Yesterday, I reviewed the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service. In short, it is fantastic. It is also very aware of itself. Very quickly, it finds itself among my favorites of one of my favorite types of film: films that are clearly in on the joke with the audience. I am much more lenient with these types of movies. There are lots of them. If you've come across anything I've ever written about Wes Craven's Scream, you know how highly I think of it. In my opinion, it's my favorite slasher flick of all-time, by a substantial margin. This is coming from someone who is a fan of such movies. Pretty sure I've seen well over a hundred of them. I was practically raised by Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Why Scream?
Looking across genres might provide at least part of the answer. Similar films are among my favorites in a number of them. Disaster flicks? Airplane! Western? Blazing Saddles. Police Procedurals? The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! Blaxploitation? Black Dynamite. The list goes on. These movies fall under the broad umbrella of films categorized as spoofs. However, any old spoof won't do. I've seen a few of the Wayans Brothers efforts like Scary Movie, Dance Flick, A Haunted House, and a few others that they inspired. Over the last few years I have tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to stay away from those. The ones I love have some things in common. They know the rules of whatever they're making fun of, yet breaks them on purpose while still telling its own story within them. Another important factor is that the movie lets the viewers know that it is fully aware of what it is doing, allowing us to play along.
|Scream: A bunch of friends watching a movie while in a movie.|
In an attempt to create humor, the Wayans' spoofs take a much appreciated all-out approach, employing any number of gross-out gags and blatantly sexual innuendo. Some of these can be, and are, funny. However, even the best of these is limited by the overwhelming number of similar jokes, the lack of a compelling narrative, and their reliance on the audience to have seen too many specific films. That first one is self-explanatory. The jokes happen in such rapid succession, it becomes a kinetic assault on the audience, invoking disgust, exhaustion, and laughter in varying measures. The narrative void causes that reliance on other movies. This is their biggest problem. With better spoofs, the viewer merely needs a working knowledge of the genre in question. One need not be an expert in slasher flicks to enjoy Scream. You only have to have seen a few random ones to have a grasp on genre tropes to recognize when they're being sent up. To get the most out of Scary Movie, for instance, the viewer needs to have watched dozens of specific films because it makes very direct references to all of them. By direct, I mean entire scenes are lifted with a few seconds of supposed humor tacked on. Scary Movie is doubly frustrating because the movie it pilfers from most, the oft and aforementioned Scream, is already a spoof. This means we have an entire movie trying a make a joke out what is already funny. Both films play fast and loose with genre conventions. The difference is that Scream is a skillful navigation of them, utilizing some, circumventing others, and always having a reason to do either. Scary Movie haphazardly discards them all. A mess is left in its wake.
It doesn't have to be this way. The Wayans themselves know how to make an excellent spoof. They did it way back in 1988 with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka That movie emulates and pokes fun at Blaxploitation within the telling of its own tale. To "get it" the viewer doesn't need to have seen any particular film, only have a basic understanding of the genre. This makes the gags feel self-contained even though many are clearly inspired by movies such as Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, The Black Six, and Mean Johnny Barrows. Direct references to those, or any other films, doubles the enjoyment for those who have seen them. In Scary Movie, and similar titles we get the opposite affect. They are so dependent on specific knowledge that not having it renders the viewer lost. The different approaches yield vastly different results. I'm Gonna Git You Sucka is a work of art inspired by and simultaneously skewering what came before it. Scary Movie takes a pre-existing work and draws a "funny" mustache on it.
|I'm Gonna Git You Sucka: When the Wayans got it right.|
Understanding how their chosen genre works is key for good spoof. The best ones let the audience know it's all a ruse, but still gets them invested in the fate of the people on the screen. It takes skill, intimate knowledge of, and a healthy respect and love for whatever is being ridiculed to pull off such a feat. When all of these things magically come together, the people in the movie become more human because they are clearly part of the same pop-culture infused world we are. Their knowledge of being in a movie about precisely the thing they're making fun of injects them with a heightened level of sarcasm which I respond to and occasionally employ in my own life. It's no wonder my favorite part of my favorite play, Shakespeare's Hamlet is "the play within the play." In that scene, the protagonist becomes more real than at any other time. Sure, he is dealing with problems I couldn't imagine having. At that moment, though, he is just like me. He is just a guy watching a play.
|Hamlet: "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."|