The Menu (2022) Written by Seth Reiss & Will Tracy Directed by Mark Mylod
Horror is certainly a hot genre at the moment. Not since the 1970s has there been a more fruitful period for the genre. We have so many different styles & flavors of horror to choose from so that no matter what type of person you are, there’s something to pick from. The Menu represents a growing social satire horror that’s become more prevalent in recent years. It makes sense that this would be a burgeoning subgenre in the face of growing massive inequality in the West. Outside of horror, these themes of bringing the wealthy to heel & pointing out the many cases of abuse of the working class have picked up steam. Yet, I have to question when such an important topic becomes so embedded in popular culture. The main question I ask about these films is, “Is this a genuine expression of frustration on this issue from an authentic voice, or is this just a filmmaker/studio chasing a trend?”
About Schmidt (2002) Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor Directed by Alexander Payne
While About Schmidt is credited as being based on a novel that’s not exactly the truth. Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor had completed this script years before Louis Begley published his book. As early as 1991, Payne offered the script to Universal, who rejected it. The novel came out in 1996, Payne saw similarities between it and his writing, got the rights, combined the two, and we ended up with About Schmidt. This will be the ending of Payne’s first act, a trilogy of movies centered on Midwesterners, finding drama in their often ignored lives while developing his craft as a filmmaker. The stylistic flourishes of Election are muted here, though the film retains the same dry sense of humor. Payne has remarked that his concept behind the film was always “The Graduate at age sixty-five,” a meditation on the pointlessness of devoting so much of our lives to capitalism.
The Exterminating Angel (1962) Written by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza Directed by Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel is a director whose films are very well-known for being clever and witty critiques of the Spanish upper class. He’d been making movies for thirty years at this point, so you feel right away that you are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they are doing. At its core, The Exterminating Angel is Buñuel pointing out the ways human existence and its institutions are easily fallible. We’re currently living through a pandemic that has uprooted what we believed would protect us. The CDC reconfigures its metrics to make the United States appear as if it has passed through the COVID-19 crisis while people continue to be infected, reinfected, and horrifically die by the tens of thousands a month. America’s leadership comprises a mix of ancient relics and avaricious technocrats that feign calm while frantically hoarding resources for themselves and their wealthy friends behind the scenes. Buñuel was already familiar with this world decades earlier.
Veep (HBO) Seasons 1 thru 7 Created by Armando Iannucci
If you follow this blog, you know one of my interests is examining how media is used to prop up the legitimacy of institutions in America. Since the early days of film, people have been rewriting history or portraying offices like the President with this sense of eternal nobility. This type of writing, present in the works of filmmakers like Aaron Sorkin, turns my stomach. It ultimately serves as propaganda to admonish activism that pushes for material change and instead pivot the American mindset into being satisfied with shallow sentiment and hollow platitudes. For example, the West Wing constantly presents those who populate the White House as flawed but virtuous, centrists who are always right and debate themselves into wins against conservatives and leftists. When The West Wing was originally airing, I remember someone I knew who liked the show admitting that it was ultimately “porn for liberals.” It provided a comforting fantasy with little to no connection to what happens in reality. Veep is the antithesis of this.
Funny Games (2007) Written & Directed by Michael Haneke
Following its showing at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, a panel was held for Funny Games. Director Michael Haneke and his actors fielded questions from the press about his movie. If you are subscribed to the Criterion Channel, you can watch it. Over 45 minutes, Haneke became amusedly frustrated over the journalists and critics’ seeming inability to understand the subtext of his film. Unlike David Lynch, Haneke didn’t keep the greater meaning of his work close to his vest and was very explicit. He kept reiterating that the film is not concerned with the pathology of its antagonists or anything else that was surface level. Funny Games is a film experience in which the viewer is interrogated about the very nature of violence & entertainment.
Search Party Season 5 (HBOMax) Written by Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers, Starlee Kine, Andrew Pierce Fleming & Matt Kriete, and Craig Rowin Directed by John Lee, Heather Jack, Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers
I have been watching Search Party since its debut on TBS in 2016, and it has consistently been a show that felt like every season could be it’s last. And with each renewal, the series found a way to reinvent itself. First, it started out as a murder mystery, then a dark Dostoyesfy-ian drama, a courtroom trial show, a show about a psychotic stalker, and now finally, the fifth season. This final entry is a wild mix of different genres and tones, fully relinquishing any sense of grounding previous seasons might have had. This turn into cartoonish-ness might not sit well with everyone, but it does remain consistent in one way: examining and mocking the vapidity of privileged people.
The Truman Show (1998) Written by Andrew Niccol Directed by Peter Weir
In 1991, screenwriter Andrew Niccol began shopping around a spec script for The Malcolm Show. It was a science-fiction thriller set in New York City that focused on a man discovering his life was a television show, and he tried to escape the control of his handlers. Many directors were considered: Brian DePalma, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg. Eventually, the studio chose to go with Peter Weir, who saw the script as too dark. Instead, he wanted to emphasize the satire of the situation, still holding onto the core existential dread of the concept, but presenting it with a lightness to counter that thematic weight.
Don’t Look Up (2021) Written by Adam McKay and David Sirota Directed by Adam McKay
The planet Earth is fucked. Our leaders have clearly decided they will let this climate change thing play itself (while ensuring they have bunkers to survive in), with assurances all of us slaving plebs will be “just fine.” How can you not be enraged about this? But at the same time, who has the time to spend their days worrying over a cataclysmic event so cosmically significant that we have no way as individuals to effect change? Adam McKay’s latest film isn’t taking any chances and is as blunt as possible about the absurdity of modern life in the face of impending existential and literal extinction. It’s no surprise that a movie as explicit as Don’t Look Up has carved a chasm through discourse online (such a rare occurrence, right?). This is a movie where your reaction to it says more about you as a person than the quality of the film.
In recent years, the gig economy has sadly become more prevalent, starting in large urban centers and working its way out to rural environs. It is predicated on people unable to find steady, well-paying work, particularly those who are desperate. This desperation often comes out of unexpected tragedy, and for Americans, that is linked with medical debt. If you’ve spent time in honest conversation with someone who drives for Uber or does InstaCart, you’ll quickly learn how hard it is to stay above water even with these gigs. Their wages are often lower than expected, and the public they serve can be anything but kind. Lapsis uses the dregs of the gig economy as a jumping-off point for its science-fiction satire.
The Kid Detective (2020) Written & Directed by Evan Morgan
When I was a kid, I was a fairly regular reader of the Encyclopedia Brown book series. Brown was a middle school student who worked as his neighborhood’s local kid detective. Each book had around ten interlinked stories that end on a cliffhanger. The reader is expected to notice an inconsistency in a suspect’s dialogue that hints at their guilt. I can say only once do I remember solving the mystery before checking the back of the book for the answer. Brown has served as an inspiration for many other kid detectives and many satire pieces on the genre recently. I recall The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno and Donald Glover’s Mystery Team as pieces of media that touch on the concept of child detectives turned adults.