Wednesday, February 15, 2017

When Satire Fails

When Peter Cook founded the "Establishment Club" - a revue bar featuring satirical humour - in London in 1968 he expressed the hope that the venue wd be "just as successful as those satirical cabarets in Berlin in the 1930s that did so much to prevent the rise of Hitler." Satire often doesn't work. The more biting and clever the satire the less effective it often is. I remember reading the reviews of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers with incredulity: respected critics didn't get that it was a satire on Leni Riefenstahl. Indeed it seems that a majority of the critics at the time didn't understand that the film was an allegory about the growth of fascism. A fortiori cinema goers - many of whom seem to have rejected the director and screenwriter's intent and imposed their own meaning on the film. In their eyes Starship Troopers was not a satire on xenophobia and fascism at all but a warning about foreigners/aliens and a trumpet blast against weak liberals who can't be trusted to keep us safe. 
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Not only does satire often fail but sometimes it does the very opposite of what it is meant to be doing. For those of you who think SNL is skewering the Trump administration, I have some news for you, I bet you, in fact, it's actually bolstering the views of Trump's supporters and fans. Malcolm Gladwell in a great podcast on satire shows how SNL's piss take of Sarah Palin actually helped Sarah Palin. Similarly the famous puppet show Spitting Imagine that supposedly mercilessly mocked Mrs Thatcher was actually a boon for Mrs Thatcher's image and reputation. And there are numerous other examples. (Listen to the Gladwell. He gets on my nerves too but he's great here.) My point is that if respected critics can't see the joke don't be surprised if a supposed 'low information' voter doesn't see the joke either. [Its rarer of course that really bad art gets thought of as 'satire' when it isn't but I assume that the occasional Springtime For Hitler situation does exist in real life too.] I wonder too if there are any anti-war satires that actually work at all? Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket - supposedly blistering anti-war bromides were in fact favourite films of soldiers and marines in the Iraq war...
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Anyway here's RedLetterMedia's recent review (below) of Starship Troopers where they point out what should have been obvious. Two of their more interesting observations are about the lighting (deliberately bland) and the casting (the leads were cast because they appeared to be 'dead behind the eyes'.) None of this, however, has stopped Starship Troopers from becoming a favourite film of skinheads and the Alt Right. Perhaps the critics weren't so naive after all....