There is still a vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place … Neither is it true that this fineness of raillery is offensive. A witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not.
– John Dryden, A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire
From the ancient Greeks to 18th-century writers such as Jonathan Swift to filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, satire has long been an established part of our ability as a society to analyze itself, make social commentary a matter of public concern and even to cause change. But it seems that self-serious figures like George W. Bush and Michael Moore have perpetuated a culture of fear toward satirical hallmarks such as wit and subtlety, and that true satire is fast becoming an endangered species in mainstream entertainment.
Too many television programs released as comedies fail to uphold Dryden’s qualifications for satire, though they purport to be satirical. Saturday Night Live long ago descended into juvenile joking—which, though occasionally amusing, is certainly not satirical—and the show’s long-standing bastion of satire, “Weekend Update,” is now little more than a showcase for scatological humor and awkward celebrity cameos.
Even a show like 30 Rock, which stars former SNL writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Tina Fey and operates with the smug self-awareness that is fast becoming the norm for comedies on broadcast television, does not completely escape the trappings of its own construct: Though the cast mocks product placement in one episode by openly discussing Diet Snapple in a way meant to mock the practice, the characters openly consume the drink in several other episodes, while parent companies NBC and GE receive innumerable product placements without a similar self-critical dissection.
The situation is not much better in mainstream cinema. Satires that attacked meaningful targets such as politics, family or religion—Wag the Dog and Pleasantville, for example—were not uncommon in the waning years of the Clinton administration, but it now seems difficult to “satirize” (which some read as “attack” or “undermine”) those so-called “American institutions” due to the current culture of fear. Mainstream filmmakers have capitulated by focusing on targets like Hollywood rather than Washington, and even mock-umentaries—with the exception of the recent independent film Death of a President—have mostly avoided meaningful discourse about society. And those that do have significant commentary, such as Borat, succumb to pre-adolescent humor in order to gain viewers, and in so doing lose much of the charm, wit and bite that should accompany good satire.
Even Hot Fuzz, the recent movie from Edgar Wright, is less of a satire and more of a parody. Though it does succeed spectacularly as a send-up of American action movies, it has no direct target for satire, and it does not have nearly the sense of wit that was present in Wright’s previous effort, the 2004 zombie romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead. It seems that at best, the stroke of satire is executed in the mainstream with a dull blade rather than the fineness that Dryden requires of the medium, and that most recent examples of satire that have succeeded have originated outside the American entertainment factory.
One recent example is the Canadian production Fido, which takes its cues from its sartorial cousin Pleasantville and from the conclusion of Shaun of the Dead. Fido is set in a typical 1950s community, complete with picket fences, hoop skirts, malt shops and … ravenous zombies outside town limits?! In this film, a space dust which caused the dead to rise from the grave has descended on Earth. After the Zombie Wars, one inventor discovered a way to domesticate these flesh-eating nuisances, which he then marketed through the mega-corporation ZomCon. The film focuses on a nuclear family of two parents and one child who, in order to keep up with the rest of the families on the block, buy a zombie. The child and parents end up bonding with the zombie, which has disastrous consequences for the rest of the community.
Fido is utterly convinced of its own integrity as a film, its own institutionalization within its genres (both zombie films and satires), and its own intelligence as a vehicle for satire. The film is visually stunning in its recreation of an idyllic pre-Vietnam America, a presentation that only enhances the satire present in the concept. But the film refuses to fully explain or even acknowledge the many underlying themes and metaphors present, choosing rather to allow the viewer to interpret the fineness of the stroke of director Andrew Currie (while allowing the fool to “feel it not”). Themes of materialism, personal integrity, jealousy, loyalty, friendship, control of society by corporations, political influence and marital fidelity are all featured in the film, but without any of the heavy-handedness present in many contemporary social commentaries. The film succeeds as a satire because it is so aware of its mission, yet it never gives into the temptation to revel in that knowledge. And it does so without committing the “slovenly butchering” abhorred by Dryden and all successful satirists. Well, except for some innocent bystanders attacked by wandering zombies.
Films like Fido give me hope that my lament for satire in contemporary society is both preemptive and unfounded. I am still skeptical about the place of satire within mainstream entertainment, but that opinion is reflected—to some degree—in some of the satires that focus on that incestuous industry. One can only hope that more filmmakers will have the fineness of stroke to truly make a difference through their medium, and that satire will come back to life to feast on the flesh of modern American society.