Saturday, August 16, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks vs. Terry Gilliam

I’m starting out with what I consider an easy one. Sense of humor is generally so involuntary and so tied to each individual that one can hardly blame someone for not connecting with one comedian and not another.

Basically, I don’t think Mel Brooks is funny and that hurdle is a mile high. I’ve never been big into the prepackaged joke/gag/skit style humor. Parody, on the other hand, is a mode I’ve liked from a very young age and I was initially flattered by Brooks’ nods and winks, his trust that I would appreciate his send-ups of clichés and recognize his references to movies. Today, it all seems a little too easy. The inversions are just so obvious; too frequently reliant on crudity rather than creativity. With long, contrived windups and go-for-the-gut humor that works only on a single level, I end up seeing the punchlines coming, waiting for them to arrive and then sighing at their delivery.

Even when conflicting senses of humor crash, a film can still be salvaged if it has a solid core of characters, story and technical craft. “Young Frankenstein” (my favorite by Brooks) and “Blazing Saddles” both have characters that [just barely] manage to establish themselves as more than pale parody shadows, but the same can’t be said for most of his work. The plots are similarly bare and derivative (only “The Producers” manages an original premise), and although this may be intentional, it is not a requirement of parody. The recent work of Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) is a great example of how to make fun of a genre while still taking advantage of its pleasures. As for artistic merit, Brooks is too concerned with setting up gags to bother with beauty or style.

Terry Gilliam is my pick for a better alternative, though they might not initially seem similar. Gilliam has also worked in the skit format (Monty Python and the Flying Circus) and in feature-length parody (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but his films are characterized by the type of humor I particularly enjoy: absurdity, anarchy and unpredictability.

Both directors have used ironic post-modern endings: Mel Brooks in “Blazing Saddles” and “Spaceballs”; Terry Gilliam in “Holy Grail”, “Time Bandits” and “Brazil.” Yet Gilliam’s endings possess deeper meaning and emotional weight, whereas Brooks – planning only as far as the next episodic skit – blunders into abrupt pitfalls by failing to develop characters, prepare a climax or decide on a resolution. He finds himself in dead ends, ultimately climbing over the fourth wall to escape.

However, the top reason Gilliam always engages me more is his ability to creatively balance comedy with quality. His sense of atmosphere, for instance, is so encompassing that it’s like walking into a time period that never happened. Rather than comically undermining well-recognized archetypes like Mel Brooks, Gilliam invents characters like none we’ve ever met, and does so without sacrificing our desire to relate and cheer for them. His stories are full of originality, imagination and ingenuity, with humor rising out of a network of fresh ideas. Mel Brooks picks through well-worn material, turning genre clichés on their heads and roughly shaking the humor out.


Patti said...

I totally dig Gilliam, but how does "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" not crawl over the fourth wall at its conclusion when no other end is in sight?

FilmWalrus said...

It's a fine line. I guess that, for me, the difference is between fleeing from no ending vs running to a better ending. Monty Python certainly could have ended it as most grail quest legends do: the grail is found and the finder becomes the new guardian until the next seeker sets forth. But they choose to do something different and planned to end it the way they did from the beginning.

Mad Dog said...

Brooks vs. Gilliam? I'm not so sure that they're competitors against each other, to be perfectly honest. When was the last time Gilliam produced a straight-up parody/comedy?

FilmWalrus said...

First of all, I don't think directors are competitors against each other in general so I want to think of this more as an opinion thing. To be honest, I can't think of any parody director I really like (that is part of the point: I don't like that type of comedy much). I mentioned Edgar Wright, but of course, he hasn't made enough films to meet my 5 film criteria. Gilliam has Holy Grail, Life of Brian (I know, not really his), Yellow Beard, Jabberwocky and The Man of La Mancha (I know, he didn't finish it), so I thought it got closer than most, but yeah... it is a stretch and maybe that just proves how far the gap is between Brooks and anything I like. I will admit I'm pretty all-around weak in comedy, so I'm open to other suggestions.

Hey, I did say the first one would be easy! The other episodes will be closer matches.

Mad Dog said...

Perhaps a better way of getting my thought across (yes, I have been obsessing over how to put this) is that I wouldn't say the two of them had parallel directing careers? I guess my point was just that Gilliam's moved on to mostly dramatic stuff nowadays and Brooks basically stuck to the same schtick.

FilmWalrus said...

I agree that they have very different evolutions as directors, but they do have some interesting career parallels:
1) They both got started doing animated shorts.
2) They both had a background in skit-based comedy.
3) They came to fame in the 1970's and continued working into the 1990's.
4) They specialized in comedies with at least a few parodies each.
5) They usually do their own writing and make cameo appearences as actors in their films.
6) They were both known for mining and often satirizing their traditionally well-respected heritages for humor (e.i. Jewish and British respectively).
7) They were both criticized for borrowing from their own films.

That said, they differ greatly in their sense of humor, style, ambition and preoccupations. I think it's these differences that are insightful. Keep in mind that unlike the Iceberg Arenas I am not choosing the full pairs up front. I pick the director I don't love first and then do my best to find the closest correspondant that I do like. I'm only trying to keep them as simular as I can in the hope that it will cause the differences to stand out in starker contrast.

Your help with comedy directors (there will be at least one more pair) would be useful, as it is definitely one of my weak areas.

Anonymous said...


It's not about choosing one over the other, so much as illustrating that you are not a shriveled up husk of a film reviewer who cannot enjoy comedies altogether (...sometimes?) by giving a counterexample.