Best Bureaucratic Black Comedies — II
Wag the Dog (1997)
Barry Levinson’s malefic satire deals with an outrageous and exaggerated scenario, where a Hollywood producer joins hands with a White House spinmeister. In order to divert the public’s attention from presidents’ sex scandal, the duo creates a fake news story about a non-existent war in Albania. The film loudly remarks on the administration of monstrously large bureaucracies and their life-destroying agendas. It also explores how the deliberate creation of unreality has become a part of corporate media and bureaucracy. Although the direction is little uninspired, the fiery dialogues from playwright David Mamet and wacky performances from Dustin Hoffman and Robert de Niro keeps up the film’s energy.
Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian political commentary was best known for its use of comedy to underscore serious and solemn ideas. The movie revolves around Sam Lowry, a cog in the massive, soul-crushing bureaucratic machine. A little error in the records make the police get an innocent man instead of a terrorist. Lowry is sent to fix this error, but instead gets stuck in the mess. Plot-wise, you could clearly see the influences of Kafka, Orwell and Kubrick. However, Gilliam’s wildly imaginative visions infuse the proceedings with freshness. It is also important to say that the movie itself went through Hollywood bureaucracy, as they wanted to edit nearly 45 minutes for more public appeal.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick always has things to say about bureaucrats in his movies. Bureaucratic army men stomp their sub-ordinates in “Paths of Glory”. “Eyes Wide Shut” showed us a man caught inside a cult, full of elite, powerful men. Among many interpretations, “Barry Lyndon” could also be seen as a commentary about a shallow bureaucratic society (let’s leave “Dr. StrangeLove” for now). In that way, Kubrick’s 1971 ultra-violent masterpiece asked us, Is there something called ‘freewill’ in a bureaucratic society, where every human beings are treated as mechanical things. The hero Alex and his droogs might be one of the most unlikable characters in history of cinema. The film’s hellish universe expressed heavy realities of a failed government system as something self-serving and indifferent to the individuals.
Death by Hanging (1968)
Maverick Japanese auteur, Nagisa Oshima’s delirious classic is set in the industrial, post-war Japan, where the Japanese government has condemned a man named ‘R’ and is scheduled to be hanged. R passes through all the bureaucratic process before getting hanged. R is hanged, but his body rejects the death after 17 minutes. Now, this “R” doesn’t remember his past. So, the clownish bureaucrats of Japanese society – prison guards, doctors, prosecutor, and priest—re-enacts R’s life and crimes to make the new ‘R’ understand who he is and why should he be hanged? The film is streaked with black humor, especially in the scene where the officials foolishly try to recreate R’s home environment, hoping that it will jog his memory. Apart from indicting bureaucracy, Oshima also makes a statement about his society’s prejudice against the Korean underclass.
Firemen’s Ball (1967)
Milos Forman’s Czech comedy of errors was once banned in its country because of the scathing allegory. Forman created a black comedy criticizing communist bureaucracy and passed it right under the noses of Communist party censors. The 74 minute film concentrates on a gala held by a small town’s fire brigade, in order to honor their 86 year old leader. The entire event is detailed in a humorous way, which might only work on screen, not in words. The highly bureaucratized firemen served as the microcosm for the entire regime’s bureaucracy, as these men constantly engage in endless, illogical, unneeded arguments. The film can also be experienced purely at face value.
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Kubrick’s radical masterpiece on cold war madness (released 2 years after the Cuban missile crisis) looks startling today as it must have, 50 years earlier. This infinitely quotable movie starts with a mad US air force colonel, launching a nuclear attack on the USSR. The President and his generals try to stop the devastation, since Soviets has already announced about a ‘Fail-Safe’ device. Peter Sellers’ hysterical performance and Kubrick’s darkly humorous take criticizes the malfunctions of bureaucracy, where the whole system’s vulnerability can be exploited by those who are quite a distance removed from the centers of power. Like Joseph Heller’s classic novel, “Catch 22”, this film also shows how the destructive technology ensnares military to get lost into a bureaucratic world, where human lives don’t mean a thing.