The Producers (1968)

The Producers – 1968

Director – Mel Brooks

Starring – Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, and Kenneth Mars

Everything is accelerating.  Things today move faster than they did before, and those things move incrementally faster than they did before that.  Information is always evolving, the delivery speed is increasing, it’s digested faster, and more than ever, what was once an original idea has been re-made, re-packaged, or re-told, so many times that the original now no longer seems all that original or groundbreaking.  Never is this more true than with film, and never more so than with comedy.  Unfortunately, for a film that is more than 40 years old, has been remade into both a movie as well as a stage play, this is most-definitely true for the Producers.

The Producers tells the story of a hack theater director, Max Bialystock (Mostel), and his sheepish accountant, Leo Bloom (Wilder), who attempt to raise lots of money to make a purposefully bad play, so that it bombs on opening night and they can write off (keep) the invested cash.  The pair work hard to shock, annoy, and anger their audience, but much to their, and everyone’s, surprise their play about a young and carefree Hitler and Eva Braun, is a rollicking success when it’s seen as comedic rather than serious.  So their grand scheme plan backfires, and they accidentally have one of the most successful opening nights ever.

The Producers just didn’t wow me.  I didn’t grow up with it like I did Spaceballs.  It wasn’t that rare diamond in the rough that I came to find later in life, such as Young Frankenstein, and it doesn’t have the reputation of comedy mainstay that Blazing Saddles has.  The shock value of trivializing Hitler and the Nazi’s is something that, today, is pretty commonplace, (when ever you need a good bad guy in a movie or a good punchline to a joke, Nazi’s are always a good fall back) so it didn’t seem all that outrageous, shocking, or hilarious to watch it in this film.

Now rationally, I realize that The Producers was, at least in part, responsible for this evolution of humor and it’s more than a little ironic that this influence is making me enjoy the film less, but it’s still hard to get through a movie where you’ve heard the jokes, or at the very least a variation on the jokes, time and time again.  There were a few instances where I was smiling, some where I snickered a little bit, but I don’t think I ever really laughed out loud, or even inwardly to myself.

The film’s real selling point was the outrageously brash humor.  What are these guys willing to say to get their play made.  What sort of illicit sexual favors are they going to promise to widows in order to bilk them out of money so they can finance this ruse.  Since I grew up with things like Eddie Murphey’s Delirious, Airplane!, This is Spinal Tap, and shows like the Simpsons and Family Guy, it’s pretty hard for a film to slap my face and rub my nose in shocking material, especially one from the 60’s.  That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but the battle is most definitely uphill for the film.

In terms of acting, Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder are actually really good together.  Mostel plays as the boisterous and gregarious Bialystock and is a good counterpoint to Wilder’s very neurotic, Woody Allen-ish,  Bloom.  The undeniable chemistry of the pair builds from the first scene and each works so well off of the others performance.  This chemistry is actually the film’s saving grace in many instances,  where the film’s jokes fell flat, these two managed to hold my attention and keep engaging me.  One weak point in the film, was the annoyingly unaware of his surroundings character played by Kenneth Mars.  Mars plays a German expatriate  playwright, who writes the sappy romantic story of Adolph and Eva in complete seriousness.  His performance plays like a bigot with downs syndrome.  More than a bit heavy-handed, and annoying, and every time he was on screen I couldn’t wait for him to be off screen again.

When all is said and done, I realize its importance historically on this list, but I would have given it’s spot to a funnier movie (The Big Lebowski, Bad Santa or Hot Shots! anyone?), or even if you want to give the prize to Mel Brooks (and I realize this is my particular bias), why not History of the World Part 1, or the ever glorious Spaceballs?  The Producers had potential, but it was potential with a limited shelf life, and unfortunately it’s past it’s freshness date.  I realize my stance might not be popular, but really I’m just saying…It’s not terrible, it’s just not great either.

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Kes (1969)

Kes – 1969

Director – Ken Loach

Starring – David Bradley, Brian Glover, and Freddie Fletcher

Coal mining town? Check.  Dismal future? Check.  Bleak story and pale washed-out color palette? Check. Yup, we have ourselves a film from straight out of England from the 60’s.  Filled with angry young men doomed to continually revisit the heartbreak and disappointment that is their legacy, films like these made up their own film movement in the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s.  Where other movements like the French New Wave, and Italian Neo-Realism seemed to relish the joy and spontaneity that could be present in everyday life, this typically English set of films seemed steeped in the grimy misery that surrounded the working classes of hard scrabble England.  These films primarily deal with young men, raging and rebelling against a system that invariably gets the better of them.  While that may seem an overly grim assessment of the this genre, it’s not meant to take away from the fact that these films often illustrate that in such hard-times also exist small moments of beauty and freedom.

Kes, a film about a troubled young boy, bullied at home and at school, finds solace and acceptance in the act of raising and training a raptor (bird), and manages to illustrate this struggle for freedom and happiness quite effectively.  Juxtaposing the cramped, dirty, and oppressive imagery of the institutions that keep our main character, Billy, tied down, with imagery of him caring for, reading about, and training his falcon offer us a glimpse at the type of freedom Billy aspires to.

Far be it from me to chastise a film for being slow and depressing, but Kes in particular works very hard to crush and beat the anticipation and hope of something better right out of you.  Each character, Billy, Jude (or Jud if you believe IMDB), and their mother, as well as everyone at the school seem stuck in their routines.  Day in and day out, they aspire for nothing greater than to head to the pub for a pint, and beyond that perhaps a good snog to escape their realities.  There is no higher or greater goal for anyone to pursue.  The jobs are closer to punishments than careers, and the best anyone can hope for is maybe winning a marginal amount of money gambling, or a few jokes with friends after work.

Billy is no exception.  He trudges through school, endures teachers and bullies alike (although it can be hard to tell the difference), and often times suffers the same fate at home.  His brother Jude constantly berates him, and his ineffectual mother spends the majority of her time trying to catch a marry-able man.  He is lost, forgotten, and for all intents and purposes, completely alone.  Once Billy finds the falcon, Kes (of the movie’s title), suddenly a whole new world opens up for him.  He devotes his time and energy on something that gives back more reliably than something as short-sighted and temporary as gambling..  For a brief time, this animal brings Billy as close as he’s ever been to flying.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

However, as in all films of this sort, there is inevitably the point at which this new-found happiness is shattered, and we get to watch our main character crash back into the dreary life from which he came.  Often times, it is due to some strife or conflict from a parallel story-line that comes back around from earlier in the film.  In this instance it’s his contentious relationship with his older brother, Jude (it’s unclear whether or not they are actually brothers, but for all intents and purposes he is).  The film starts with them fighting, and hurling insults at the other, and it ends similarly.   Jude is determined, not to help his little brother find a way out, but to ensure that he is as unlikely to escape this life as Jude himself is.

(***End Spoilers***)

Movies out of England all seem to have a bit of melancholy to them, even Harry Potter was a boy forced to live under the stairs and be treated like a second class citizen.  From this time-frame in particular, they seem to be downright oppressive.  Kes is no exception to the rule, rather, it’s more proof of it.  The color scheme of the film is dishwater browns and grays,  and the camera work is mostly fixed position zooming and panning, tracking with our characters through these earthy, sparse environments.  I’m not sure if the lack of color, or stillness of the frame was intentional in this film or based out of necessity, but whether it was or wasn’t, it was exceedingly effective, tempering any expectation that Billy would be successful in his spiritual exodus, with the reality of his eventual conformity.

Definitely, a tear-jerker towards the end, Kes is a prime example of the “Angry Young Men” (dubbed so by the folks at the Filmspotting podcast) movement of English film, and the remarkable depression of an entire class of working people.  While it is not an easy watch, it does resonate with the viewer at an emotional level.  While none of the imagery has stuck with me in particular, the themes and tone of the film have been rattling around in my brain since I saw it.  It’s a tough watch, though, so be prepared.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Goddamn it, Kes!  You made me cry over a bird!” – Ashley