Summer Classes: “The Producers”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I take on Mel Brooks’ theatrical comedy, “The Producers.” 


While watching “The Producers,” all I could really think about was the ways that progressive, transgressive comedy becomes the cliché of tomorrow. I remember how fresh, controversial and thought-provoking the obscenity of “Mr. Show” felt in the late ’90s, the raw fusion of boundary pushing jokes with ’60s zaniness in “The Sarah Silverman Program” and the way that “Louie” has fused the urban jungle of New York City with the familiarly skewed headscape of the titular comedian. I was saddened thinking about the comedy that pushes borders now being looked back on as something hokey, repetitive or worst of all, unfunny.

Mel Brooks’ 1968 film is revered in theater circles mostly, I assume, for its slightly meta premise. It naturally led to a remake, albeit an unbearable musical one, in 2005 and has run in theaters forever. It totally makes sense why. Its a film that claims to be offensive and crass and in bad taste where really its a bold concept pushed into a slapdash slapstick caper comedy.

Part of the problem is how little there really is to the movie. This is really clearly a first movie script, with it barely lasting to 84 minutes and much of that running time is devoted to Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel engaging in really broad slap stick. Brooks excelled at writing genre parodies where he had less of a need to write characters and needed to just write jokes. The whole thing plods through every scene that doesn’t feature jokes about Hitler. I was consistently reminded of pop culture aficionado Nathan Rabin’s description of Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror.” We’re waiting for them to bust out that machine gun leg and when they do, it is going to be glorious.

I’m personally sort of mystified by what comes after that. As the eponymous producers prepare to reap in the profits from their sure fire flop, the musical moves into its second act, in which L.S.D., played by Dick Shawn, plays Hitler as a bizarre combination of a mincing homosexual stereotype with an amalgam of hippy singer-songwriter traits. Hitler is all grooves and swinging hips and the crowd eats it up for no discernible reason. Its not clear if Brooks is making fun of musicals, their audiences or the ridiculousness of it all but it just doesn’t land.

Its abundantly clear that Trey Parker and Matt Stone learned a lot from the first song of “Springtime for Hitler.” Combining the most garish clichés of the classic musical with the ridiculous excess of fascism and a portrayal of Hitler as an overall just misunderstood guy is hysterical, if solely because of the combination of form and lyrics. The overall surreal stylings of the second act lessen the impact of the dissonance of form and function.

When “The Producers” clicks, its almost unbearably funny but everything else is stuck in a movie that feels like a relic. There are lisping gay theater stars, unnecessarily long static scenes, strange shifts of momentum and tone and a bit of a predictable cop-out ending but that’s not what I’m going to remember of the whole thing. Its a fun film in retrospect but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh a lot more at “Spaceballs” when i watched it minutes later.

Next Class: The Summer of Whedon is coming to a close so it looks like we’ll be exploring the least deserving spinoff show since “Joey,” the LA supernatural kung-fu noir of “Angel.”

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“Look, a Suicide Girl!”

The internet has had a grand tradition of putting anachronistic figures together and just watching them bounce off of one another. The recently abandoned but still glorious “Bob Hates Andy” threw Bob Dylan at his one-sided rival, Andy Warhol, to hilarious results. Now, the Sarcastic Voyage podcast has offered us a brand new pair of rivals, starring the overly peppy and pissy Neil Gaiman pestering Alan Moore. Making everything better, they’re both puppets in the most homemade and low-fi sense. The two episodes that have been released so far both revolve around Moore’s frustration with “Before Watchmen” but watching the crotchety recluse yell at Gaiman couldn’t possibly get old.

From catchphrases to kingdoms: A review of “The Dictator” with an eye on cinema history

Sasha Baron Cohen has, in a way, become one of the most recognizable names in comedy, right next to Judd Apatow, Paul Feig and Todd Phillips. Going from “Da Ali G Show” to the generation defining “Borat” and the less successful and memorable “Bruno,” Cohen defined the confrontational, single camera, in your face stylings that would go onto help to define the single camera sitcom, found footage films and reality television inspired media of all sorts.

“The Dictator” is his first shot at really creating a fully constructed, scripted and self coherent film without depending on the reactions of unwitting pseudo-extras. In my eyes, it was a necessary evil. What people remember the most about “Borat” was watching people rapidly make a fool out of themselves when faced with a camera and a foreigner. We weren’t laughing at the camera, we were laughing at our own unfettered national id.

Cohen didn’t quite have the same ability to do that in a scripted film. He can’t depend on characters who were little more tha a reflection of established stereotypes and norms. He would have to create a world for them to occupy and other characters to react off of them.

“The Dictator” tries desperately to do this, often to little success. While Cohen’s creation, the depraved Gaddafi stand in, Admiral General Aladeen is an ingenious character, someone the audience always wants to hear more from as he tastelessly goes through the motions of slaughtering his underlings, hiring and firing body doubles and callously insulting every race he comes across. He’s a buffoonish idiot savant, another character in the Groucho Marxian tradition who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, only to be trounced again and again by his own baffling ignorance.

“The Dictators” borrows much from the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” and even more from Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” both following foolish men who cling to the disastrous power that they couldn’t possibly be qualified to wield. That being said, “The Dictator” is nowhere near as ambitious or funny as the aforementioned films. Unlike the Marx Brothers, Cohen is interested in creating something of a searing criticism of democracy and foreign economic interests and unlike Kubrick, he’s not quite smart enough to balance the comedy and satire. “The Dictator” throws a lot at the screen at once, hoping that the low brow hits just as hard and as often as the only slightly more informed political jokes.

By no means is Cohen aiming for a satire of “In The Loop” or the more recent “Veep” style seriousness. His wheelhouse has always been in near cartoonish antics mixed with damn-near-vaudeville-minstrelsy levels of ironic self distancing racism. All of Cohen’s movies have fallen into a genre I hope to further define called Smart-Movies-For-Dumb-People, the main members of which are “Fight Club,” “Freddy Got Fingered” and every Christopher Nolan movie that isn’t “Following” or “Batman Begins”. These are the kind of movies that people like because they feel smart for understanding them. The films are usually just challenging enough that nearly everyone walks away from them understanding exactly what they need to and are visually compelling enough to attract a mass audience. I’m not saying these movies are bad, I’m just saying that their aims are never for art or directorial finesse. They’re just strictly commercial products and many of them succeed as such.

And that’s the real problem with “The Dictator.” When it isn’t including scenes of Cohen shitting on women, smashing his penis against windows, milking women like they’re cows or arrogantly and hilariously insulting everyone he comes across, he’s making ham fisted political jokes about how America may as well be a dictatorship and that democracy is uniquely flawed. It’s a formulaic crowd pleaser that never strays to far from what audiences expect, even if it meets those often chuckle worthy expectations.

Episode 14- “Shore Leave” and flights of fancy without safety.

I had become pretty wary of comedy on Star Trek after “Mudd’s Women,” which still stands as the series’ only unmitigated disaster, so I was pretty hesitant when “Shore Leave” started going. There’s not a lot of ways to interpret a cold open that includes a man in a rabbit suit as anything but another comedy episode.

Not a very safe way to start a serious episode, but it really works as a comedy.

 

“Shore Leave” mostly works for the reasons that “Mudd’s Women” failed. The characters manage to stay pretty true to their constructed personas, there is a mostly tangible and understandable threat, and there isn’t a super bizarre big reveal that undoes and recontextualizes most of the episode. There are problems, but what episode of Star Trek doesn’t have those “hey, we should have actually read the script through once or twice” moments.

The crew of the Enterprise is exhausted and Kirk commissions a scouting party to investigate a planet to see if it is safe for shore leave. While the scans turn up no life on the planet, McCoy encounters Alice and the March Hair, two crew men are held at bay by a tiger and Sulu finds a revolver. When Kirk arrives, things start getting really dangerous, with one of the captain’s Academy tormentors appearing, a samurai appearing to threaten Sulu and McCoy trying to get some from his seduced assistant, Yeoman Barrows.

Yes, she loves McCoy. Him?

 

So it’s all a little weird. The hallucinations are interesting, although not particularly threatening. It’s all fun to watch, but the attacking fighter plane and the tiger seem like pretty passive threats that can just be ignored. Even when Kirk is getting the shit kicked out of him by Finnegan, the threat isn’t there, but there is a sense of comedy and wonder. The samurai presents a little bit of a threat, but he pretty much just gets pushed out of the way or run away from.

I’m not saying that this doesn’t make the episode not work or something. It manages to keep a pretty light tone, but there’s not much danger. It’s funny, but I never felt that involved with the plot. Maybe that’s just a problem coming off of “Balance of Terror” and “The Conscience of the King,” but the lack of danger was a little bit of a turn off.

That being said, the humor really works. By no means would I have picked McCoy to be the womanizing character, but he manages some mostly meaningful moments, and he gets plenty of good jokes, namely “I’m a doctor. When I peek, it’s in the line of duty.” Sulu randomly firing a revolver also has it’s own weird source of humor.

Also, this establishing shot. Hilarious, let me tell ya'.

 

Besides the general goofiness, the episode is really strikingly shot. Up till now, the entirety of the series has taken place in shell like cabins, on enclosed bridges and on some of the most poorly constructed sets known to man. It does wonders to see the characters sprinting through the woods, touching actual flowers, and climbing rocks that are delightfully not made of Styrofoam. There are a couple of really striking moments of characters running towards danger with a camera placed low and shot at the oncoming actors. It communicates danger in a way that cannot be managed on small sets with tiny rooms and tight hallways.

McCoy’s death also manages to up the threat in the episode, but it is mostly spoiled by having Kirk just fistfight bullies for about ten fucking minutes, but that moment is pretty well done. The characters are sad, Kirk tries to figure out a way to solve it, Barrows cries and wails and Spock figures out the facts. The characters do what we know what they should do and it is true without betraying the weight of the situation. It’s not like we think that McCoy is dead, but it is important to know that the characters take the danger seriously.

But c'mon, how awesome would it be if he died from getting gored by a lance?

 

The ending is a little sketchy, but it works as well as a plot like this can. It seems like the characters would have been able to figure out what was going on a little bit earlier than they did, but having the god-like caretaker just sort of appear and explain the whole thing as a super dangerous misunderstanding where you could live out your greatest memories, or you-know, just sort of accidentally kill yourself, really seems like a bit of a dues-ex-machina. That being said, without it, how else could we have had the moment with McCoy coming out with the two Rigel chorus girls that is the highlight of the episode?

I like “Shore Leave.” I really do. It’s not the greatest episode ever, but it’s funny and it works and I don’t walk away feeling like I got totally got shat on by the ending. There’s little else that I can ask for.

Random Notes

“I’ve got a personal grudge against that rabbit, Jim.”

“I don’t know how or why, the dress is here. I’d like to see you in it.”

Sulu is in this episode! And he has a gun! And I mentioned him already! Sadly, he does not get a big enough role to warrant my long gestating Sulu theory.

As usual, Spock’s reaction shots are moments of surreal comic genius. Sort of.

Apparently, there were some problems in the writer’s room on this one. Roddenberry thought that the episode was too goofy and had someone rewrite it. A misunderstanding led to the episode having even more fantastic elements in it. Roddenberry was rewriting most of the episode as production went on, which definitely makes the lack of a threat make sense.

Next Up: “The Galileo Seven” which I assume will be about a group of philosopher/scientists who recreate “Seven Samurai.”

PS: I’m moving in the next few days. Posts should be back to normal after a few days. Not like there’s much of a pattern really, but things might be a little abnormal for a while.