Before I get into the discussion about the film, I've been asked to provide a brief plot outline of this 1980 movie. Here goes:
A pilot flying over the Kalahari throws an empty coke bottle out of his plane. It's picked up by a bushman, who brings it back to the tribe, thinking it's a gift from the gods. At first it appears to be a great boon for the tribe, but soon it causes trouble (before, the tribespeople had no concept of ownership). So the bushman decides to take the bottle back to the gods. In the meantime we get to see the beginnings of a clumsy romance between a scientist and a school teacher, and some terrorists running about in parallel story lines.
The movie is wickedly funny, and pretty family appropriate. I believe it became a big hit when it was released in America in 1984.
The film The Gods Must be Crazy seems to be just an off-the-wall Disney-esque comedy at first glance, but on further inspection one can see that it is actually a social satire. Gods points out several of the problems with modern society, and does this using the standard methods used by all social satires.
Before classifying Gods as a social satire, it is important to know what a social satire is. We will attempt to shed light on while taking a closer look at this South African film which uses what Africana.com calls a "satirical script about the silliness of civility and the hypocrisy of technological advancement." Social Satire is a term applied to literature and film that uses a style of irony or caricature to expose an underlying problem in society. There are three main criteria that can be used to help classify a work as social satire. First, and most importantly, the work must attempt to draw attention to a flaw in contemporary society. Secondly, the work's message must be timely and relevant to the culture it is being presented to. Lastly, the works must use irony, and often times humor, to convey its message. The movie American Beauty and the book Lord of the Flies can be counted as social satires, as well as, of course, the film The God's Must Be Crazy.
A work can not even hope to be considered a social satire unless is attempts to point out a flaw or flaws in society. This is, after all, the underlying purpose of the social satire. It should be apparent to anyone watching The Gods Must Be Crazy that the film does indeed have a message to deliver about society, and does so through means ranging from as subtle as cinematography to as overt as narration that explicitly discusses the flaw in society. Africana.com took time to list the messages in Gods, and came up with an impressively long list, including:
"meaningful messages about technological advancement that does nothing to advance the humanness of man; the stupidity of war; the damning convolution of the law; the effect of incompetent leadership; blind, lemming-like followers; and westernized arrogance (like the much-hyped advent of Perestroika and Reaganomics at that time)."
As we can see, The Gods Must Be Crazy is a film that is meant to expose modern society as too busy and complex, a message that reminds one of Thoreau's instruction to "simplify, simplify."
This film uses several methods to portray this message. One method used is the cinematography itself. The film is often sped up to create a Chaplin-esque slapstick. This technique serves two purposes. One is simple: people love humor, and these funny scenes ensure more popularity at the box office. However, this technique is also used to caricaturize the hectic pace of modern living and draw the viewer's attention to this, which the filmmaker sees as a flaw in society. Another technique used by the filmmaker is a rather obvious one. By speaking directly to the audience through a narrator, the filmmaker points out flaws in society that include pollution, the vigorous reliance on calendars and precise times, and terrorism and modern government. The methods used to discuss the flaws of society are important in the context of developing a criteria for social satire, and will be discussed again later.
While many books and movies allude to problems in society, many of those are not social satires. One important criterion to remember is that the message a social satire delivers must be timely and relevant. For example, a contemporary film that criticizes Napoleon's ruling style can not be considered a social satire because it not timely in respect to the intended audience. On the other hand, consider Dante's Inferno for a moment... The message of this book is now no longer timely, as it is a criticism of rulers and a class of living that is now long dead. However, Inferno was timely when written, so it may still be considered a social satire.
In order to apply this criterion effectively, it may be helpful to remember that social satires not only point out a flaw in society, but they should also be a call to action against that flaw. When a social satire is written, it is meant to call the readers or viewers to action so that the flaw may be combated. Watching at Gods, the reader feels called to help counteract the business of the modern world, so the movie passes this criterion. The Gods Must Be Crazy passes this criteria because it does indeed deliver a timely message. The film is an indictment of the modern society for which it was written.
Another criteria a work must pass to be considered a social satire involves not the message it portrays, but the means is uses to portray that message. Every social satire uses irony, and often humor as well, to portray its message. By caricaturizing and poking fun something, it sticks in the viewer or readers mind much more vividly, and also makes the flaws in society much more obvious. The Gods Must Be Crazy uses irony and humor extensively to drive its message home, portraying the behaviors of modern man as absurd to the point of hilarious. Modern man's bumbling is shown is an exaggerated and humorous light, and, counterintuitively, makes it easier to draw connections between the caricature and real life because the hyperbole exaggerates the flaws in society to the point where the viewer knows where to look. As we can see, what DVDLaser.com calls "pieced together faded, poorly-focused snippets of film" and "pasted on a soundtrack with only a passing attempt at synchronization" does more than please readers. The absurd humor and irony are elemental in revealing the underlying message of Gods.
By taking a look at The Gods Must be Crazy in the context of a criteria for categorizing a work as a social satire, it becomes clear that it is indeed a social satire. Gods delivers a message about a flaw in society, the message is timely and relevant, and it uses irony as a means to deliver the message.
"Africana Movie Reviews: The Gods Must Be Crazy." Africana.com. 3/05/2001.
"The Gods Must Be Crazy (LaserDisc Review)." DVDLaser.com. 3/04/2001.
Paper for English 102, Winter Quarter, 2001
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