A Travesty of a Mockery of a Sham: Political Comedies

Even in an age when war and protests dominate headlines, few weapons – real or rhetorical – pose a greater threat to politicians and social orders than a well-timed gag. Humor can subtly or with overwhelming raucousness expose corruption, injustice, hypocrisy, or just plain foolishness. Unlike demagoguery or intimidation, an incisive joke cannot be resisted, only gracefully accepted or ignored in the hope that no one else was listening. Unlike assassination, it is martyr-proof.

Released the same year that Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup depicts a cartoonish cabal of dictators, bureaucrats, and moneyed interests almost as greedy, buffoonish, and sociopathic as the ones dismantling democracy in Europe. Almost forty years later, Woody Allen's Bananas lampooned the Cuban revolution by recasting its most messianic figure, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, with the director's trademark neurotic. In the same decade, surrealist enfant terrible Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie would leave no institution of Western civilization – whether church, state, or fine dining – unscathed. Finally, recent politics offer much to critique, and 2009’s hilarious satire, In the Loop pokes fun at the absurdity and ineptitude of our highest leaders.

This series was curated by Northwestern Radio, Television + Film student Andrew Van Beek.

In the Loop

Saturday, January 15, 2011 7:00 PM
(Armando Iannucci, 2009, UK, color, 35mm, 106 minutes)

A bumbling British government minister (Tom Hollander) makes a verbal snafu during a TV interview, inadvertently backing a U.S. war in the Middle East. Consequently, he becomes the stooge for powerful Pentagon politicos (James Gandolfini and Mimi Kennedy) and a tool for their Machiavellian dealings. Lauded as one of the best films of 2009, this razor-sharp, laugh-out-loud political satire pokes fun at the absurdity and ineptitude of our highest leaders and features some of the most hilarious dialogue since the heyday of screwball comedy.

Duck Soup

Friday, January 21, 2011 7:00 PM
(Leo McCarey, 1933, USA, B/W, 35mm, 69 minutes)

This classic Marx Brothers romp follows Rufus Firefly (Groucho Marx) who is appointed leader of the penniless nation of Freedonia just as the neighboring Sylvania plans to attack. Though first and foremost an anarchic comedy in which the gag trumps any consideration for plot or theme, Duck Soup's greatest punch line may be that Groucho’s corrupt, lunatic dictator would play the straight man against his real world counterparts. With a post-World War I cynicism toward patriotism and a pre-World War II unease about the fragility of democracy, the Marx Brothers mine comedic gold from such serious topics as war, nationalism, and the intersection of money and politics. Unsurprisingly, the film was banned in fascist Italy.

Bananas

Thursday, January 28, 2010 7:00 PM
(Woody Allen, 1971, USA, color, 35mm, 82 minutes)

A spiritual sequel to Duck Soup, Bananas chronicles the unlikely rise of an unlikelier dictator. To impress a pretty activist (Louise Lasser), New Yorker Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) travels to civil war-torn San Marcos, where resident dictator General Emilio M. Vargas (Carlos Montalban, brother of Ricardo) faces a growing left-wing insurgency. Neither idealist nor warrior, Mellish nevertheless stumbles his way into the revolution's inner circle, becoming the nebbishy Che Guevara to San Marcos's Fidel Castro stand-in, the megalomaniacal Esposito (Jacobo Morales). With absurdist glee, Allen deflates the romantic image of the Latin American revolutionary like a strategically placed whoopee cushion.

Next Floor

Thursday, February 11, 2010 7:00 PM
(Denis Villeneuve, 2008, Canada, color, 35mm, 12 minutes)

With a nod to Buñuel, Villeneuve’s eye-popping, Cannes winning short focuses on an opulent dinner party where the posh and pampered guests participate in a most bizarre banquet.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Thursday, February 11, 2010 7:00 PM
(Luis Buñuel, 1972, France, color, 35mm, 102 minutes)

Winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar, Luis Buñuel's surrealist comedy of errors remains one of the director's most iconic films, on par with Belle de Jour and Un chien andalou. In a series of dream-like vignettes, six well-heeled couples find their meal plans repeatedly interrupted by corpses, armed soldiers, and flaring libidos. Not content to eviscerate middle class social decorum and expose the fear, hypocrisy, and ennui that lie within, Buñuel also digs his scalpel into politics, religion, and the idea of justice.

The Fireman's Ball

Thursday, February 25, 2010 7:00 PM
(Milos Forman, 1967, Czechoslovakia, color, 35mm, 71 minutes)

Although the director denies having a political agenda, Milos Forman’s masterful The Firemen's Ball reads like a comic condemnation of the rampant hypocrisies of communist Czechoslovakia. The film depicts a group of firemen and their half-baked attempt at celebrating their chief’s retirement. Despite good intentions, raffle prizes are stolen before they can be given away and the contestants in an eagerly awaited beauty pageant turn out to be neither beautiful nor particularly enthusiastic. Whether subtle satire or apolitical slapstick, The Firemen's Ball inarguably finds humor in the frustrations and indignities suffered under a bumbling bureaucracy.