Satire is a corrective form of humor but it can take different forms; in fact, the five films analyzed in this essay are all satires but belong in various sub-categories. The first one, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, creates a lasting image of the industrialized world’s dehumanization, while Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is a classic of black humor, Woody Allen’s Sleeper is a parody of futuristic fantasies, but one important objective that these films have in common is to get the audience to laugh.
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Sydney Lumet’s Network does not try for laughs, other than a smile of recognition, and at the other extreme South Park uses humor to get the audience to laugh at their own prejudices. In all cases, these films set out to make this a better world and all have, in a small way, achieved their goal; that is, each of these films has contributed an image that has become part of the collective conscience.
Modern Times, originally called The Masses, is remembered mostly for the images created in the film’s first twenty minutes, showing how machines have taken over our lives. Even though this film was made nine years after the introduction of “talkies,” Chaplin used titles instead of dialogue, perhaps because he had had his greatest successes in silent film. The theme is announced when the credits are shown over a ticking clock, implying that time is money, and the opening shots show sheep being herded, followed by working men and women emerging from the subway. The scene for which the film is best-known centers on Chaplin working on an assembly line, tightening two nuts over and over.
The factory is spacious and clean but human beings are insignificant next to the huge machines they operate. The president of the company, called Electro-Steel, sits in an office with little to do but watch the operations on a film screen, bark orders at the muscular man who controls the speed of the lines, and work on a jig-saw puzzle. There is even a screen in the toilets so the president can make sure no one is wasting the company’s time.
A mechanical salesman presents a machine that can feed workers while they are on the line, thereby making a lunch break unnecessary. It is tested on Chaplin with predictable results. Eventually, the process of tightening nuts all day causes Chaplin to have a nervous breakdown. After that the film “gets back to the old Chaplin comedy pattern,” says Theodore Huff, abandoning the theme of workers being dehumanized by the machines they operate; in fact, Huff regards the last two-thirds of the film as “a sort of anticlimax to the opening idea” (252-253).
Chaplin himself claimed not to be aware of any social significance in his work. He aimed to entertain, not to lecture his audience. Modern Times, says Chaplin, started as “an impulse to say something about the way life is being standardized and channelized, and men turned into machines” (qtd. in Huff 256). Huff points out that the film is not opposed to capitalism but that it supports the individual in his or her struggle against mechanization.
All that is shown clearly in the first section of the film, specifically when Chaplin is swallowed up by the giant machine as if through its digestive system. It is an image that lives on in people’s minds as a warning against letting machines, or technology, take over too many of our functions. In that way, it has made us more aware of the dangers inherent in progress.
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Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, described as a “nihilistic satire” by Mario Falsetto (8), was inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 when the world came within a hair’s breadth of blowing itself up. Kubrick bought the rights to the novel, Red Alert, by Peter George but when he began writing the screenplay he kept rejecting the ideas that came to him because he was afraid people would laugh at the film.
Finally, he realized that “the things I was throwing out were the things that were most truthful.” After all, Kubrick said, “what could be more absurd than … two superpowers willing to wipe out all human life because of … political differences that will seem as meaningless to people a hundred years from now as the theological conflicts of the Middle Ages appear to us today? (Qtd. in Gelmis 40). He, therefore, decided to turn it into a black comedy in which much of the humor derives from the nightmarish context in which ordinary things happen. (Gelmis 41).
In the finished screenplay General Jack D. Ripper, who commands a Strategic Air Command (SAC) wing, suffers from paranoid fantasies about the Communist contamination of the free world’s water supply with fluoride. As a result, he launches an attack on the Soviet Union to protect the precious bodily fluids of all Americans.
Even though the president does his best to prevent a nuclear war, some men in the War Room agree with Ripper, arguing that it makes sense to attack the enemy before the USSR can close the nuclear arms gap, the missile gap, and, in the end, the mineshaft gap. General Buck Turgidson says that by having the inevitable nuclear war now the US would end as the victor. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed,” Turgidson adds, estimating the number of American deaths at ten to twenty dead, “Tops! Depending on the breaks” (qtd. in Brustein 139). That is the kind of thinking Kubrick abhors but which the nuclear theorists accepted as part of maintaining America’s dominance in the world.
The reason Dr. Strangelove remains a widely viewed film is precise because Kubrick understood the strangeness of the Cold War in which men did not fight each other but competed to see who had the biggest rockets and who could make the biggest bangs. The love of technology replaced romantic love, according to Kubrick and collaborator Terry Southern, and the politics of war could be reduced to consensual relations between the Buck Turgidsons of the military and the Merkin Muffley’s of the civilian administration, all orchestrated by mad scientists in wheelchairs.
The names of many of the film’s characters, such as Ripper who is named after an English serial killer, President Merkin Muffley whose name consists of a pubic wig and the highly suggestive muff, and of course that of the turgid buck in a general’s uniform, all “suggest the connection between war, sexual obsession and the male sex drive” (Dirks 2). Similarly, casting Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong, the pilot of the most sophisticated piece of technology in the world carrying the most dangerous weapons in the world, shows how primitive the motives underlying war are, and how urgent.
The film made a tremendous impact on viewers, all of whom had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as the first two decades of the nuclear age. In America, a whole generation had been raised to Duck and Cover in case of a nuclear attack that could come at any tick of the clock. One consequence of Dr. Strangelove is that it changed Hollywood’s idea of satire. The film crossed many of Hollywood’s self-imposed boundaries, most of all by allowing the possibility that America’s armed forces and its administration could be so reckless and stupid as to put the planet at risk.
It helped legitimize the growing feeling among Americans that their government was no longer responsive to the will of the people, a suspicion that was confirmed by the escalation of the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, and the counterculture around the time the film was first released. Another film, Fail-Safe, did a serious treatment of the novel and is now regarded as just another Cold War film, whereas Dr. Strangelove is a classic, voted #3 on the American Film Institute’s list of all-time comedies (Smith). The lasting image we take from this film is that of Pickens riding the phallic bomb down into the center of Laputa, Spanish for “the whore,” one strengthens the film’s main theme as well as its satirical power.
Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper is not so much a successor to Dr. Strangelove as Modern Times. On the surface, the film satirizes futuristic fantasies as well as the irresistible lure of technology and automation. Like Chaplin, Allen uses the “reduction ad absurdum” method, according to Marc S. Reisch, and probably better than anyone before him. Absurdity, according to Allen, is defined as “why existence is often considered silly, particularly by men who wear brown and white shoes” (qtd. in Reisch 143). As the organizing principle of the script, that is rather too loose, accounting for “the gag-to-gag structure of Sleeper” (Bailey 33) and making some reviewers wonder if it is a satire at all.
Is Sleeper a satire? It contains satirical moments in which science or technology is held up to ridicule. It even has a kind of homage to the Modern Times assembly line when Miles has to operate a huge computer with spinning reels of tape. However, like Chaplin, Allen soon returns to what he enjoyed doing most, satirizing his screen persona’s contemporaries, most of whom are now forgotten. Albert Shanker, the man Miles said started a nuclear war, was president of the American Federation of Teachers at the time the film was made and is now mostly remembered because of this reference.
Gregg Bachman has analyzed the Jewish elements of the film and sees a “Holocaust consciousness” pervading Sleeper along with a concern about Jewish identity and individuality (182). The seder conducted by the two most gentile characters is funny but says little about Jewish identity. The fact is that most scenes and lines have only one purpose and that is to set up a Woody Allen one-liner. As a tool of social change, Sleeper is ineffective or at least dated to the point of being obsolete, but the images of Allen as a robot and getting tangled up in the computer tapes also live on as a warning against humanity submitting to science.
The network is a classic satire and a classic film. It is a successor to Modern Times in the sense that it, too, protests against the dehumanization of the individual but unlike Chaplin, Lumet, and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky sustain their vision throughout the film. The plot centers on the fact that the UBS network is desperate for better ratings since those determine how many dollars per minute they can charge advertisers.
The corporation which has bought the network implements a plan to make the network more cost-effective and pushes the executives to come up with better shows, including the news. One of those executives is Diana Christensen, a career woman for whom high ratings are better than sex. In one memorable scene she describes the 1970s American public as “clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression, they’ve turned off, shot up, and fucked themselves limp and nothing else helps” (qtd. in Gehrig 49), people desperate for entertainment, thereby depicting herself as a servant of the people working for a network which has an obligation to serve its community.
However, as the film shows, money and power dominate the corporate world and any other motive is viewed with suspicion. She is unstoppable in her pursuit, using television’s power and money to seduce Marxist radicals and her body to seduce executives. Howard Beale, “the mad prophet of the airwaves,” is a man with severe mental problems but he interests her only in so far as he can get a larger share of the viewing public; and when he becomes inconvenient she has no qualms about having him killed on the air.
The network serves “as a metaphor for the growth of the megacorporate state that progressively dehumanizes and makes passive the individual” (Cunningham 222), and that is what the older generation of television executives fight against but theirs is a losing battle. They represent the idea of television in a time when it was seen as a medium capable of transmitting the best of the nation’s culture and of educating the public. The scenes set in the corporate boardroom make it clear that in today’s world the concept of nation is obsolete.
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The corporation is more powerful than the FBI, and even intimidates the federal government. Once Beale announces that the holding corporation has been taken over by a Saudi Arabian concern, the American public rebels but not for long. This is the future, Arthur Jensen explains to Beale, who then preaches Jensen’s “corporate cosmology” with as much fervor as he once urged people to value their individualism.
No doubt Chayefsky and Lumet hoped to change the networks and the viewers’ passive acceptance of whatever the networks dished out, but if that is the case they must have been disappointed. As the Fox network shows, many of their ideas have become part of televised entertainment. However, the image of Howard Beale shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” lives on, an enduring reminder that there is a choice.
In South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, the satire is directed at many targets and yet is unified around a defense of freedom of speech, in the sense that parents and teachers often pay more attention to correct speech than correct behavior: “Horrific, deplorable violence is OKAY, as long as people DON’T SAY ANY NAUGHTY WORDS!” (IMDb). The secondary targets are society’s sacred cows, including the government, the military, motherhood, movie musicals, celebrities, religion, and even God and the Devil.
The happy ending is also a spoof of Hollywood in that the moral, when it is finally revealed, amounts to little more than that mothers should learn to put the blame where it belongs, not turn minor aberrations into an international crisis; and Kenny’s assumption into a kind of Muslim paradise is perhaps not age-appropriate. It is a film that could not possibly have made it to the screen before the Sixties.
The fact that the film relied heavily on foul language raised a few eyebrows but, as film critic Kevin N. Laforest says, “In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a need for South Park. But in our society fueled by hypocrisy, greed, and intolerance a film like this is essential to remind us what freedom of speech is all about.”
Actually, the social effect of this film is general rather than specific, producing a sense of catharsis, a liberating feeling that nothing is sacred, that we are all losers who have no control over our own lives, so there is little point in trying. But then it is Satan who restores our hope by saying, “But I can change, I can change. / I can learn to keep my promises, I swear it / I’ll open up my heart and I will share it. Any minute now, I will be born again” (Parker et al.). Will that be the film’s contribution to the culture?
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Huff, Theodore. Charlie Chaplin. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951.
Kubrick, Stanley, dir. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures, 1964.
Laforest, Kevin N. “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” Montreal Film Journal, 2002. Web.
Lumet, Sydney, Dir. Network. Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. MGM 1976.
Parker, Trey, dir. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Screenplay by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Pam Brady. Paramount Pictures & Warner Bros., 1999.
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Smith, Gary. “One Hundred Years, One Hundred Laughs.” The American Film Institute. Web.