The biggest hit from the most popular Italian filmmaker of all time, La dolce vita rocketed Federico Fellini to international mainstream success — ironically, by offering a damning critique of the culture of stardom. A look at the darkness beneath the seductive lifestyles of Rome’s rich and glamorous, the film follows a notorious celebrity journalist (a sublimely cool Marcello Mastroianni) during a hectic week spent on the peripheries of the spotlight. This mordant picture was an incisive commentary on the deepening decadence of contemporary Europe, and it provided a prescient glimpse of just how gossip — and fame — obsessed our society would become.
Here are eight other films that play off the absurdist tendencies rampant in popular culture.
Who Are You, Polly Magoo?
William Klein found fame as a fashion photographer for Vogue, but he was never above examining the industry that made him with a critical eye. Art house parody Who Are You, Polly Magoo? is at once a satire about high fashion and the pop culture climate of the 1960s. He drives the point home casting muse and real-life Vogue cover girl Dorothy McGowan as a Brooklyn-born model in Paris who becomes the target of paparazzi obsession and subject of a French TV documentary series. Klein predicted America’s cult of celebrity well before Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian appeared on the scene and captured it with a frenetic style worthy of today. “He even beats Andy Warhol to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ punch by a couple of years, shining a light on the fickleness of public taste,” writes Jamie S. Rich. “By the end of the movie, Polly Magoo is out of style, and people are moving on to find new faces to love.” As Heidi Klum’s unnerving saying on Project Runway goes: “One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.”
God Bless America
Bobcat Goldthwait’s pitch black satire God Bless America would probably have something to say about the recent controversy surrounding hicksploitation TV series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — and it would probably end Bonnie and Clyde-style. The 2011 film finds a terminally ill man on a bloody rampage with a 16-year-old girl to rid America of the rude, moronic, selfish, and abusive. This violent and outrageous reaction to society’s ills comes full circle, becoming an “indictment of us as viewers and tacit supporters of the cultural trash heap.”
“In Pecker, John Waters seems to wonder aloud if you can ever go home again, especially when your success, like his own, has transformed that home from something authentically tacky into something ironically chic,” writes David Edelstein of the 1998 film. Insert a thousand “Hipster Ariels” here.
I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney
Ben Affleck made his filmmaking debut with this satirical short about the creative process and the movie industry (a very psychopathic, misogynist movie industry). He’s since disowned the project: “It’s horrible. It’s atrocious. I knew I wanted to be a director, and I did a couple of short films, and this is the only one that haunts me. I’m not proud of it… It looks like it was made by someone who has no prospects, no promise.”
Man Bites Dog
If often feels as though there’s a ready-to-go documentary crew following someone, somewhere at any given time. “Why not follow a serial killer?” asks 1992’s Man Bites Dog. Cinematic walls of all kinds are broken as the trio of writers-directors also appear in the movie, using their own names. The crew becomes increasingly involved in the killer’s violent crimes, offering a stark message about the ouroboros effect this complacency surrounding violence and invasive media has on our psyche.
“Weird Al” Yankovic is having a bit of a career renaissance, which means it’s time to revisit his 1989 absurdist comedy UHF, directed by the performer’s real-life manager, Jay Levey. Yankovic’s character inherits a public access TV station, where he institutes some eccentric programming much to the ire of his rivals. Dream sequences and cutaway scenes to the station’s bizarre shows and commercials (most of them parodying popular entertainment of the time) become the film’s greatest moments.
The future doesn’t look very bright in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, which takes the pop culture landscape and injects it with dystopian steroids for a cringeworthy look at our future, several centuries from now. Judge addresses contemporary capitalism via our beloved brands, chains, and advertisers — Starbucks offers handjobs with its lattes, and Nike’s new slogan is “Don’t do a thing” — with bite.
Although Jacques Tati’s Playtime predates the “cult of Apple” by several decades, the film’s absurd gadgets and elaborate sets are reminiscent of the company’s retail locations — sleek shrines to consumerism. But the satirical element of the film doesn’t necessarily suggest “urban angst or alienation,” as Senses of Cinema explains:
The set itself serves as an arena for the theme of the film: whether we control technology or vice versa? But another recurring theme in Tati’s work is that of confusion. He pokes fun at what appears to be a humanity lost in its own glowing material progress. Yet Tati does not offer an ideological format in which to reject technology or science. Instead, he cites examples of how human beings have become, whether consciously or not dependent on machinery. Part of this confusion — not alienation, as some more politically minded critics would argue — comes about due to the dynamic and vibrant nature of the modern world. And thus we see Hulot as possessing that most characteristic quality of modern man: adaptability.
Sharing a similar opinion, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum stated:
It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform.