PARODY AND THE POSTMODERN
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 Airplane! '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:
- Reiteration 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.
- Inversion 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.
- Misdirection 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."
- Literalization 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 Scary Movie 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 suddenly literal.
- Extraneous inclusion uses elements that do not belong in a conventional generic image in order to render it strange. For instance, in Hot Shots , 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 protagonist.
- Exaggeration 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 Spaceballs (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 convention permits.
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 Spaceballs ?" 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.
Harries, Dan. Film Parody . London: British Film Institute, 2000.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms . New York: Methuen, 1985.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
Rose, Margaret. Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern . Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.