In the past year, the entertainment industry hasn’t been reluctant to participate in the political discourse– from Meryl Streep’s impassioned speech at the Golden Globes to Saturday Night Live’s ongoing portrayal of Donald Trump.
In Manhattan, smaller film venues have also played their part in the fun. While theaters like Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives each curated a week-long series of political dramas, the IFC Center in Greenwich Village is offering showings of canonical political satires every weekend until April. Although this genre may seem lighter than the political drama, the films in the series have more at stake than just a laugh.
“That’s part of being a satire, you’re being funny, but you have serious underlying issues that you’re commenting on,” John Vanco, Senior Vice President and General Manager of IFC Center. “This is not escapist comedy, this is something darker.
The IFC Center started the series titled “Autocratic for the People: An Unpresidented Series of Star-Spangled Satires,” in January just before the inauguration. “I thought about what kind of movies might reflect the mood of the nation, the mood of the electorate, the confusion, and the fear,” says Vanco, who curated the series with his colleague Harris Dew.
“Our language is cinema, so we’re looking to these filmmakers who in their own times saw what was going on and responded with these films,” explains Vanco.
Films included in this series like Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” each have something deeply unsettling behind their comic theatricality.
When considering what kind of political films he wanted to screen, Vanco says he thought about the movie “Sullivan’s Travels” by Preston Sturges.
“There’s this famous scene of down-and-out prisoners in the Deep South living a miserable life, but all this joy’s brought to them by watching a comedy,” he says. “I think it’s a Disney cartoon. This character in the movie is trying to do serious things and engage with the world, but he realizes that sometimes people just need relief.”
These reflections produced the current series, which features 12 films and will run through April 2nd. In Vanco’s view, the films respond to the needs of New Yorkers at this particular moment in history.
“We’re not trying to take a political stand,” he says. “This is more about getting a sense of the mood and trying to provide for the New Yorkers who are marching or the New Yorkers who are confused.”
Rob King, a professor at Columbia University who researches and teaches the history of film comedies, argues that the films in this series, however, go beyond being just funny.
“I’ve often been interested in those moments when politically charged comedians stop being funny,” says King. “When paradoxically, comedy allows them to reach a point of full seriousness.”
Take the climactic scene of The Great Dictator, he says, when the film’s protagonist realizes that the cause of political injustice is not only the oppressiveness of the leader but also the fickleness of the masses.
“The point at which that film becomes most explicitly political in terms of articulating a worldview,” says King, “is the exact moment when it ceases to be a comedy.”
After examining the 12 titles featured in the series, King says the one movie he would urge his students to watch is Duck Soup. “It’s a Marx Brothers film. Groucho Marx plays Rufus T. Firefly who becomes president of a country and has no interest or ability in politics as usual, and immediate chaos follows,” King explains. “It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, will this even register as funny?”
King chuckles as he entertains the parallels. “That’s the plot of Duck Soup. Hopefully it’s not the plot of America in the next few years.”