Monday, October 1, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            How does satire work? By taking accepted social customs and attitudes, exaggerating them a bit, and making us see how ridiculous they are.

            Fair enough when the accepted social customs etc. seem sensible at first sight but don’t stand up to scrutiny.

            But it is really hard to satirise what is already self-evidently absurd.

            Try satirising the inanities of our “news” services, the excesses of the recording industry or extremist political movements and you just can’t do it, because all these things are already ridiculous.

            A satirist can add no perception that we do not already have.

            A piece of film lore. In 1935, shortly after Hitler came to power, the French movie maker Rene Clair made a film about a dictator who takes over a small bankrupt kingdom and forces his subjects to do ridiculous things, such as going down on all fours and barking at him. It was called Le Dernier Milliardaire (The Last Millionaire). Intended to ridicule Hitler, it was a notorious flop both artistically and commercially.


            Because what Hitler preached and did was already more ridiculous than what any light-hearted satirical film could say.

            Some years later, Charlie Chaplin had his own go at Hitler in his preachy film The Great Dictator. Some critics have dutifully praised it simply because it is an anti-Hitler film. But in truth its satire misfires (except, maybe, in the one really funny scene where the microphones shrink away from the ranting dictator as he makes a speech). It is hard to sit through and even harder to laugh at – once again because the reality was both more monstrous and more ridiculous than any satire could make it.

            Another anecdote comes to mind. Malcolm Muggeridge claimed in one of his memoirs that when he was editor of the (now defunct) humour magazine Punch, he got his writers to satirise a forthcoming royal tour by drawing up a mock itinerary of all the places HRH would be likely to visit, and the things she would be likely to say. But the article was withdrawn when the queen’s real itinerary was announced, and it was found to include most of the places that Punch’s staffers had suggested in jest.

            Once again, reality trumped satire.

            Now why am I preaching this obvious sermon this week?
            I have just read a novel that gives a negative account of New Zealand’s prime minister (under a fictitious name) and his inner circle. A novel that tells me the prime minister is morally bankrupt, evasive and interested only in retaining power.

            I thought of turning this into a really funny piece of satire.

            Imagine the real prime minister of New Zealand pretending in parliament that he doesn’t have the time to read a police report on one of his ministers; pretending that there was nothing amiss in the way his minister disguised the dodgy funding of a political election campaign; not admitting that he’s only covering for the minister because the man represents one of the ruling party’s few coalition partners; and avoiding direct answers to direct questions.

            I think this would all be pretty funny as a piece of satire, though it’s hardly likely that any man bearing the august responsibility of being prime minister would act in such a puerile way.

            On second thoughts, maybe my intended piece of satire is too far-fetched.


  1. Satire is the mark of a healthy society and could hardly have been healthier than the time when Spitting Image was exposing the affectation and hypocrisy of the Reagan and Thatcher regimes.
    In this country we have barely a pusillanimous nod to clever satire through what look like the reined-in efforts of cartoonists in the dailies.
    Perhaps Riddell from the Observer could do a sojourn here, dipping his nib and dealing with what Gordon McLauchlan called the 'perfectly passionless palliative face' of the PM that is ruining this country.

  2. i think that too often satire is regarded as the same as caricature. To my mind what newspaper cartoonists provide is caricature, that is exaggerated physical features usually of a politician. We used to hear that the long-ago TV series "Mcphail and Gadsby" was 'satire'. Nonsense! David Mcphail did a clever comic impersonation of Rob Muldoon but it was hardly satire in the way that Jonathon Swift, Evelyn Waugh, or Alexander Pope were. I cannot think of any true NZ satires that go deep and scathe, unless, of course, John Mulgan's "Man Alone" is a subtle satire on 1930s leftists.