Sunday, November 12, 2017

Some notes on parody

“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.” (Susan Sontag)

There is art that can arouse, that can provoke reflection. There is art that can detach, that can promote neutrality. The films of H. D. Premaratne and Stanley Kramer, the theatre of a hundred or so comedians who wish to be playwrights, and the works of the painters who line Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha fall into the former category. The films of Resnais, Bresson, and Wes Anderson, most of if not all the paintings of Anoma Wijewardena, and the theatre of Brecht falls into the latter category. But in both instances what is promoted is a sense of tragedy, of drama. The difference between them is really a difference of attitude. There is a larger difference and dichotomy that prevails, however: between tragedy and comedy.

The Western conception of art is derived for the most from the theory of mimesis and representation as articulated by Plato and Aristotle. A work of art derives from something: it sustains it, nourishes it, and breathes life into it. The Western drama had to depend on this theory, because of which there came about a dichotomy between reality and realism. The latter could only emulate the former; the former existed of its own accord. In this regard the Western comedy was there not to emulate, but to entertain, to keep sanity afloat. Comedy fulfilled this role perfectly, because it was sustained throughout with a sense of invincibility for its characters (epitomised most memorably in the image of Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock face above a street in Safety Last). There was nothing to take seriously, in other words.

The most basic and easily recognisable elements of comedy – deception, delusion, impersonation – are mimetic in the sense that they depend on a separate frame of reference. AnandaDrama’s Dracula, staged twice two years ago to empty seats, revolved around a cleverly yet chaotically worked out variation on the Bram Stoker legend, but its premise was structurally and formally the same story we’ve been reading for centuries now. The existence of a whole new frame of reference, which is used and subverted in order to entertain, indicates that comedy is reflective and mimetic in quite a different sense. While the split in drama is between reality and realism, the split in comedy, the best sort, is between realism and subversion.

It follows that if Western drama, more specifically tragedy, was mimetic, imitative, and reflective, then Western comedy was a mimesis of the mimesis. In other words, the latter was nothing more than a reworked, witty take on the former, which is why so many comedy films entertain us by subtly alluding to other more serious works of art, sometimes by using the same actors. But there’s a difference between comedy that alludes to other works of art like this and comedy that pokes fun at a way of life, a way of looking at the world. The Vijaya Nandasiri films which have the man as Raja Manthri satirise the corrupt and the feckless in power. But they don’t emulate another objet d’art, not even for an instant. All they bring about is satire. Such satire is discernibly different to the other variant of comedy which has not, unfortunately I should think, made strides in Sri Lanka: the subject of this piece, parody.

In Sri Lanka parody exists primarily in the theatre, and I include both the English and the Sinhala theatre here. Jith Pieris’s Affair at Ward Place Hotel borrows some of its elements from What’s Up, Doc, then cleverly compounds them with the producer’s view of corruption in the private sphere and notions of political honour and dignity in the public sphere. (The whole play was premised on similar dichotomies: between the politician and his idealistic understudy, between the politician and his pseudo-nationalistic opponent, between his understudy and the opponent’s understudy, between his wife and his mistress; in short, between the public and the private.) Part of the reason why parody hasn’t caught on in our movies or even TV series is that it requires that we understand the frame of reference that is being poked at and reworked. Everyone knew what was being subverted in Dracula, but not everyone would have known what Affair at Ward Place Hotel was subverting.

What audiences here react to in plays like Affair at Ward Place Hotel and films like Suhada Koka are the recognisable elements of our society. I’ve come across people who argue that by making fun of themes like corruption and idealism we are doing away with the need to be enraged and moved by them. (This culture of being enraged and moved is what our Sinhala playwrights indulge in, even at their most satirical.) The frame of reference they can identify with is their own society: their politicians, their colleagues, their government servants. In the end what we get is a crude but effective mixture of infatuation and hate: we are cynical about our politicians, colleagues, and government servants, but we love to see them depicted unflatteringly, which is why Vijaya Nandasiri’s portrayal of Raja Manthri still grabs audiences.

Which begs the question: what exactly does parody subsist on? Films like Spy Movie, Epic Movie, and Disaster Movie can be identified by the following points: a multiplicity of voices, frequent cameo appearances, pop cultural references, and excesses of camp, sometimes scatological. But these aforementioned movies aren’t particularly good. They are hardly defensible, as comedy or even parody. What they lack is a proper sense of charisma, which can only thrive on subtlety and restraint. Some of the comedies of the eighties, all of which were commercial hits (and many of which starred Leslie Nielson), like Airplane and The Naked Gun, reworked the melodramatic tragedies and action flicks of earlier decades: Airplane with Airport, and The Naked Gun with half a dozen James Bond films. It was this line of satirical, innovative comedies which inspired their inferior imitations from the nineties.

“Is parody dead?” is a question that’s tossed around frequently these days. Perhaps, and if so the reason, the only and main reason, is that films which spoof other films suffer from an excess of what is misconceived as parody: pop cultural references which go nowhere and which evince forced laughter.

The films of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg fall into this category: from Date Movie (2006) to Superfast (2015), even the titles allude to other more established movies or genres. Of the eight films they’ve directed, many of them have grossed an average of about 85 million dollars globally. But some of them have underperformed; it’s significant to note that those which have underperformed badly (particularly The Starving Games, a spoof of The Hunger Games) allude to themes which are difficult to spoof or parody in the first place. The disaster genre provides a multitude of ways and means by which it can be made fun of, and effectively. Very few genres share this quality, least of all post-apocalyptic, science-fiction horror.

In the end parody – great, memorable parody – depends on a subtle mixture of relevance and irreverence. For it to evince laughter from younger audiences (which Seltzer’s and Friedberg’s films are marketed at), it must be contemporary and recent: the movies that are being spoofed, as well as the themes, must be based on a country’s recent popular culture (Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs was released 10 years after the first Star Wars film, while his Robin Hood: Men In Tights was released barely a year after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; the former was ignored, the latter not so), and also be irreverent about the seriousness of those movies in a coherent, explicable manner. That is why the Seltzer-Friedberg movies don’t work: there are sequences of satire and parody which drag on, which provoke laughs not from the larger meaning of such sequences but the fact that they are spoofing something explicitly (like substituting global warming for the alien invasion from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds).

Because of this, much of parody today is based on pop cultural references. These work in part (and the Seltzer-Friedberg films have been moderate hits) since those recent pop cultural references work on younger audiences, the target market for modern parody. It’s significant to note that the best spoof movies from the seventies and eighties – the peak of the genre – didn’t always allude to the recent, but in the very act of spoofing an otherwise serious or unfunny genre (the Western with Blazing Saddles; the monster film with Young Frankenstein; Alfred Hitchcock with High Anxiety) did retain that welter of funniness and felt humour that modern directors try so hard to reach, yet fail. The ultimate litmus test for parody, then, is not just relevance but also irreverence; focus on the one and abandon the other, and all you get is a gross contortion, an embarrassment, which is what most parodies have become today.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, November 12 2017