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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Study in Satire: This is England and Four Lions

If you didn't catch the three-part miniseries This is England '88 over Christmas, then I highly recommend that you track down a copy and watch it through. It offered a wonderfully unvarnished, beautifully written and acted human drama, as did its predecessor, This is England '86. Of course, these TV series, both directed by the brilliant Shane Meadows, originate from the 2006 film This is England, also directed by Meadows. Here Meadows tackles racism and youth culture in the 1980s, in an occasionally warm and funny, but more frequently bleak and disturbing view of Thatcher's Britain. In contrast, Chris Morris' 2010 Four Lions was an irreverent, controversial and often hilarious farce about post 9/11 fundamentalist terrorists in Britain. The would-be terrorists in question are woefully inept, bumbling their way through terrorist-training camp, childish bickering, and bomb-making towards an attempted attack on the London marathon.

Four Lions: Mass murder has never been funnier
The respective tones of these films are wildly different, their subjects differ in content, setting and era, and the aims of their directors seem worlds apart. So why compare these apparently disparate films? Because, despite superficial differences, both Four Lions and This is England are both part of the same tradition of social and political commentary known as satire. It's a common misconception that satire must be funny and silly, making fun of, say, a prominent politician, as in Have I Got News For You. Although satire often is funny and irreverent, this isn't always the case; Charles Dickens Oliver Twist (amongst his other works), for example, is a blisteringly satirical novel, and though it has moments of farce, its overall tone is of anger and disgust at Victorian society. Satire is often as angry as it is jovial, and indeed This is England is a very angry satire, as I'll discuss in a moment. Both This is England and Four Lions tackle issues of race, prejudice and fundamentalism in Britain, but their use of satirical perspectives means that their connections go much deeper than that. More to the point, I think comparing these films in particular is a really useful way of understanding that satire, a tradition that has existed since ancient Rome, still works and is still highly relevant in modern films, especially in those that deal with contemporary issues such as terrorism.

This is History
So how can two films that not only differ in tone and content, but are also set in different time periods, both be considered satirical? I think it's quite easy to see Four Lions as a satire: it's set in contemporary Britain and sends up in an amusing way the contemporary issue of terrorism and fundamentalist religion. This is England does none of that; its story focusses on the skinhead culture of the 80s and the emergence of the National Front, movements that surely have been resigned to the pages of recent history. Well, sort of. The tricky thing with period films and literature is that, with the exception of the ghastly ITV period drama factory, narratives that are set in an historical era are more often than not about the period that they are made in, rather than the one they are set in, if that makes sense. For example, John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, whilst ostensibly about the biblical fall of man and expulsion from Eden, equally provides a mirror for the English Civil War, seventeenth-century regicide and the restoration of the monarchy. Paradise Lost was set in a period removed from when it was written, but discusses (or at least, reflects) contemporary issues. In this respect, This is England is no different. The presence of the National Front in the film is an obvious reference to the rise of the British National Party, which has become worryingly prophetic with the recent emergence of the violent English Defence League. 

But there are more parallels than simply emergent cultural racism. Released in 2006, This is England features a young boy whose father was killed in a morally dubious and unpopular war, living under the shadow of an increasigly unpopular and authoritarian government, while unemployment, immigration and youth culture dominate social discourse. Sound familiar? This is England does exactly what it says on the tin - present a portrait of England not simply in the 1980s, but also of an England / Britain very close to a modern audience. This is in contrast to Four Lions, which is set in the present, and so therefore is only able to deal with modern, rather than historical issues. So why the difference? Well, for one thing Chris Morris' satirical background is in pardodying news programmes, as with Brass Eye and The Day Today, so it makes sense that he would follow that with a modern setting for Four Lions. Shane Meadows, on the other hand, partially based Shaun's character on his own boyhood experiences, so again, it's a natural fit that he would set the film in the eighties, the period in which he had those experiences. However, I think there's more to those choices than the simple biographies of the filmmakers - they consciously chose the period settings of their films, and for satirical reasons.

Two sides of absurdity
This is not a pleasant man.
But why would the historical period affect the satirical tone of these films? Well, without becoming too technical, historically there have been two forms of satire, known as Horatian and Juvenalian, after the Roman satirists Horace and Juvenal. Horatian satire is generally jovial and lighthearted and aims to poke fun at its targets, rather than out and out eviscerate them, while still criticising them. Something like Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G or Borat is a modern equivalent of this type of satire. In contrast, Juvenalian satire is harsher and angrier, aiming to demolish its objects rather than merely sending them up. In a modern setting is often a little more difficult to identify as satire because it tends to treat its subjects more seriously. George Clooney's 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck would be an example of a modern Juvenalian satire (as well as another period piece discussing modern issues, in this case using McCarthyism to criticise the Bush administration), treating its subject seriously (paranoia in politics and censorship), angrily and rather solemnly attacking its targets.

Undoubtedly, This is England is a Juvenalian satire, and Four Lions Horatian, and the periods in which they're set contribute significantly to this. In its modern setting, Four Lions presents immediately familiar imagery and associations, and it encourages us to laugh at them, and by extension, ourselves. Towards the end of the film, police shoot a runner in the London marathon, mistaking him for a terrorist (an obvious allusion to the real-life and very unfunny shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes), but we're encouraged not to lament, but laugh, as two police officers argue over whether the costume the runner was wearing was of a bear or a wookie (for the record, it was a wookie). Interestingly, the gag doesn't come off as tasteless, and although there is clear rage behind the Menezes reference, ultimately the outcome here is laughter at the gross absurdity of the situation. In contrast, This is England depicts racism as a very real and very serious issue in Britain. Although there are many funny moments in Meadows' film, the humour always comes from the film's internal reality, and usually reflects the natural comedy of adolescence; Michelle's awkward and slightly creepy invitation to Shaun to 'lick her tits' is one that springs to my mind. This naturalistic, charming humour is offset by moments of deep melancholy and disturbing violence that threatens to erupt at any time. The final scene, for example, where Combo brutally attacks Milky is both frighteningly real, and one that could not exist in Morris' Four Lions without completely breaking the tone. 

Bernard Manning gets red in the face over a made up drug
The difference in settings help differentiate the tones of these films, because, although still familiar, This is England is at a remove from the audience in a way that the modern Four Lions is not, and that distance encourages us to look at the subject of racism and skinhead culture in the eighties more seriously. The jovial, Horatian satire of Four Lions really only works because its object is completely immediate: what it is satirising is still in the headlines. For an example of how this works, see how esoteric and dated the gags become in Have I Got News For You when old episodes are repeated out of context, or note that in repeats of Drop the Dead Donkey there are textual summaries of the episode's contextual current affairs. Without immediate context, neither show works as humorous satirical commentary. This is England doesn't need that level of context (though it does provide some with archive footage and references to Thatcher and the Falklands), because its focus is on the human drama, rather than on the funny absurdities of specific events. Ironically, however, this lack of context allows This is England to slip under the door a raft of serious commentary on our contemporary world. Again, this approach works in Good Night and Good Luck, just as it worked in Arthur Miller's seminal play, The Crucible. In one respect, the subject matter of Four Lions is, if anything, more horrific than This is England; for all its brutality, mass murder is never on the cards in Meadows' film. And I think this, too, informs the approaches of the films. Perhaps something like terrorism and religious fanaticism is simply to terrible to contemplate in anything other than comical, irreverent terms. Certainly, Chris Morris is no stranger to courting controversy by treating serious topics in an apparently light way, as with his infamous paedophile sketch on Brass Eye, or his brilliant practical joke involving cake, a made-up drug. In contrast, Shane Meadows approach is generally less overtly satirical, and so the satire in his film is subtler and intermingled with a more grounded, realistic sense of human drama.

Shine a light
Good Night, and Good Luck: not all satire is silly
Which approach, then, is most effective? Does the Juvenalian attack of This is England mean that a harsher blow is inflicted on its target, or does the irreverent, Horatian humour of Four Lions provide a better, and ultimately more damning, counterpoint to the horrors that the four central characters intend to enact? Both have their place, and indeed, Four Lions would be a far less powerful and engaging film if it stuck to a sombre examination of modern Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, as would This is England if it chose to lampoon racist skinheads, rather than shining its harsh light on their pitiful world of violence and impotent frustration. Both forms of satire work for different reasons, and both tread fine lines between seriousness and po-facedness, and absurdity and tastelessness. Both This is England and Four Lions are successful satires, in that they shine lights very effectively on their targets, highlighting by turns their pathos, their silliness and their baffling, obscene, hilarious and disturbing absurdities. What I find particularly interesting about these films is that despite their modern relevance, and both of their respective directors' penchant for edginess and controversy, they are both part of a satiric tradition that has its roots planted roughly two thousand years ago. It's often very easy to forget that modern art, literature or film is connected in any meaningful way to the past, or that exciting modern filmmakers like Meadows and Morris might be influenced by something as dusty and historical as a 'satiric tradition'. I think, however, it's remarkably refreshing to remember that satire, Juvenalian or Horatian, remains relevant and vital in even the most controversial and dramatic films produced today.

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