Parody, someone early in the nineteenth century said, is the sincerest form of flattery (Actually I think the original quote was “imitation” rather than “parody,” but since we’re not even certain who originally said it…). The most gifted parodists must know their subjects better than those subjects know themselves. The new tennis mockumentary, 7 Days in Hell, which premiered last night, certainly qualifies. Its humor, as in the best parodies, springs from how near the mark it sometimes comes. As always, I am reticent here to reveal spoilers, but I think I can get away with saying it would fit neatly into ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series. Its two main characters perfectly caricature so many past tennis “personalities” that they become almost archetypes rather than mere stereotypes.
Its humor is certainly enough reason to watch. It’s a great silly bit of fun that reminded me a little of Benny Hill.
But something happened to parody in the postmodern era, and that something continues to twist the form into new shapes, each one more curious and delightful than the one before. For that reason 7 Days in Hell is not just worth watching but worth thinking about.
The problem for parody in the postmodern age – though I’m not sure “problem” is exactly the right word – is the great flattening out of images that occurred. As the world became increasingly nothing more than a series of images, all referring to each other in an infinite loop, parody and reality seemed to inch closer and closer to one another (as have fiction and reality: see my earlier post on Mermaids). This fact reveals itself in several senses. On the one hand, a film like Network, which in 1976 read as a farce, now seems grimly prescient. Farce presages reality in ways not dissimilar to Baudrillard’s argument that The China Syndrome had presaged the Three Mile Island disaster.
But Network is a case of a film’s meaning shifting over time. I’m much more interested here in the way parody and reality become hard to distinguish from one another because, in the end, both are images, and in the postmodern way of the world, both reflect back on one another. Baudrillard argues that once you have made a copy of an original, both then exist as copies. Something similar is at work with parody – though the “copy” is meant to exaggerate, in the end both become copies. Spaceballs may serve as a parody of Star Wars, but once you have seen Spaceballs you return to Star Wars with the residual image of that “parody.” And in the infinite multiplication of images, you wind up with a film like Fifth Element in which it’s difficult to determine whether parody is at work or not (consider the Princess Leia buns here – homage or satire?).
What happens when the two –parody and real – become essentially indistinguishable? One of my favorite examples of this occurs in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Though intended as a Disney parody, the musical numbers manage to out-Disney Disney, becoming not just indistinguishable from the object of parody, but maybe better than the original object. “Blame Canada” was nominated for an Academy Award for best musical number (and honestly, the Academy got lucky – “Uncle Fucka” was the superior song). As one Entertainment Weekly critic noted,
It brilliantly, eloquently harangues audiences to treasure free speech in the most obscenity-peppered manner imaginable. Mainly it does so through a dozen or so jaw-droppingly tasteless musical numbers…These wickedly funny ditties ransack such standards as ”Oklahoma” (recast as the insanely hummable incest hoedown ”Uncle F—a”), Little Mermaid’s ”Part of Your World” (reborn in Satan’s lament, ”Up There”), and Les Misérables’ ”One Day More” (as the kiddie revolutionary pledge ”La Resistance”), retooling them with lyrics every bit as concise and catchy as the real things. If the Marx Brothers were alive, this is what they’d be doing—except they’d have to call their film F— Soup.
My other favorite example of a parody-so-good-you-miss-it comes from the often underrated Fountains of Wayne (who I feel obligated to point out have done so much more than produce the hit single “Stacy’s Mom”). The band’s chief songwriter, Adam Schlesinger, is less a parodist (or even a full on mimic) than a chameleon, able to capture the sound of virtually any American musical genre from 80s synthpop to children’s sing-a-longs (he’s won both an Emmy and a Grammy, but has also been nominated for Oscars, Tonys and Golden Globes). In “’92 Subaru” the band sends up the rock and roll ode to the car, a fixture in American music since cars were invented (Robert Johnson’s “Teraplane Blues,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybeline,” Van Halen’s “Panama”). The song’s speaker gives us so many details of his “baby blue” Subaru, which he has lovingly “restored” to include a moon-roof and mini-bar, that it’s impossible not to chuckle at his obvious over-enthusiasm (“and I only get a coupla easy payments left to make”). It makes all muscle car songs seem silly, and at the same time it captures the music and structure of these songs so well that you wind up feeling nostalgic at the same time you laugh.
7 Days in Hell takes a somewhat different approach – I don’t think there’s any confusion as to the parody that’s at work – and yet it manages to achieve a level of nostalgia as well. In part this has to do with its sharp parodic wit – things that seem exaggerated are disturbingly close to reality (you think Aaron Williams flipping off the royal box at Wimbledon is over-the-top, but McEnroe did it; you think playing with a cast on your arm and then using your disability to psych out your opponent is ridiculous, but Michael Chang did exactly that, first to Ivan Lendl and then to Stefan Edberg at the 1989 French Open). Watching, you find it all funny, but genuine memories get rekindled too.
The real genius of this piece though is the way it manages to group together its celebrities to create its overall effect. Executive producer Adam Samberg mines his SNL connections, featuring Will Forte and Fred Armison for example. But so too there is an HBO contingent: Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington, Girls’ Lena Dunham. There’s the tennis and sports community, with Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Jim Lampley. Each cohort reminds us of some moment, even while they are reminding us of a whole host of tennis moments (while they are pretending to remind us of a very specific tennis moment).
In the closing scenes, the rivalry at the center of the film reminded me suddenly of a fantastic SNL bit from the early 90s, where Chris Evert imagines being stalked in retirement by a relentless Martina Navratilova. And there, in that memory, is the whole of postmodern nostalgia. Recent SNL cast members remind me of older cast members, which reminds me of Chris Evert. But then Chris Evert herself shows up in the film, and reminds me of her rivalry with Martina but also of the SNL episode. John McEnroe shows up too, serving as a cheeky reference to his own bad behavior, but pointing us to Bjorn Borg’s eccentricities as well. And maybe my memories weren’t supposed to be stirred this deeply, but I even recalled McEnroe’s comment after Michael Chang won that French Open championship, that he would “drop his shorts on center court” if Chang won Wimbledon. One pop culture image takes me to another and another and another. It’s a new kind of nostalgia, different from what people in the fifties or sixties probably felt for their youth, but I’ve never really been one to rank one era over another. In the end, I’ll take my nostalgia as it comes.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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