Refried hits for laughs

Film Parody
June 29, 2001

In art as in life, everything that is taken seriously can also be taken deeply unseriously. For proof, surf and check their spoof film listing for A Muppet Schindler's List , starring Gonzo and the gang. Of course, no such production is actually conceivable. All the famous film parodies, from Airplane! to Austin Powers , mock genres that are fairly frothy in themselves. Evil and suffering, it is widely agreed, are best left to the dramatists.

Genre has long been a vehicle for manufacturing popular movies, but as Dan Harries makes plain, it was precisely "the establishment of certain canonised cinematic traditions" that made film parody possible. Just consider Buster Keaton's marvellous Sherlock Jr , Harries reminds us, to observe "the relative instability of any filmic convention and the ease by which they can be transgressed".

Here Harries concerns himself mainly with parodies produced between 1974 ( annus mirabilis of Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein ) and the present. He sees this era as "a period steeped in the cynical and wrapped up in the intertextual", and reckons its parodies to be "cogent markers of a culture steeped in an ever-increasing level of irony". Influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia , Harries tries to devise a sensible hermeneutic for reading texts such as Amazon Women on the Moon , given what he describes as "the difficult and complex issues assoc-iated with the pragmatic functionings of film parody". It is not just a question of whether you get the joke; Harries is quick to critique the notion of any "ideal" reader or the valorisation of the sophisticated "spectator". (I concur, having laughed through the recent Scary Movie despite no prior acquaintance with its target, Scream .) Harries identifies six core "methods of parodic coding" (reiteration, inversion, misdirection, literalisation, extraneous inclusion and exaggeration). These may arise within a film's lexicon (sets, costumes), its syntax (narrative, timeline), or its style (music, titles). Having established this taxonomy, Harries turns to the movies and, basically, retells the jokes: for instance, the famous farting cowboys of Blazing Saddles are a "misdirection" from the traditional "syntax" of the western's campfire scene.

After a while, this classificatory process palls somewhat. Harries's better passages come late on when he tells readers something they may not know, about wary studio-enforced re-titling of certain parodies: how "I Mo Git U Sucka" was thought too colloquial (so becoming I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka ), and "Jane Austen's Mafia! " too elitist (hence plain old Mafia!). But then Hollywood's capacity to be crass and unhip is well known; and film parody is essentially a Hollywood in-joke, a canny recycling of its big dumb hits. No French director has essayed a parody of Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar , despite its potential for donkey jokes.

Finally, as usual in new film theory, Harries passes a political propriety meter over this engagingly silly, eminently forgettable bunch of films, assessing their potential for a "shifting of social consciousness". Of parody, he concludes sadly that "its embodiment of authorised norms firmly keeps it within the hegemonic fold", so confirming the fears of Gramsci-loving film buffs out there. Harries considers parody such a prevalent contemporary film form that he can now foresee "the threatened relevance of 'classic' canons". But the critically ordained cinematic canon has never quite tallied with Empire magazine's idea of what is a masterpiece; and Austin Powers is hardly responsible for that.

Richard Kelly is the author of The Name of this Book is Dogme95 .

Film Parody

Author - Dan Harries
ISBN - 0 85170 803 X
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £15.99
Pages - 153

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