Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Usurpation (Brief Look at Satire, Part 2)

----------------------The Galton Case:
“Your son has been missing for a very long time.”
“I’m better aware of that than you, young man. I last set eyes on Anthony on the eleventh day of October 1936. We parted in bitter anger and hatred. I’ve lived ever since with that anger and hatred corroding my heart. But I can’t die with it inside of me. I want to see Anthony again, and talk to him. I want to forgive him. I want him to forgive me.”

----------------------"Garish Summit” Episode 2:
I have something preying on my mind that I need your help with, Bodin. A man has turned up here in Garish Summit who claims to be my long-lost elder son, Caldwell.
That’s shocking, Agatha. We’ve known each other for forty years, and I always thought your weak-willed son, Rodney, was an only child.
Well, I thought so, too. That’s the strange part I don’t understand.
Well, you’re a fabulously rich widow who’s inherited the world’s largest chain of lead mines. The man’s probably a fortune hunter.
No. I’ve encountered those before. But this chap definitely claims to be the son I never knew I had. So, of course, it’s just his word against mine.
A short time ago, I indulged in a binge of reading (or re-reading) half-a-dozen novels by Ross Macdonald. Although his private eye, Lew Archer, is not as famous as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Macdonald is generally recognized as holding the third spot in the trinity of American writers of hard-boiled detective fiction. 

At the same time as I was gorging myself on the Byzantine intricacies of Macdonald's Californian family sagas, I was also getting re-acquainted with the output of Bob and Ray. Although Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding did some television work (and even had a hit Broadway show), they were men of radio; they not only worked on radio, they used radio as the basis for most of their material—such as, the stilted language and formulaic plots of soap operas, the banality of advice givers, the obliviousness of newsmen and sportscasters, and the boasts of commercials. 
Satire, as I noted in my previous blog post, “X-raying the Soul (Brief Look at Satire, Part 1),” can be general or specific. For example, Bob and Ray's “Jack Headstrong, All-American American” was a specific parody of the serial “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” while their “The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely” was a parody of the soap opera genre at large. “Garish Summit,” created in 1982, was a rather late addition to the Bob and Ray stable of soap opera take-offs. Although performed on radio, “Garish” was based on the hot-house rich-family television primetime soaps, such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” It was while reading the script of a “Garish” episode that I was reminded of something I had recently read in Macdonald's The Galton Case, written in 1959 (see above). Which I will get back to shortly.
I enjoyed Star Wars when it first came out in 1977, and I enjoyed it even more when I went the second time and actually saw the movie—having been afflicted by a dodgy contact lens the first time I went. I also enjoyed the second in the series to be released, The Empire Strikes Back, which I also saw in a theater (thankfully with both lenses working). However, when the third of the series, Return of the Jedi, was released in 1983, I never made it to the movie house. I did catch up to it when it was later aired on television, taping it for viewing at some future time. Somehow in the next five or six years I couldn't seem to find that future time. And in the meantime, Spaceballs happened. 

When I finally rolled the tape of Return of the Jedi, I couldn't take the movie seriously. For me, the Mel Brooks parody Spaceballs, although rather broad and hit-and-miss (like most of Brooks’ work), had usurped its place in the Star Wars canon. 
There was a riddle a few economic recessions back that went like this:

What's the difference between a pigeon and a yuppie?

A pigeon can still leave a deposit on a new BMW.
Bird droppings have their place in two excellent parodies: the 1968 short film De Düva: The Dove and The Birds episode in High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ homage-cum-parody of Alfred Hitchcock films. 

De Düva takes on two of the most famous films by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. Conflating the two Bergman works, De Düva has an angst-filled Strawberries professor accosted by a Seal-like figure of Death, and they engage in a contest for the man's life. In the original, the protagonist is a medieval knight, and the contest is a game of chess. In the parody the professor and the black-robed figure of Death engage in a game of badminton. While a grim game of chess—that most mental of contests—seems quite appropriate as a cinematic battleground to determine life or death, badminton, with its airy, floating shuttlecock, swerving this way and that, forcing the players into all sorts of contortions to follow its flight, reduces the confrontation to absurdity. 

And there is a dove to leave its deposit.

In High Anxiety, bIrds mass on a school's monkey bars behind an oblivious bench-seated Mel Brooks (like Tippy Hedron in Hitchcock's film). And then they swoop—but instead of attacking and pecking the bodies of the running adults and children as in the original film, in Brooks' parody the birds relieve themselves on the frantically running protagonist, who ends up so smelly that the patrons of the dry cleaner shop he escapes into quickly exit the premises holding their noses. 

Bird droppings are nature's way of making everything else at the time unimportant.  Perfect for the deflationary role of satire.
It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it? The consciousness of dubiety was, for our friend, not, this morning, quite yet clean-cut enough to outline the figures on what she had called his "horizon," between which and himself the twilight was indeed of a quality somewhat intimidating. He had run up, in the course of time, against a good number of "teasers;" and the function of teasing them back—of, as it were, giving them, every now and then, "what for"—was in him so much a habit that he would have been at a loss had there been, on the face of it, nothing to lose.
(Max Beerbohm's parody of Henry James “is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.” Brendan Gill, The New Yorker, October 24, 1970)
Parody ranges from broadest (e.g., Spaceballs) to the subtlest take-off of the original work. Beerbohm's parody is so subtle that it is, as Gill puts it, “almost” indistinguishable from James' own prose style. If one were to imitate perfectly the style and select the same sort of content as the original writer, there would be no satire. A carbon copy is not satire. The satirist exposes the flaws of the original author to our scrutiny by deliberately exaggerating—subtly (the "almost" effect) or broadly—his stylistic tics and mannerisms and the formulaic content of, and ideas in, his work.
A gift for comedy seldom comes to a writer unaccompanied. . . .Sometimes, as in parody, it is coupled with the flinty disposition of the critic.
(Donald Malcolm, The New Yorker, November 8, 1958)
When the parodist has done his job well, his work—the “flinty” examination of the original—supplants, in the audience's mind, the original work, and he has himself progressed from critic to creator.
And so back to Ross Macdonald and Bob and Ray.

Unlike the other parodies discussed, which were all specific satires, Bob and Ray's “Garish Summit” was aimed at an artistic (if we can called it that) category—the rich-family's-got-a-lot-of-entanglements-and-strange-passions soap opera. After reading the script of the episode above, I had a flash memory of something I had read shortly before in Macdonald's The Galton Case (written 23 years earlier). It was, it seemed to me, the stilted dialogue of soap opera. And the convoluted storylines of his mysteries, I realized, were soap operas with a hard-boiled detective on the chase. 

The net of general parody captures a lot of fish (even unintended species).
1—The dialogue in De Düva: The Dove is in mock-Swedish—basically English with fake “Swedish” suffixes appended.

2—Coincidence: Madeline Kahn is in both De Düva: The Dove (her first movie role) and High Anxiety.

Video Evidence:

Bob and Ray

Bergman: The Seventh Seal 

De Düva: The Dove

Hitchcock, The Birds

Brooks, High Anxiety