Monday, March 29, 2010

Where Have All the Casablanca Spoofs Gone?

There's a long tradition of references and spoofs of popular culture in all forms of media. It's a good barometer of relevance, and an informal indication of how much impact a film or television show or album retains in the present day. Sitcoms and comedy films have been particularly fond of them lately, with projects like "Hot Tub Time Machine" and "The Venture Brothers" practically built from references to the pop culture of the 70s and 80s. And unexpectedly, the trend has been making me yearn for the spoofs of that generation, and their parodies of films and shows that have almost entirely disappeared from the media consciousness.

As a kid I remember watching Carol Burnett donning Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet curtain dress, complete with the curtain rod. And I remember Kermit and Miss Piggy re-enacting the farewell scene from "Casablanca" on "The Muppet Show." Thirty-odd years on, I'm sure that there are still plenty of people who would get the jokes, but the classic films of the 30s and 40s are no longer considered part of the modern cultural zeitgeist, at least not for the audiences that marketers are interested in. It makes me more than a little wistful. These days, the oldest pop culture artifacts still being regularly referenced are "The Godfather" and the Beatles. Even that old standby, Elvis Presley, hasn't been sighted much lately.

But this is nothing new. Time marches on and the old always gives way to the new in the public consciousness, even where nostalgia is concerned. The recent fixation on all things 80s reflects the happy memories of people in their thirties and forties who were kids during that era. And the big hits of the 80s like the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films were updated version of the old adventure serials and kitschy sci-fi kidvid beloved by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas when they were kids in the 50s. And the 50s yearned for the good old days of the 20s. And so on. The expiration date for most pop culture, then, is about thirty years, or roughly a generation.

I suspect my fixation on older spoofs comes from my own nostalgia for the 70s and 80s. I really detest the "Scary Movie" style films that pass for parodies these days, which are really just lazy collections of pop culture references that immediately became dated upon release. "Epic Movie" even parodied trailers for films that hadn't hit theaters yet. They don't hold a candle to the work of Carol Burnett or Mel Brooks or the Zuckers. The only reason why I ever went looking for many of those classic films is because I learned about them through the nostalgic gaze of truly great comedians. Will anyone be inspired to track down "The Breakfast Club" after seeing "Not Another Teen Movie"?

But I'm not being fair. There have been some good parody features recently like "Shaun of the Dead," "Tropic Thunder," and "Enchanted" that have done right by the films they reference, and have some very funny people behind them. Deep down I know that comedy would stagnate if it stuck to the same old frame of reference all the time, and there's no shortage of modern material that deserves skewering. Somewhere out there, this generation's Mel Brooks is gearing up to give the "Twilight" franchise a good, swift kick in the pants, and I can't wait to see it.

And just because most of Hollywood's gaze has drifted doesn't mean that everyone's has. "The Simpsons," spoofed several of the more obscure Hitchcock films in their most recent "Treehouse of Horror." "SNL" let guest host Joseph Gordon Levitt recreate the "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence from "Singing in the Rain," and castmember Kristen Wiig regularly revels in resurrecting bygone cinema greats like Gloria Swanson and Katherine Hepburn. And of course there's "Mad Men," one of the rare period pieces on American television, that brings its audience back to the 60s in all its troubled glory. As long as there are people in Hollywood who love the classiscs, Rick and Ilsa may be harder to spot, but they'll never be truly gone.

And as long as we're bringing back the 80s, there can never be enough parodies of this scene:

Bum bum bum bum bum bum bum....

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