Though parody has ancient roots, it has taken on a particularly central
role in the comic forms of the irony-soaked postmodern present because it
foregrounds quotation and self-referentiality. Marxist literary critic
Fredric Jameson has argued that postmodernity has replaced conventional
parody with a process that should rightly be defined as pastiche. While
parody implies a norm against which the imitation must be read, pastiche
is a form of imitation that is detached from an authoritative precedent,
and thus lacks a satiric impulse. By treating the original as a style
only, devoid of history and context, pastiche is a uniquely postmodern
play of pure discourse. For instance, there have been dozens of films over
the years that have parodied the scene in
From Here to Eternity
(1953) where a couple lies on the beach as the waves wash over
them—so many that it is no longer necessary to have seen the
original to understand the reference. In fact, none of
's three directors had seen the film when they spoofed it in their
movie. In a postmodern context, pastiche reduces the past to a set of
empty icons, increasingly lacking a real sense of history.
Drawing on the work of Jameson, among others, critic Dan Harries argues
that the large number of increasingly standardized commercial parody films
of the last few decades have helped take the bite out of parody, rendering
it a more sterile and complacent mode of comedy than it has been in the
past. Harries has devised a useful list of six techniques through which
contemporary parody achieves its effects, and he argues that these
techniques have ultimately drained parody of much of its transgressive
function, making predictable and toothless what was once original and
subversive. These six techniques are:
is the process by which the parody establishes its connection to the
source text, using, for example, horses to evoke the western, handheld
cameras to evoke the documentary, and so on. Many parodies take great
care in reproducing the iconic elements of the source genre.
is a way of using an element of the source text in an ironic way, so
that it means the opposite of its intended meaning.
Cannibal: The Musical
(1996) evokes one convention of the Hollywood folk musical by having
the whole community come together for a lively production number at the
end, but inverts the intended meaning of that finale with the lyrics,
"Hang the bastard, hang him high," creating an ironic
juxtaposition of cheerful harmony and grotesque bloodlust.
is the process by which the conventions of the source text are used to
create a set of expectations in the spectator which are then reversed or
transformed by the parody. In
Scary Movie 3
(2003) the character played by George Carlin explains his sad history
in conventional melodramatic terms, "My wife and I wanted a
child, but she couldn't get pregnant," then when the
spectator has been misdirected to expect a sentimental story, instead he
offers the punchline, "Neither could I."
is a technique that takes a naïve approach to the source text,
as though it were readable only literally and not through the lens of
convention. This process can be applied to narrative elements, as in
Robin Hood: Men in Tights
(1993) when Robin cries out to the crowd "Lend me your
ears," at which point the crowd starts throwing actual ears at
him. Literalization can also parody a conventional film technique; for
instance, there is a shot in
when the camera tracks toward the screaming heroine into such a tight
close-up that the lens strikes the actress on the head and she exclaims
"Ouch!," making the camera's presence in the film
uses elements that do not belong in a conventional generic image in
order to render it strange. For instance, in
, the hero has taken refuge on an Indian reservation, which is presented
through conventional cinematic images such as buffalo, beads, and
buckskins. That image is then made strange through the extraneous
inclusion of a doorbell on the teepee and pink bunny slippers on the
takes an aspect of the source text and renders it absurd through
excessive emphasis. This technique can apply to simple objects, like the
enormous helmet worn by the character Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) in
(1987). It can also apply to narrative or stylistic conventions, as in
The Naked Gun
, which references the discreet Hollywood practice of cutting away from
sex scenes to symbolic images of curtains blowing in the breeze or
fireworks exploding. The montage of images in this love scene (flowers
opening, a train entering a tunnel, an atom bomb exploding into a
mushroom cloud) is both more suggestive and more extensive than the
Parody has often been interpreted as a tool which helped audiences see
through the frozen conventions and ideological agendas of different
genres. Harries argues that the growing conventionality of parody has
reduced much of its power to free the spectator from the ideological traps
of genre: as he rhetorically asks, "do we really become
'liberated' after watching an hour and a half of
?" On this question, the jury is still out.
Gehring, Wes D.
Parody as Film Genre: "Never Give a Saga an Even Break."
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
. London: British Film Institute, 2000.
A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms
. New York: Methuen, 1985.
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern
. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.