network, where a black writer looking to get fired proposes a modern-day minstrel show, along with horribly offensive humor and blackface. But the proposal backfires and the show becomes incredibly popular. Lee’s point was that America had evolved very little in its attitude toward race and that careless satire itself can be tremendously harmful.
Notable works and Directors
The Scottish-Italian director and writer Armando Iannucci primarily aim his guns at politics in his films and television series, bringing a distinctly British type of absurdist comedy to high-stakes situations. In the Loop (2009) sees UK and US bureaucrats attempting to bring about and prevent a new war in the Middle East, in a contemporary version of Dr. Strangelove. The Death of Stalin (2017) is set during the months after the death of the Soviet dictator, with his ministers and spymasters fighting to succeed him. Despite largely following the actual historical events, Iannucci turns the very dour situation into farce by allowing the actors to maintain their regular accents (Stalin himself is played by a Cockney actor), and through his trademark incessant swearing and wonderfully imaginative insults. Who can ever forget a line like: “You spineless rat! You’re just a cadaver we’ve propped up in a corset!”
The Dutch director Paul Verhoeven came to Hollywood during the 80s where he made several mainstream films that featured B movie aspects, but often with an edge. Robocop (1987), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997) are now considered his great satirical trilogy, even if Robocop was the only commercial and critical successful one at the time. That film was a critique of corporate America effectively taking over the country, a grim prophecy that seems a lot less absurd in the age of Facebook and Amazon. Showgirls is a mystery to this day, with its critics and fans endlessly debating if the film is primarily a satire of American narcissism and stardom or just sleazy exploitation. It certainly contains both, resulting in a wonderfully filmed dive into camp. Starship Troopers is the most vicious satire Verhoeven made, using a story of futuristic space marines to critique fascism. When blonde, blue-eyed and square-jawed protagonist Rico signs up for the infantry, the recruitment officer congratulates him, saying: “Good for you. Mobile infantry made me the man I am today”, only for the camera to reveal he lost both his legs.
John Waters, titled the pope of filth, has been making satirical comedies since the beginning of his strange career. Waters’ earlier works are set on the borders of civilization, starring a wide assortment of weirdos, geeks, perverts, and criminals. They behave absolutely abhorrently according to general society but Waters nonetheless treats them with humor and affection. His most infamous film, Pink Flamingos (1972) sees drag queen Divine vie for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive” and advocates for murder and cannibalism on camera. Waters said he was found inspiration for the film after personally attending the Manson trials. Waters’ satire is generally aimed at American values and norms, subverting them with abrasive and offensive humor, but despite its controversial subjects and intense imagery, these films are generally speaking still Horatian satire. His films are rarely angry, rather offering a strange joy to the viewer. In his later works, like Cry-Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994), the villains are usually church-going housewives and bespectacled conservatives, and they are so cartoonish there is nothing threatening about them. As Waters said very recently in a L’Officiel interview conducted by actress Hari Neff: “Humor, that’s how it works. You go in and you embarrass the enemy and you make them feel stupid. And you win.” Leave it to Waters to summarize the artform in just three short sentences.