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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Laughing with you/Laughing at you

Well, I have again returned from the CWRU Film Society's SF Movie Marathon, which makes this about #20 for me. (I've been there enough times I've seen Zardoz twice there.) As last time, I've been left thinking about SF movies— in this case "SF/horror" movies since there was a zombie/undead theme going on. In particular, I've been left thinking about the differences between parody and homage.












If you look to the left here, we see four films I saw during the marathon. (Shaun of the Dead was one of the three "surprise" flicks, for the commenter who asked; the other two were Ice Pirates and The Day the Earth Stood Still.) The four share a common thread in that they are rather loving reworkings of earlier genre material done with tongue firmly in (through?) cheek.

I probably won't hear much of an argument if I say Young Frankenstein is the best of this lot. (And IMO the best film Mel Brooks ever did.) I may hear more of a complaint if I say that Planet Terror, is the least of the four. Yes, I rank it below Black Sheep. Why? It comes down between the difference between parody and homage.

The dictionary definition of the two mostly take the tack that parody is imitation with ridicule, whereas homage is imitation with respect. Which, when we talk about films, is close but not really exact. Parody can be done with great affection for the source material. In this case, parody is making fun of structural elements or genre tropes, taking them further than they normally go for the sake of highlighting them. This can be done with ridicule or, as in Planet Terror, with great affection. In Planet Terror the attempt is give an extra postmodern level by inserting splices, scratches, film burns, trailers, and missing reels to mimic the experience of cheap urban 70's filmgoing. Only Young Frankenstein can match it for authentically reproducing the feeling of its source material.

So why do I think it the lesser work?

To explain, let me define "homage" in this context. A film, IMO, counts as a homage when it imitates the source material faithfully enough to actually become an example of the genre. It may be self-aware, but it isn't (when well done) self-conscious. Most important, the humor is self contained. A proper homage stands alone as a film and will work for a viewer who has no prior experience in the genre being paid tribute to.

In contrast, a "parody" relies a great deal on the viewer's prior experience.

A good part of Planet Terror, especially the missing reel gag, requires the viewer to understand the source to get the gag. For someone unversed in 70's schlock, the self-conscious reproduction of all the form's flaws will, at best, come across as slipshod screenwriting.

However, while a diet of zombie apocalypse cinema makes Shaun of the Dead a richer experience, anyone can enjoy the film, even if you think George Romero is the host of an Italian cooking show (and today... brains!).

Young Frankenstein is hilarious even for people who've never seen the Universal original that it gives tribute to so faithfully. Even Black Sheep, a gory New Zealand effort that owes a lot to early Peter Jackson, while it has the DNA of a 1970 wildlife-gone-amok film, has smartly decided not to rely on the viewer's knowledge of that particular micro-genre.

Planet Terror is redeemed by the "cool shit" factor, and is loved by many for that alone. But it unfortunately so in love with its subject and in such a self-conscious and self-referential manner that as the movie proceeds, the less accessible it becomes, until it largely falls apart as a film and devolves into a sort of uber-sketch; a bloated version of the fake trailers that preceded it.

5 comments:

Michelle said...

That's "Frankenstien"

Michelle said...

und Stellen Sie...die Kerze...zurück!

Kris Johnson said...

Like you, I had no real experience with the 1970's schlock (or "grindhouse") moviegoing experience. I wasn't old enough to see such fare without a parent or guardian until the late 1980's, so the degree to which Planet Terror is an effective parody in my case is limited by my experiences since the early 1990's. Much as I've been told that seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on video in the comfort of your own home simply can't compare to the experience of seeing it at a midnight showing with people dressing up as the characters and throwing toast, I realize much of the parody/homage in Planet Terror and Death Proof is second-hand for me.

That didn't stop me from picking up both DVDs last month; I have a soft spot in my head for schlock and I recognize Rodriguez's and Tarantino's intent, even if I can't fully appreciate it.

Puttywad said...

Ice Pirates and Yor, Hunter From The Future were my two favourite flicks as a kid (I'm 34).

Sounds like it was a great festival. Young Frankenstien is unbeatable. Back in the late 80s my High School photography teacher would play it every term.

Just a heads-up. The guy plagiarized by that retarded lady regarding the ferrets was on Talk of the Nation (NPR) this afternoon. Was having lunch and heard it - immediately thinking of Swann's ranting.

Audio'll be up soon enough if you're interested.

http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=5

maryturzillo said...

Oh my, those posters bring back memories!

I've spent the last week seeing movies much closer to home, the only SF one being "I Am Legend" (much to be admired).

I also watched a couple of episodes of "Big Love," which seemed a bit like SF to me --

And congrats on finishing the novel! Another fabulous read unleashed unto the world! Yay!