From 'Spinal Tap' to 'Machete' to 'Black Dynamite': My favorite movie parodies put the machete to reality
When you think about movie parodies — we could be talking Airplane!, the Austin Powers films, or one of those great old Mad magazine satires, which were really the first place that a lot of us, as kids, got to “see” movies made for adults — the key to a terrific send-up would seem to be the art of exaggeration, pure and simple. But there’s a particular brand of cinematic parody that I love, at this point, almost more than any other. And though it does employ the art of exaggeration (in very, very deadpan ways), far more than that, it uses the art of almost unbelievably sly and subtle re-creation. We’re talking parody that’s so perfect in its detail, so utterly and deviously close-to-the-bone, that it almost threatens to become the thing it’s making fun of.
The latest example of this school is Black Dynamite, the madcap-brilliant new feature lampoon of the blaxploitation films of the ’70s. The movie, which opens this weekend, is a dizzying and hilarious experience, yet to call it a “spoof” would be almost too crude. Black Dynamite contains virtually no gags in the prankishly hyperbolic, over-the-top spirit of, say, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (or the decidedly second-rate Undercover Brother). Instead, it duplicates the look and feel of the low-budget superman-ghetto-hustler films of the Nixon era, and it does so with such wicked affection and exactitude that you just about believe you’re watching one of them. Then, by drawing a smidgeon of extra attention to the tell-tale details (the bad acting and even worse lighting; the hero’s contradictory blend of Super Fly anger and Marvin Gaye-on-the-cover-of-What’s Going On compassion; the way that his entrances are always heralded by an ego-stoking soul-sister funk-chant of his name), the movie invites you to laugh till you drop at everything about the blaxploitation genre that is hopelessly, ludicrously trapped in its time. I would call this kind of comedy funny, but also profound. It does more than make us giggle. It links us, in a delighted and observational I Love the ’70s (or ’80s) (or ’90s) way, to the past.
Much as I cherish this brand of satire, there haven’t really been too many comedies like Black Dynamite. You can see the roots of the parody-as-re-creation genre in Young Frankenstein, a movie whose Borscht Belt-on-acid laughs depended, in no small part, on the way that Mel Brooks played them off against the stagy, fogbound Expressionist backdrop of old Universal horror films. And also in This Is Spinal Tap, which pilloried the follies of 1980s head-bangers by turning their shaggy-brained narcissism up to 11 (in other words, by just barely exaggerating the preposterous truth).
The movie that I think really invented the genre, however, is Amazon Women on the Moon, a 1987 spoof (co-directed by Joe Dante) that featured a parody of ’50s B-movie science-fiction films in which the chintzy sets, bland preppie acting, and Los Angeles-desert-as-convenient-stand-in-for-the-lunar-surface weren’t simply the backdrops for jokes; they were the joke. Another stepping stone in the form was Scream, that classic slasher-movie parody that also worked as a bona fide slasher movie, thus intensifying how fear turns into comedy even when it’s played straight.
But the masterpiece of the genre so far has to be Grindhouse — by which I mean the Robert Rodriguez half, Planet Terror, which skewered, with eerie precision, the slovenly garishness of an early-’80s global-schlock zombie pic, and also that movie’s fantastic set of fake trailers. (Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, much as I love it, has too much QT octane to count as pure genre goof.)
To see what I mean, here, just below, is my favorite three minutes from Grindhouse: Rodriguez’ trailer for Machete, a no-budget piece of Walking Tall-goes-kaboom-in-the-barrio “ethnic market” pulp that manages to be an impish (and rib-tickling) piece of cinema by packing in, at the same time that it winkishly deconstructs, a treasure trove of irredeemably pandering, sub-cinematic clichés. The meat-faced, pock-marked, not-from-Hollywood hero, the slam-bang editing and sudden, lurching freeze frames, the awkward mishmash of Catholic Latino sentimentality and faux-Taxi Driver weapons fetishism, all tied together by a narrator who warns the “bad guys” that “They just f—ed with the wrong Mexican!”…to watch the Machete trailer is to see a movie with absolutely no art turned into a pinnacle of comedy art.
So what do you think? Have I left out any great examples of satire-as-re-creation? And am I nuts to be so nuts about this quintessential movie-buff comedy genre?