Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Limits and Ends of Parody
I love a good parody. The British are especially adept at it in film, television and literature, and even some Americans of yore, like the Stooges, could handle the "device" without having it explode in their faces (exploding pies notwithstanding). Unfortunately, in pop culture today it's hard to find a good parody. The authors of the books, films, etc. that set out to parody often choose subjects they can't handle, mistake the ends of parody for disrespect, apply their parodies with uneven hand, and often confuse parody with its ugly, distant cousin bastardization.
Several problems might be going on here that contribute to bad parodies. First, pop culture attempts most often to parody pop culture, which in some cases is just crap begetting exaggerated crap. Second, many parodies are meant to be satirical, and to call attention to all the things that are wrong with a person, a movement, or a particular work of art -- but the parody makers don't realize that not all parodies are required to tear the subject apart without any respect or homage to the original talent or inspiration that might have been displayed there. Parody doesn't even have to make any use of satire. Third, parody might have limits -- particularly limits of form (i.e. the length of a parody piece, or the type of genre it parodies or chooses to deliver its message), as well as the less delineated limits of how much raillery, irreverence, and filth parody can deliver without becoming mere bastardization.
The first two problems of pop culture parodies and "all bad" parodies lead in to one another, so I'll talk about them in order. Pop culture is a mess these days (we don't need to go into detail here -- if you've any aesthetic or intelligence this is a truism), and people who are usually no more talented or intelligent than the makers of the messes attempt to make fun of the messes. This is good for a laugh when there is something specifically stupid about a new movie or TV show, and we can get a laugh out of a short SNL sketch or something. But we don't need a series of movies explaining how bad an original series of movies is, or movies conveniently labeled as the parodies for each popular genre (Date Movie, Action Movie, or whatever the hell). This is pandering parody. It makes reference to things everyone knows (Scream), tells them about things they already know (Scream is ridiculous), and doesn't provide any other form of entertainment or make use of any other technique.
An alternate type of recent movie parody that is more successful, but just as silly and pop, are some of Ben Stiller's and Will Ferrel's movies like Tropic Thunder and Anchorman, where parody and storytelling are mixed. These movies parody the war movie genre and the image of a 1970s lifestyle, respectively, but they also have other things going on. The parody is a (big) device within the movie, but not the entire movie. I'm not saying these films are what I feverishly look for at the library (yeah, I rent from the library), but they are funny. It's also interesting to note that they're not parodying anything recent. The writers know we already know those recent things are stupid.
Monty Python (who girls aren't supposed to like for some reason) are great at movie-length parody, and even pull off parodying Arthurian legends and, later, the life of Christ (a guy who Family Guy manages to bastardize repeatedly, awfully) in The Holy Grail and Life of Brian. These movies follow age old story-lines, but use a million kinds of parody from satirical social commentary ("We're an autonomous collective!"), ironic or non-sequitur situations (the chaste knight at the medieval equivalent of Hotel California), to one-liners based on the archaic or over-the-top language of the periods (grasping all the elements, obvious and subtle, of the parodied thing's style is important!).
Now that I think of some good parodies, it's getting to me how sick it is that the bad pop parodies are parodying things that are still being made, despite everyone knowing they're terrible! Not just a mess, but a bloody cannibalistic mess.
Those bad pop parodies are also committing that second offense of making the all-bad parody. But how can they do otherwise when their subjects have minimal to no redeeming qualities? So lets talk about other things someone might try to parody today. Of course we would parody Hitler or propaganda movies as all bad, all fodder for ridicule, something to be turned upside-down. But you wouldn't parody a beloved novel like that, or the life of a notable person who happened to have some quirks or skeletons in the closet. In fact, some of the most elegant parody happens when we parody things we love. The Pythons obviously know and love their Arthurian tales, and while they may not be devoutly religious, they don't maliciously tear apart the Christ story like crazed atheists. Especially in the case of the Knights of the Round Table, care is taken.
Family Guy, on the other hand, exemplifies making fun of things without any respect for said things. Yes, even Jesus. They don't make fun of the absurdities of religion or people's perceptions about the Son of God (fine things to parody!), they just make Jesus do terrible things to people. They make babies do terrible things to people. Pretty much everyone just does terrible things to people. And animals. Some of it is non-sequitur. That makes sense, because you'll nervously laugh at anything that's out of place after Peter reads you A-Hundred-and-One Racist Rape Jokes while on the toilet. Not all of these things are supposed to be parody, but I'm sure Seth McFarlane thinks some of them are. His parodied NPR voice was funny, for instance, until a cartoon dog practically committed suicide because of it. Maybe McFarlane loves NPR. You wouldn't know it. He doesn't seem to care about anything, which is a real turnoff.
Another thing McFarlane parodies are "liberal ideals," i.e. concern for the environment and social activism. These traits are mostly exhibited by the dog, Brian. He is often hypocritical when it comes to his ideals, he is a drunk, has questionable motives (like everyone on the show) and while he's probably the second-most likable character in that cast, he makes liberalism and himself look bad with his parody, his exaggerated opinions and behaviors. The Simpsons does a similar parody with Lisa, but she has so many redeeming qualities, her lapses in behavior or judgement are cute and endearing, and lead anyone with similar opinions to identify with her struggles. (One of my favorite Lisa lines is "Dad, this goes against every feminist bone in my body, but can't you control your woman?!") The Simpsons gets the point across when it comes to making fun of radical environmentalists, feminists etc, but they don't do so at the expense of a character's appeal. The environmentalist/activist parody leads to internal conflict for Lisa and builds her, it doesn't just provide the one-dimensional contradiction that defines why we should be disgusted by her and laugh at her, like it does for Brian.
Care is important, but unfortunately for some rock star hopefuls, care is not enough to make a parody successful. The band Rock Sugar insulted my ears the other day when they received radio play in honor of an upcoming area show. I'm sure they love Journey, and I'm sure they have huge boners for Metallica, but their "Don't Stop the Sandman" is painful. They try to parody '70s over-the-top rock while parodying '80s metal. You can't do both at the same time, in one song. At least they can't. They don't make any attempt to look Journeyish, but they look very Metallica-ish, and cut back and forth between that look and the white wardrobe that's supposed to go with the '70s rock. The songs are not really woven together at all. It's just the "Enter Sandman" riff and rhythm all the way through both songs, and the singer goes back to Metallica style singing every so often by cuing us in with a Hetfield style "YuueeeeaAAH!" It's a darn shame, because the guy really does a good Steve Perry. They should have just gone for the Journey cover band angle. I think there's already a famous one out there. But they could have had a showdown. He does claim his hair is bionic. He might have won. But I think they're in it for more marketing money. (34 songs in a 13 song set!) I was happy to see that the band does not get unanimous praise from young rock and metal fans. There is another parody band called Steel Panther that I think does a better job. I wouldn't buy it or anything, but they at least have consistent costuming, singing, and do a decent job with the song lyrics (commentary on the rocker lifestyle) and arrangements on numbers like "Community Property." I really don't like Rock Sugar though, and I don't know why they think what they're doing is funny, even if they do really love the music they appropriate for their misguided purposes. I think both bands just jumped on the Spinal Tap train, but didn't have the humor to pull of the whole shebang.
Ok, let's have another positive example of subject-love leading to good parody! A recent movie where Brits take care of the stories they love, but lay into them with hard-hitting humor just the same, is Sean of the Dead. Zombie movies (which are mostly laughing stocks in their original forms -- maybe they scared someone in the '70s?) are parodied to death (then undeath), but the filmakers' love for zombies and the "zombie genre" is evident.
Zombies will provide the segue into my next complaints about today's parodies -- that the authors of it don't know its limits. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hit the shelves awhile back, and it is not only an uneven, confused, half-executed attempt at parody (most of it is just Austen's original novel, semi-rewritten in not-so-wonderful imitation 19th century prose by the modern "co-author," with zombies cut and pasted in), but it is a novel length parody, which I'm not sure the human mind can sustain if there is not some other literary element and/or a compelling tale. Gulliver's Travels makes use of parody, but also many other devices and fun stories. Swift's parody essay on eating babies however, was focused on one idea, so it was very short. He based it on an appropriate format, said what he had to say, and got out of there, ending on a punchline. In the age of film and TV, maybe the appropriate format for P&P&Z and similarly "brilliant ideas" (the author's words) would be a short skit or a special episode of a show. A gimmick doesn't make a novel.
The book might be considered a novel length bastardization rather than parody, in the opinions of many readers. Bastardization is the introduction of debasing elements into something that was basically good or even great. Some culture folk have also started using "bastardized" to refer to characters and stories that have been poorly remade, like Tiny Toons. Anyhow, as fun as zombies can be, I'd say they are certainly a debasing element when introduced into a novel like Pride and Prejudice. Especially when they come with the promise of "Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem," and by their presence turn our Elizabeth into a bloodthirsty creep.
The parody is not really a parody. It just repeats what is essentially the same kind of period language Austen wrote (which already shows her commentary on high society and doesn't really need to be parodied), and adds awful creatures.
It is a shame that this didn't turn out a better parody of 19th century style and story, because those of us who love it most know it can be pretty hilarious. Like many other negative reviewers said of the book (I wanted to make sure I wasn't the only one wielding the single-star), I don't consider Austen's work "sacrosanct" and I'm not one of those followers who reads the chick lit novels about her life (which are probably good examples of "bastardization," even if the debasing element is simply someone's terrible prose). I prefer my ladies a little younger (ahem, Victorian ones that is), and more feisty than romantic -- but I don't mind poking fun at the whole lot of them. So like many of the others, I thought this might be a cool idea. It even makes a heroic attempt at sustaining a style and weaving the stories for the first...few...pages. To quote an Amazonian, it was "a very clever marketing ploy, but not much else."
When I first heard of all of these books, I was most tempted by Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, because of all the possibilities (sea monsters...what a broad category of destructive potential! Bless them...). Before I read anything, I thought I might even be a person who could be convinced by an unscrupulous editor to write such things. It might be fun, I thought. But I won't go near the rest of them now. I hear there are some vampires in the next one. They heard zombies went out of style, that vampires are hot. So the editor (not the "author") decided to re-bastardize an amazing woman writer to make her more like the ones who succeed in today's popular fiction market. You know the ones.
Parody has its limits. Parody is good for some aims, not for others. Parody works best when the thing parodied is a thing well-loved, or at least a thing well-understood. Parody is not "Any great work of literature" + "Monsters."