From a coincidental(?) pattern, to a deliberate(?) homage.
The history of film (and humanity) is littered with men comically-imitating apes, with the obligatory lemon/orange peel-in-mouth and monkey grunting/howling noises to boot. But two cinematic instances of these potentially-subversive, ancestral parodies feel particularly linked, probably because the second’s a callback to the first.
The second being 2017’s The Square, and its scene-in-question looks like a blow-out of a certain sequence from 1936’s My Man Godfrey. Here are both, in chronological order:
Besides the obvious superficial similarities, the differences between the two are probably more readily apparent. But they enter into (what seems like an intentional) conversation with each other when their respective movies’ shared themes come into focus, namely: the relationship between art, artists, and class.
At their cores, the general settings of each are the same: two artists must make a mockery of themselves for the bemusement of their “philanthropic” donors. But the last laugh is on the socialites, for both movies satirize (to the point of ridicule) the mores of the wealthy, and the subtextual commentary undergirding both animalistic performances operates on two levels.
- They’re extreme manifestations of how the upper-crust view AND treat the poor, including artists who live off their patronage (quite literally — and excessively — in My Man Godfrey‘s case; the “ape” can’t stop scarfing down their grub). They’re subhuman play-things, like pet dancing-monkeys who the cultural elites throw life-giving shekels at for sport, for their own entertainment and amusement.
- And yet, who are the real animals: those forced to act like animals because that’s what’s required of them by their supporting benefactors to survive in their impoverished worlds, or those who only part with their moolah in exchange for such dehumanizing spectacles? Class without class, as they say.
Now, the movies deviate in terms of the liberties their artists are allowed to take. My Man Godfrey reserves some savaging for the vocation, specifically the contradictions implicit in his triangular existence, marked by:
- A hatred of money
- A love of food, and
- Perpetual procrastination
It’s tough to balance those three; gluttony writes checks that an endlessly-percolating artistic-process can’t cash. He’s a voracious consumer who appears to produce nothing except chuckles out of his backers (which aren’t nothing!). At the end of the day, he serves at the whims of his patrons; as long as they’re happy, he’s in the money.
Though artists have always subtlety shaded their underwriters, The Square‘s “gorilla” attacks them directly, and physically. In doing so, his “art” — performance art is art and an art, you conservatives! — becomes about challenging the aristocracy’s taste and refinement; his antics are a reflection of who his audience actually is underneath all their cloaking pretenses.
Their voluntary attendance at this gala is the only reason he can afford to get up to such shenanigans, which connects to My Man Godfrey‘s ending. Will the rich save the downtrodden — be they starving artists or just starving people — out of the goodness of their hearts?
As Godfrey comes to understand, the path to navigating out of financial straits for the lower classes is predicated upon figuring out what the rich are willing to “dump” their money into, be it a swanky new bar, a comedic-aside made flesh, or a piece of “evolutionary” performance art.