Archive for Mel Brooks

The Sunday Intertitle: Brown is the New Black

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by dcairns


The brown intertitles are one of the many reasons to be skeptical of Mel Brooks’ SILENT MOVIE, his least-seen movie from his seventies run of hits. There’s a lack of panache in the film-making (signature shot — zoom in, a bit too fast, on somebody, panning as they cross the cheap, barren set) and even a basic lack of care (establishing shot on New York is a photograph with a large smudge on it — I was waiting, and waiting, for a gag revealing it to be just a photo, but no — this movie was too cheap to buy a stock shot cityscape of Manhattan; shot of studio commissary sign, zooms out, briefly catches some extras standing in the middle of the steps, before an offscreen A.D. presumably yells “Action Two!” and they start moving…).

Some of the jokes don’t work, and some are the wrong jokes, and some aren’t even jokes at all — a man walks out of an acupuncturist’s with big needles in his back. And? It’s funny because it’s true?


And the cast — Mel Brooks is a very enthusiastic performer (he grins a lot), and can sometimes magic laughs up out of sheer exertion of that enthusiasm. But he’s not a visual comic. Marty Feldman is funny looking, alright, but his Harpo Marx lechery here comes off a bit creepy. And Dom De Luise is basically used for fat man jokes.

The best jokes tend to conceptual jokes, deploying words, as when Brooks cusses out Feldman for his ungentlemanly approach to a beautiful woman, clearly using strong epithets, and the intertitle bowdlerizes it (“You bad boy!”). It’s a silent movie whose heart is real gift is for verbal humour.


It’s a huge relief when Burt Reynolds shows up. Yes. Because Burt, it turns out, has a gigantic flair for slapstick and silent playing (strong hints of this in his work for Bogdanovich), and he has a comic character to play that’s fully worked out — a self-parody that destroys the dignity of the Burt Reynolds brand so conclusively that your respect for him actually goes up. In his short bit, he plays an inventive series of variations on the theme of self-love, and there’s an endearingly stupid gag with a steamroller.


The other guest stars are mostly very good too, which is a relief since Harold Gould and Sid Caesar are compelled to overact uncomfortably. Bernadette Peters is a great cartoon character with a kind of silent movie look, but there’s no writing to help her get a character going. (I had forgotten Barry Levinson was a writer on this — I guess that kind of explains TOYS, which would otherwise be an entirely mysterious anomaly in his career).

A lot of the best jokes involve signs — I could certainly do a “Things I Read Off the Screen in SILENT MOVIE” post. If your best jokes involve signs, perhaps you are not the right people to make a silent comedy.


Marcel Marceau bit is pretty great. It doesn’t require the audience to love mime. Again, the movie breaks character in order to do a spoken word joke, but it’s a good one.

The movie is oddly likable, even though you cringe as much as you laugh. A minute or so of three men in suits of armour trying and failing to join Liza Minnelli at a refectory table is enough to redeem any number of failed jokes involving carousel horses shitting wooden blocks.

Why George Lucas Has No Penis

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 29, 2015 by dcairns


As a coda to Seventies Sci-Fi Week-and-a-Half, here’s a piece I wrote ages ago and then didn’t post because it was too mean, and its subject is a rich and powerful man. On re-reading it, I decided it’s not that mean and its subject isn’t really its subject — it’s a kind of parody of the style of Professor Joseph Slade, whose article “Bernard Natan, France’s Legendary Pornographer” cast him as chief villain in NATAN, the documentary Paul Duane and I collaborated on (which also features crooked businessmen and Nazis, so Slade had to work hard to attain the top spot). The game is “psychoanalyse a moviemaker based on his work” — inferring all sorts of offensive assumptions on slender textual evidence. So I hope Mr. Lucas will see the funny side and not sic the assassination wing of Industrial Light and Magic on my ass.



Exhibit A.

I don’t want you to misconstrue from the title of the post, or any of the many bad things I say in it, that this is an anti-Lucas screed. It’s more about examining George‘s immortal creation, the original STAR WARS, to see how it is in fact a coded cri-de-coeur from a man who wants to be virile and thrusting, to satisfy women, to have a penis, and yet cannot do any of these things, because he doesn’t have a penis.

Exhibit B: the light sabre. When Mel Brooks spoofed this peculiar weapon in SPACEBALLS (a title calculated to appeal to the untesticled Lucas), it wasn’t particularly funny, perhaps because the sight of Bill Pullman miming the act of clutching a long, luminous erection somehow doesn’t inspire hilarity, only a queasy urge to withdraw from the vicinity as soon as possible. But also because the joke is too obvious — and I don’t mean in the sense that all dick jokes are, by definition, obvious, I mean that the light sabre is already a naked phallic symbol impossible to parody. In terms of physics, it makes no sense — it’s apparently made of light, yet the beam comes to a dead halt just when you need it to, and it’s solid. And from the way they swing them around, it looks like it has a little weight too. What else is solid, comes to a dead halt when you need it to, and has a little weight? Of course: a penis.


Exhibit C: Darth Vader. Authors automatically project onto their villains their own undesirable qualities. In Peter Pan, Captain Hook is frequently described as “impotent” by J.M. Barrie, and the pirate’s missing limb is a clear metaphor for his sexual deficiency. Vader on the one hand, like everybody else in the STAR WARS universe, represents Lucas‘ craving for an aura of powerful masculinity: he is large and imposing, he has a light sabre, he has a black man’s voice like Barry White, and his heavy breathing suggests a state of permanent physical arousal. But it also suggests acute asthma, and it is here that Darth’s status as a disabled war veteran reveals Lucas‘ secret anxiety about his masculinity.

His name is a thinly-veiled reconstruction of the words “death invader” and he is an intrusion of the thanatic, anti-life principle into the living world. As a result, Vader is not sexually active, and when faced with a desirable woman, in his power, Vader chooses to attack her with a surrogate robot, armed only with a tiny needle. This reveals Lucas‘ subconscious anxiety that his tiny penis, if he has one, which he definitely doesn’t, is too small.

(Some may suggest that Vader feels no sexual desire for Princess Leia because she’s his daughter, but in fact this is not so. She’s not his daughter in the first film because Lucas had not yet written the other films at the time he made it. He hadn’t even started pretending that he had written the other five — or is it eight? — films.)

Exhibit D: R2-D2. Although the long, shiny C3-PO and the short, buff R2, like many comic double acts, represent a kind of analog of the human penis and scrotum, it is in R2’s electronic interface shaft that we see again Lucas‘ longing for a penis he can call his own. A kind of plug, jack, or cable (all words with sexual significance), R2’s mechanical member allows him to sexually violate other machines, including even the all-powerful Death Star. Though small and inarticulate, like Lucas, R2 possesses the power, unlike Lucas, to make things happen with his ding-a-ling. In one famous scene, he sticks it in the Death Star and forces her destructive, vagina dentata gnashers to release the trapped heroes who have unwisely ventured down the garbage disposal shaft which represents the Death Star’s vulva.


Exhibit E: the climax. At the climax of the film Lucas made which he called STAR WARS, not A NEW HOPE, we get a flurry of erotic symbolism so insistent as to be almost dizzying. The death star attempts to assume the phallic role by planning to shoot a laser cannonade at Yavin, a green, Gaia-like world representing the life principle. To prevent this, a whole fleet of phallic spacecraft are launched, each with its own X-rating in the form of criss-cross wings replacing the testicles.

The goal of these craft is to turn the Death Star into a big space vagina and penetrate it, thus “fucking it up.” They do this first by diving into a groove on the satellite’s surface, then firing a so-called “proton torpedo” into its “cooling shaft”. All while R2 sits directly behind Luke, stimulating his prostate with that computerized dildo attachment of his.

I have said that this is a mechanized version of sexual intercourse, but what it more closely resembles is the act of fertilisation. The Death Star is an egg and the X-wing fighters are sperm, swimming together in a race to penetrate the ovum. The fact that in this case, the goal achieved leads to a big explosion and thousands of deaths probably reflects Lucas‘ neurotic anxieties, but on the other hand, the destruction of the death star saves Yavin, and so billions of lives on the fecund world are saved.

Lucas‘ cast of characters are mostly sexually dysfunctional or incapable of maintaining an erection. Ben Kenobi is an elderly Englishman, as is the Grand Moff Tarkin. Luke Skywalker delivers his first line of dialogue in a shrill, pansified falsetto. C3-PO and Chewbacca have noapparent generative organs of any kind, and Princess Leia is a woman.

In Lucas‘s predominantly metallic, sterile universe, the only truly virile human is Han Solo, who doesn’t need to surround himself with phallic symbols.

His blaster is of no more than standard size, his space-ship looks more like a cake than anything else, and he is so secure in his masculinity that he travels around with a shaggy beast, just like Clint Eastwood in EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE. Though his name strongly implies the act of masturbation, Han Solo is obviously a sexual conquistador of awesome dexterity. Chewbacca, Han’s “co-pilot” (read: fuck-buddy) is a savage male artifact in his own right, but his name (chewing tobacco) signifies his true role, as a lovable Walter Brennan sidekick with whom Han can, if he wishes, enjoy vigorous bouts of recreational sex.


Just imagine him flanked by two Ewoks.

The top ten sexual innuendos of STAR WARS, via Strange Places.

1. “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
2. “Curse my metal body, I wasn’t fast enough!”
3. “Look at the size of that thing!”
4. “Sorry about the mess…”
5. “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.”
6. “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”
7. “You’ve got something jammed in here real good.”
8. “Put that thing away before you get us all killed!”
9. “Luke, at that speed do you think you’ll be able to pull out in time?”
10. “Get in there you big furry oaf, I don’t care *what* you smell!”

Quote of the Day: Days and Nights in the Forest

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2008 by dcairns

Into the Woods

“A LUMINOUS AFTERNOON in the black-and-white forest. The monster, played by Boris Karloff, pauses as he hears the sweet notes of a violin. His face lights, he lumbers through the woods, following the sound. He comes to a cosy cottage among the trees, very gingerbread. Inside, the violin is being played by a blind hermit, who is being played by O.P. Heggie. The monster approaches, and pounds on the door.”

~ from Jimmy the Kid, by Donald E. Westlake.

Well, since we just had Otto Preminger Week, seems like a good idea to name-check that other O.P., surname Heggie.

(Actually, Westlake conflates two scenes: the daylight forest above, and the hermit encounter which happens at dusk.)

The Sound of Music

The parody of the blind hermit scene in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, with an exuberant Gene Hackman in the Heggie role, is so very fine it almost ruins the original. But Mel Brooks clearly loves the James Whale movies he’s satirising, so there’s no real damage done. It may be a difficulty of the parody genre — if the filmmaker doesn’t love what s/he’s mocking, the spoof rarely hits the right notes. If they do love it, the parody won’t have bite. In Brooks’ case he’s not out to destroy the original, he’s just riffing on it, and so we end up with a pleasing comedy version of ’30s Universal horror, rather than any kind of deconstruction of it. Whereas BLAZING SADDLES attacks the ailing western the way Gary Cooper attacks Jack Lord in MAN OF THE WEST, not only delivering a punitive beating, but tearing the pants off it as well.

The Dead Walk


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