People have been making spy film parodies for almost as long as they have been making spy films. As early as 1951, Paramount cast Bob Hope in My Favourite Spy as both a sophisticated international spy and the bumbling stand-up comedian who happened to resemble him. Right from the start, this cinematic formula proved so incredibly successful that it began to have an influence on the source material and so many conventional spy films and TV series of the 1960s went out of their way to incorporate the kinds of sight gags and deconstructive energies that had once been used to mock the genre from the outside. Indeed, the only tangible difference between The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart is that Don Adams seemed to realise that his character was a self-important fool while Robert Vaughn did not. By the 1980s, the conventional spy film was so far beyond parody that Roger Moore was allowed to turn James Bond into the straight middle-aged equivalent of high camp while films such as Spies Like Us and True Lies functioned as both conventional action films and satirical comedies without even a trace of tonal dissonance.
The public’s growing inability to tell the difference between films about spies and films taking the piss out of spies also served to deprive espionage satires of their political edge. Despite realising that it was impossible to satirise a genre that had progressed beyond parody some twenty-five years previously, many filmmakers went down the path of producing broader and broader satires of a genre that no longer existed as anything other than a comic punching bag for hacks like Mike Myers or the Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer partnership that would eventually wind up creating such cinematic monstrosities as Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans.
Though it is hard to think of a more degraded cinematic genre, the spy movie parody has nonetheless managed to produce a number of truly classic and devastatingly pointed films: Often imitated but rarely understood, Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe depicts the intelligence services as a bunch of self-important and unaccountable bureaucrats who spend all their time chasing their own tails in an effort to commandeer more power and funding from a political class that lacks the courage to recognise their pointlessness. Equally brutal is Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which depicts the French secret service as a bunch of racist thugs who use the trappings of state power to legitimise a playboy lifestyle that takes them from one sun-drenched swimming pool to another as women and members of marginalised groups look on in anger and disgust. Though Paul Feig’s Spy does not approach the savagery of either of these two films, it is an action/comedy that does action very well and a comedy with real satirical bite. Ostensibly a satire of Bourne-era spy films, Spy is best understood as an exploration of the Halo Effect and the idea that physically attractive people are anything other than a bunch of incompetent narcissists benefiting from society’s libidinous good will.
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While people are prone to getting sentimental about the power of story, the truth is that narrative is nothing more than a means of providing structure to a series of disconnected things. Thus, rather than delivering their ideas in the form of bullet points, artists use stories as a means of linking different ideas and providing an emotional context that will shape how a particular work makes you feel about those ideas. On the crudest possible level, having all the bad guys smoke while all the good guys drink Pepsi is a pretty good way of encouraging your audience to gain a good impression of Pepsi and a bad impression of smokers. However, while narrative is one of humanity’s most enduring and effective methods of structuring information, it is far from the only means at our disposal.
Literary culture has long resented the cultural primacy of narrative and so many literary types are prone to treating the ability to read for style and subtext rather than plot as a sign of intellectual sophistication. One way of approaching the history of art house film is to date its creation to the point in the 1960s when European directors stopped trying to tell mere stories and began making art. In fact, one could push this analysis even further and suggest that European art house film was born amidst the boos that echoed round the cinema during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film that begins as a missing person story only to rapidly lose interest and set about trying to recreate the emotional texture of feckless upper-class Italian lives.
Just as literature has experimented with alternate means of ordering information, film has developed techniques that allow directors to structure their ideas around such abstract principles as character, theme or mood. An excellent example of this type of filmmaking is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life where a series of incredibly disparate vistas including family drama and warring dinosaurs are held together by the concept of ‘grace’ or (as I argued in my review) the pointlessness of seeking to impose narrative order on disparate lives. For those people not used to using principles other than narrative to make sense of a film, Tree of Life was a mess of incoherent and portentous ideas. For those people well versed in the techniques that Malick chose to deploy, Tree of Life was as beautiful as it was transparent. There is nothing inherently better about building a work around a theme rather than a story but our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us how to make sense of stories and so works built around moods and themes have acquired a touch of exclusivity. If you can make sense of The Tree of Life then it’s a sign that you’ve put in the effort of watching difficult films rather than just filling your headspace with Doctor Who and rolling news.
The problem with experimental techniques is that the good ones inspire imitation and the more a technique is imitated, the more likely it is that it will enter the mainstream and lose that hint of exclusivity. What many people now think of as the Golden Age of TV is really just a rather grandiose way of talking about the fact that art house techniques have escaped the cinema and begun turning up in TV dramas. Indeed, people who have watched more than a single season of Mad Men will find themselves perfectly capable of making sense of a film like L’Avventura as both works put a lot of effort into emotional texture whilst refusing to provide narrative closure and stressing the existential void that lurks at the heart of every character. Aside from depriving art house film of its much-valued hint of exclusivity, the democratisation of post-narrative techniques also speaks to a growing conservatism and intellectual exhaustion at the heart of art house film. If Millions of people tune in to watch Don Draper wander around an existential wasteland of mild-depression and meaningless sex, then how experimental is a film that makes use of precisely those techniques and subjects? Clearly, art house film is getting old and it’s time for something new… something like Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea.
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