When a filmmaker wants to make a political statement or take a stand on a social issue, they have to translate it for the medium. Politicians make speeches, filmmakers make films — otherwise they are just making a stump speech.
They can fold it into a narrative, such as a political thriller (The Manchurian Candidate, Syriana) or maybe a courtroom drama (The Accused, Philadelphia). They can make a more abstract examination, something beyond traditional narrative or documentary technique (L’age D’or, the Qatsi trilogy, I Am Cuba). One of the most effective approaches, as evidenced by the long history of political cartoons in print, is satire.
A “High-Concept” satire is a film that has a unique and succinct premise. You want to avoid seeming preachy, or sanctimonious, regardless of how deep your convictions are, and creating a catchy concept to stitch your themes through is a great way to grab an audiences attention and keep it. Even better, make them laugh. There is no purer reaction to a film than laughter. When you find something that funny, it is almost an uncontrolled response.
Not every film on this list is bound to make you roll with laughter, but each has its own target of satirical ridicule. Below are the choices for 10 of the best high-concept films that work as sociopolitical satires. Some are light as a feather, others are darker and more foreboding, but each of them uses genre and humor to find incredible insight.
There are countless others that could have made this list, from Thank You For Smoking to Repo Man to Bob Roberts, but each of the films below encapsulate what makes a truly great satire: exaggerating reality to explore its ills.
10. Mr. Freedom (1969)
William Klein was most known for his fashion photography in the 1950s, but he was a bit of a renaissance man. He was a painter, a soldier, a photographer, and for a period, a filmmaker. He was born in New York, but moved to France after serving in the war. There was no love lost between the artist and his native country, as plainly evidenced by Mr. Freedom, his second of only three fiction feature films.
This one is an uncompromising and, frankly, borderline insane parody of American militarization — a parody of an America that, in Klein’s view, had bought into its own image of the hero-savior, spreading democracy and defeating communism all across the globe.
If you were to name a more modern equivalent to Mr. Freedom, it would have to be Team America: World Police, both in theme, topicality and comic sensibility (it could be said that it is somehow more insane starring live actors instead of puppets, except that there are puppets in Mr. Freedom, too). This is a ridiculous movie and proud of it. Mr. Freedom himself invokes the qualities of a comic book superhero, and his visage (and makeshift uniform) is one of the best running gags of the film.
He is tall, strong and handsome, covered from head to toe in red, white and blue football pads — and for some reason he sports a jet fighter’s helmet, for good measure. Mr. Freedom is Captain America for the Vietnam War, deconstructed and reassembled as a critique of American foreign intervention.
When France is under threat of communism, Mr. Freedom comes to save the day, whether or not anybody asks [or wants] him to. He mostly moves through the world punching, insulting, and occasionally raping and/or killing anyone who gets in his way. He is a brute with a “daddy knows best” mentality and a tendency toward racism.
Klein was not going for subtlety here, creating a film that is not just critical, but a brutal assault on the way he felt America conducted itself at home and abroad. In a certain sense it almost belongs to the pantheon of films spoof films like Airplane! and Spaceballs, only with its absurd comic sights set on a parody politics instead of genre (and set to kill).
9. They Live (1988)
Somewhat of a less talked-about John Carpenter film, They Live puts the object of its satire right in the premise: put on these supernatural glasses, see the truth about the world, and the people, all around you.
Wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays Nada (literally, ‘Nothing’). With his glorious mullet and plaid shirt (and eventually a shotgun, of course), he is our jacked Everyman, a drifter looking for work who ends up stumbling backward onto the hidden, menacing truths about society and machinations of the powers that be.
They Live is primarily remembered for three moments: an absurdly overlong fist fight (that has been parodied to death), an iconic line of dialogue about having no more bubblegum left, and the brilliant sequence following the discovery of the glasses’ powers, where the film’s message is laid bare. Nada walks down a main street, by shops and newsstands and fellow citizens. But when he puts on these magic glasses and takes a second look at all the ads and signs, he sees through their artifice once and for all:
A billboard advertising “Come to the Caribbean” over the image of a half naked girl on the beach becomes “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” A storefront sign turns to “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”. A wide shot reveals a plethora of others: ”BUY,” “WATCH TV,” “CONSUME,” “OBEY” and a tiny satellite atop a traffic light emits a subliminal signal over and over again: “SLEEP … SLEEP …”
At the end of the sequence he realizes it is not just the things around him that have hidden agendas, but also the people, some of whom are not as they seem. The glasses reveal their true identities as aliens, with creature design that suggests something between a well-dressed zombie and a skeleton with good hair.
That the glasses also show the world in black and white is interesting, as if implying that the filmmakers see the truth as simpler than what we see. It is also a bit of an extension of Carpenter’s B-movie heritage, an aesthetic nod to the science-fiction films of the 1950s with their plots of communist paranoia and cold war intrigue.
It’s like watching Snake Pliskin from Escape From New York in an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and similar to Big Trouble In Little China in terms the way Carpenter embraces the inherent silliness underneath.
Carpenter feeds his sci-fi parable off of classic paranoid conspiracy theories like that of the “lizard men” (or the New World Order, or the Illuminati, et al) who control the world, keeping the masses numb as they reign over them. His point is simpler, an anti-consumerism, anti-establishment rant sold as a B genre flick (his favorite).
8. A Nous La Liberte (1931)
An early talkie with minimal sync sound, this French classic (Freedom For Us, in English) may not exactly be surrealist fare, but Rene Clair’s melding of classical storytelling and modernist design produces a work that feels not unlike a dream.
His contemporary, Jean Vigo, would come to partly define ‘poetic realism’ in his tragically short career, and A Nous La Liberte’s tone has in it some of those same affects. Clair’s vision has the purity and essence of a fairy tale; simple, neat by design, with elaborate and fantastical set pieces and, in the end, a moral (of sorts).
[One of those set pieces went on to cause a significant amount of controversy when Charlie Chaplin was accused of stealing ideas from it for Modern Times, another classic comedy in its own right, but it is difficult to call it coincidence when you view their individual “stuck in the machinery” sequences. Rene Clair was known for his graceful attitude, and never held anything personally against Chaplin, who always maintained innocence.]
In the film, a convict becomes a rich industrialist after escaping from prison with a fellow inmate. Now that he is a success, his ex-cell mate returns. It is partly a comedy of manners, touching on slapstick territory. Clair offers inventive visual flourishes, in particular with the production design.
The contrast between the sets for the prison and the factory is drummed up in the often expressionist set design, and the thoughtful choreography makes explicit comparisons between the two settings; the guards and the bosses, the prisoners and the workers, work and jail. Acute images of workers make specific reference to a life spent in prison, and much of the film’s best comic moments come from disparity between the classes.
Clair would come under criticism in the time just before his home country’s highly influential New Wave. Dismissed as “cute” and “simple,” outdated, it would be years before his work would be appreciated again for its elegant, playful visual style and, not any less importantly, its open heart.
A Nous La Liberte is a film about social order and industrialization, but its attitude is so incredibly light, and its ending borderline absurd in its strange vision of utopia. It is, first and foremost, a happy-making experience. Its politics boil down to the simplest of human notions: be happy, be free.
7. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become surprisingly influential figures in the world of comedy, from their origins in crude stop-motion animation, to the big screen, and most recently to Broadway. Team America, “The Book of Mormon” and even BASEketball each bristle with a bizarre, idiosyncratic vision.
After the gigantic success of “South Park” on television, it was inevitable that the franchise would make the journey to the big screen, and in 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, it did—and broke box office records for R-rated comedies.
In the TV series, “Terrence and Phillip” was the show-within-the-show, a Meta stand-in for the series itself (or at least a version of how their critics perceive them).
In the movie, it gets even more self-reflexive, as the plot revolves around the kids wanting to see the new R-rated Terrence and Philip movie, “Asses of Fire” (something many real-life “South Park” fans under 17, which comprised a huge swatch of their fan base, would relate to). Their parents don’t like the potty humor and bad language they have heard about, and their ban on the film turns into a national crises and, ultimately, a brutally violent war between the US and Canada (home of Terrence and Phillip).
Perhaps the reason they have such an interesting cross section in their audience is the pairing of a juvenile (but clever) sense of humor with real social commentary. The combination is biting and feels transgressive, a quality of rebellion that is essential is making something this counter-cultural.
Among the many targets Parker and Stone aim their sights at in the film, the most pointed jabs (and the ultimate crux of the film) focus on the strange discrepancies in America’s taste for what is considered “objectionable.”
Kyle’s mom is the stand-in for a history of hypocrisy and repression, propped up to represent everything they dislike about America’s more puritanical tendencies. “Remember what the MPAA says: horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words! That’s what this war is all about!”
The anarchic plotting also includes a plea to Brian Boitano for wisdom, a parody of “Les Miserables,” a V-chip that stops kids from swearing, lots of awesome and mostly really good music, and a plot to take over the world from Satan and his emotionally abusive lover Saddam Hussein. And even with all that mayhem, the most surprising thing about the film is how intelligently it interweaves all this uncanny chaos to stitch a singular, hilarious vision.
6. Bamboozled (2000)
Damon Wayans stars as a Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated TV writer who has had enough of his job. He is constantly rejected because his ideas are not seen as “black enough.”
In an attempt to get back, or maybe prove a point, to his white bosses, he pitches a new series: a modern day minstrel show, but instead of white actors in black face, it will instead star black actorss… who also wear “even blacker face.” It feeds into every offensive stereotype in the book, and probably makes up a few new ones. He is begging to get fired, but… they love it! And it becomes a sensation.
There is a sense that Spike Lee has a similar thought in his head to make this movie. Lee’s best work comes out of his self-righteousness, a trait that has made him tougher as a celebrity persona, but keeps him held in high esteem as an artist. He is a thoughtful, politically charged mind, and when he has something to say, you can count of him not pulling his punches.
Bamboozled may not be one of his biggest successes. It doesn’t have the prestige of Malcolm X or the immediacy of Do the Right Thing, it is not one of his more autobiographical films nor one of his rare forays into genre filmmaking.
This is a very singular work to his filmography, though it does deal with similar issues of a racially charged and divided America. Delacroix realizes his would-be joke is bringing him the fortune he was looking for, but at the cost of being seen as a traitor to his race. He hates his own show and, ultimately, himself.
America (and particularly the media) still has a very complicated and sensitive relationship with race. The history of “black sitcoms” and “black TV” in general has created new problems of media segregation, and proves to have underserved their purpose (to represent those of us who feel unrepresented). Comedy is a powerful force, and it allows for some truly inventive ways to approach making a point.
The success of “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” (the title of the show Delacroix had pitched) has an exaggerated and highly unlikely success story, but that’s what comedy does to reality, it stretches it. Like a funhouse mirror, parts of it are exaggerated – but it is, fundamentally, a true reflection.