|Comedy & Cultural Critique: Parody, Mockumentary, & Political Satire in Film
“Comedy was in reality the most serious genre in Hollywood, … it reflected through the comic mode the deepest moral and social beliefs of American life.” Andre Bazin
Parody has been part of cinema from the beginning. The very first night of projected film included a comedy. Almost all silent comedies are parodies of society. Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops are about the absurdity of the ultimate authority figures, the police, for example. Animation also questioned authority from its inception. Disney’s early Oswald the Rabbit made a mockery of the idea of humane warfare in a film called Great Guns.
We’ll examine the close ties of comedy to tragedy in film. This is manifest in the “everymen” of Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. They all challenge the mechanization that is part of the early 20th century. Chaplin is literally devoured by the machine in Modern Times. Keaton is the hapless projectionist who cannot tell reality from dreams and becomes a part of the films he shows in Sherlock, Jr.
Early sound films coincided with the era of the Great Depression and this was the era of Mae West, W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. It is also the time of the great screwball comedies which were filled with unruly women who challenged gender expectations.
From Chaplin's parodies of automation and Hitler (The Great Dictator) to the more current MASH and other commentaries on Vietnam, and even now in such venues as Saturday Night Live, we receive needed relief from the tension of current and world affairs through comedy.
Week One – 1920’s: Silent comedy was all about critiquing current culture
Screen in Class: Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin 1935 Excerpts: Cops, Keaton, 1922 The Freshman, Lloyd, 1925 Keystone Kops
Week Two – 1930’s and 1940’s: Response to Great Depression
Screen in Class: Duck Soup, Marx Bros. 1933 Excerpts: She Done Him Wrong, West
Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges, 1941; Capra films, W. C. Fields
Week Three - British films from Ealing and beyond provide great examples of satirizing the era following WWII.
Screen in Class: Passport to Pimlico, Cornelius, 1949 Excerpts: Whiskey Galore, MacKendrick, 1949; A Hard Day’s Night, Lester, 1964
Week Four –Documentaries, Mockumentaries Michael Moore with his virtuosic editing brought comedy to the documentary genre, previously known as quite serious. Moore examines the greed of capitalists and the role of the NRA in school shootings
Screen in Class: Best in Show, Guest, 2000; This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner, 1984;Borat, Sasha Cohen, 2006 Excerpts: Roger & Me, Moore, 1989; Bowling for Columbine, 2002
Week Five – Politics, Capitalism, The Absurdity of War, Subversion of Gender Codes The 1960’s up to the present are full of films that question the role of politics, the absurdity of war, the loss of individuality. Directors include Kubrick, Wilder, Beatty, Altman, Nichols and others
Screen in Class: Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick, 1964; The Graduate, Nichols, 1967 Excerpts: Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Saturday Night Live, Billy Wilder, Spike Lee
Mary Scott has enjoyed teaching Film History and Studies for over twenty years at both San Francisco State University and College of San Mateo (as well as in Florence, Italy and London.) She has also taught Film and Video Production for twenty years at SFSU. Her passion for film is said to be contagious so beware.