This genre is comedy with a poisonous bite. Delivered with a lethal wink or a prominent middle finger, it’s the genre of storytelling that says, “I’m onto you, and I don’t like what I see.” Obviously the 70s was a good era for it and I expect the genre to make a full-blooded rebound in the next few years as electorate common sense seems to have gone down the toilet and the foxes are in the henhouse once again. This makes fertile ground for cultivating wit that can be wielded like a club, and we all know satire can be a far more persuasive weapon than a dozen debates.
Criteria: A cause or observation that something is dreadfully wrong with the status quo and all hell will break loose if changes aren’t made. A sharp tongue and an absurd imagination are the preferred tools to the trade.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Bomb – Stanley Kubrick (1964)
The military/industrial complex gets all the disrespect it has coming from Kubrick’s Cold War farce where the primary perpetrator of a nuclear crisis, played by a brilliantly manic Sterling Hayden, fears the Commies are after his “precious bodily fluids”. That Peter Sellers has three roles is just icing on the cake. Of interest to true film buffs: bits of the flyover scenery from the fighter planes were colorized and used in the trippy sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room”
Network – Sidney Lumet (1976)
When Network was released, TV industry hotshots dismissed its portrayal of television as pure fantasy. One has to wonder what they would think now. Vicious and poetic, Paddy Chayefsky hamstrings TV only as a means of getting at societal attitudes in general. After all, TV provides us with what we want to see. Its one of the few films to capture nominations in all of Oscar’s acting categories – with two in the Best Actor – then winning three out of the four. References to then-current TV shows may be lost on younger viewers, but the film’s main thrust – especially the on-screen rants of Howard Beal (Peter Finch) – resonate as loudly today as they did fifty years ago.
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
le charme discret de la bourgeoisie – Luis Bunuel (1972)
For the demurely privileged upper middle class, life can be a real bitch when one can’t simply sit down to a dinner party without being constantly interrupted by reality. In his surreal take on the cardinal sin of rudeness, the late Spanish film icon Luis Bunuel exposes his socio-political leanings as he lances the bourgeois bubble of perfection and bliss, and exposes it for the blister that it is. Great cast, brilliant execution.
“We are not against the students, but what can you do with a room full of flies? You take a fly-swatter and Bang! Bang!
Ničija zemlja (No Man’s Land) – Danis Tanović (2001)
The horribly-tragic conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the setting for the argument that, in war, there can be no winners – especially if you’re the poor sucker laying on a land mine. Doomed Cera has no choice but to lay there and witness two wounded soldiers from opposing sides flagrantly argue their points-of-view that matter little to him, followed by the arrival of UN Peacekeepers who have no solution to the situation and a Christiane Amanpour-like English reporter who is determined to make sense, or at least a sensation, of the whole thing. Supposedly the most awarded first feature film in movie history (42 major awards including an Oscar), it’s a film for anyone who thinks that armed conflict is a solution to anything.
“A pessimist thinks things can’t be worse. An optimist knows they can.”
The Ruling Class – Peter Medak (1972)
What could be more eviscerating to the British class system than taking a mad-as-a-hatter lord who thinks he’s Jesus Christ and, through the influence of family and society, drive him into thinking he’s Jack the Ripper? Complete with the occasional song and dance routine, we have to thank the film gods that Peter O’Toole collided with this absurdist Peter Barnes play (written in the quietude of a public library, no less) and turns in a totally balls-to-the-wall performance that only he could deliver.
“I stand outside myself, watching myself watching myself. I smile, I smile, I smile.”
There’s plenty of great material out there. Let me know your choices, but be careful – choosing favourites in this genre exposes the viewer’s personal proclivities. Ah, what the hell – go for it!