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What I Watched In… September 2016

rope

Favorite of the Month: Rope (1948)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Pit and the Pendulum (1961), C+
  2. Superman (1978), A+
  3. Superman II (1980), B+
  4. Superman III (1983), C
  5. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D
  6. Arachnia (2003), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), A
  8. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  9. Maggie (2015), B+
  10. Sex in the Comix (2012), B
  11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), A
  12. Contracted (2013), B-
  13. Contracted: Phase II (2015), C
  14. Coherence (2013), B+
  15. Sabotage (1936), B
  16. Trumbo (2015), B
  17. Deathgasm (2015), D
  18. The Phantom Carriage (1921), B+
  19. Black Swan (2010), A-
  20. Burying the Ex (2014), B
  21. Ex Machina (2015), A
  22. Lilo and Stitch (2002), B
  23. Psycho (1960), A+
  24. Psycho II (1983), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  25. DC Super Hero Girls: Hero of the Year (2016), B
  26. Hitchcock (2012), B+
  27. Horror of Dracula (1958), B
  28. Riding the Bullet (2004), C
  29. Ruby (1977), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  30. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), B+
  31. The Fly (1986), B+
  32. Ghostheads (2016), B
  33. Holidays (2016), B-
  34. Monster House (2006), B
  35. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), B+
  36. Wayne’s World (1992), A-
  37. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+
  38. The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009), C
  39. Murder Party (2007), B
  40. Rope (1948), A
  41. Dreamcatcher (2003), C
  42. Trollhunter (2010), B
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On Gene Wilder, Why We Go to the Movies, and Why We Don’t

Willy Wonka2016 will be known, among other things, as the year death became a serial killer targeting celebrities. The most recent, as least at the time that I’m writing this, was one of the ones that hit me hardest: Gene Wilder. Although his body of work was relatively small, the movies he made in his lifetime were some of my favorites: Young Frankenstein, The Producers, The Little Prince… and of course, the two films that AMC Theaters showcased this weekend, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles. When my wife, Erin, told me that they were going to play these films, I knew I’d married the right woman. She was as anxious to go as I was, even though unlike me, she’s not a huge fan of Blazing Saddles, which just goes to prove that marriage is about loving your partner even when they’re wrong.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an area where there are a lot of small cinemas or retrospective houses, and the Fathom Events/TCM screenings of classic movies are usually on weeknights, when I need to get up early for work the next day. It’s not often that we get a chance to see an older movie on the big screen, and despite the increasing hassle that accompanies going to a movie theater, that’s still the best way to see a movie. I was immediately excited for this double feature.

Willy Wonka Movie PosterWe filed in to see Willy Wonka at the 5 p.m. show. The theater was surprisingly full, and I would guess about 75 percent of the audience were parents and their children. You expect this with the latest Disney release, or whatever Dreamworks movie is currently featuring a rubbery character using the same facial expression as every other one, but it was a little surprising to see so many kids for Willy Wonka. Obviously it’s a movie that’s tailor-made for children, but it’s also 45 years old. I know from experience how difficult it can be to get kids to watch an older movie.

The lights went down, the film began, and within five minutes I was reminded of why I go to the movies.

Most of those parents with their kids were, I would guess, about my age or younger – which is to say, they were all born in the 45 years since this movie was originally released. Although I would guess that virtually every adult (and many of the children) in the theater had seen this movie, I would also guess that almost nobody in the room had seen it on the big screen before. (I myself remember vividly the first time I saw this movie: on one of those rolling TV carts they used to wheel around elementary schools on those days they needed to keep the kids quiet for a while.) The kids were enraptured. They laughed when Grampa Joe went through his antics of pulling himself out of the over-occupied bed. They gasped at the intimidating presence of Mr. Slugworth. They cheered when Gene Wilder, in all his glory, limped weakly from the door to his factory before performing a front flip at the gate and teaching them a valuable lesson: you can’t always trust an adult.

It was glorious. At least three generations of fans laughing and clapping and even occasionally singing along to a movie that predates any of us… all of us together. This is what you can never replicate at home. It doesn’t matter how big your TV, how expensive your sound system, how advanced your home theater setup might be, it’s no substitute for the shared experience of seeing a beautiful film with dozens or even hundreds of other people, glorying together in the whimsical ministrations of a genius like Gene Wilder.  When the film ended, Erin even reported she overheard a little girl having an existential crisis over the fact that Charlie had blonde hair instead of brown. Her mother finally asked her, “are you thinking of the movie with Johnny Depp?” And the child, adorably, said, “Who?”

This doesn’t happen when you’re watching a Blu-Ray.

Blazing SaddlesThe movie ended and we filed out, allowed the theater staff to clean, and walked back in for Blazing Saddles. The families were gone now, replaced by adult fans. Blazing Saddles, if you somehow have never seen it, is a brilliant motion picture. Mel Brooks takes Wilder and Cleavon Little through an hour and a half of systematically dismantling racism and prejudice, while simultaneously cranking out one golden comedic moment after another. I’ve probably seen this movie ten times, but the jokes still land perfectly. And it is a testament to the brilliance of Brooks, Little, and Wilder that I still loved every frame of this movie despite the fact that the theater in which we saw it was littered with complete assholes.

You know who I’m talking about here. I’m talking about those people who pay money to sit in a movie theater and behave as if they’re on their couch at home. The ones who turn on their cell phones in the middle of the movie. The ones who keep kicking your seat. Worst of all, the comedians who think we want to hear them recite the jokes along with the movie. It’s one thing if you’re going to a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or something else where audience participation is encouraged. But this was just a simple screening, not an event specifically structured for dedicated fans. You can’t take it for granted that everybody else in the theater has seen it before. For someone seeing a movie for the first time, someone reciting the jokes along with the movie is irritating. Someone saying the punchline a second before the movie is unforgivable. And reading the signs from the sight gags out loud should be punishable by being strapped into your seat and forced to sit through a two-day repeat marathon of The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.

It was still a magnificent movie, of course, and it’s a shame that chances to see things like this are so rare. These days, making any movie is hard. Making a great comedy is almost impossible. People whose movie-going time is limited choose to spend their theater money on the big action pieces and special effects spectacles, figuring they’ll catch the smaller movies and comedies on Netflix. As a result, the smaller movies and comedies don’t make as much money, and as a result, they don’t make as many of them. The comedies that are made are picked apart and dissected from the script stage to the final cut. Spineless executives and bean-counters demand changes in the name of political correctness and appealing to increasingly-important foreign markets, which makes for an even bigger mess since – while an explosion is an explosion anywhere in the world – a joke that kills in Patterson, New Jersey will die on the vine if you try to tell it in China or Japan. So when the studios start giving notes, that’s the stuff that gets chopped.

Blazing Saddles, the masterpiece of 1974, wouldn’t stand a chance of being made in 2016.

The worst part of this, of course, is that comedies benefit more than any type of film by being seen in a theater. You can get hyped up by a superhero movie by yourself. Horror movies may be at their best when sitting on the couch cuddling someone special. But that’s not how comedies work. Laughter is infectious, my friends. One person laughing gives someone else permission to do so. Hundreds laughing is an epidemic of joy. Jokes that I’ve heard a dozen times, jokes that elicit the barest chuckle when I watch them on TV, had me splitting my guts when we watched them in the theater with other fans. It’s why going to a RiffTrax Live event is more fun than watching the digital download at home. It’s why I paid for my wife and I to watch two movies I already own on DVD. And it’s why, if my local theater decides to show Duck Soup, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, or History of the World Part I, I’ll be first in line.

Inconsiderate moviegoers aren’t enough to kill it, but they do diminish the joy of the experience, and that’s a shame. It says a lot that the children who joined us for Willy Wonka were, by far, better behaved than the adults who watched Blazing Saddles.

But the double feature did kindle something in me. I’ll be on the lookout for those classic screenings more often now. And when a true masterpiece hits the screen, even if it’s something I’ve seen a hundred times, I’ll do my best to be there.

UNRELATED ADDENDUM

While I have your attention, friends, I’m gearing up for a new Reel to Reel project. This time, in a deliberate effort to distract myself from all the misery in the world, I’ve decided to write about the most important comedies of all time.

That begs the question, of course, what ARE those?

I’m not just talking about the FUNNIEST movies, although of course the films that make the cut should certainly be that. I mean the most IMPORTANT comedies — those that have left the deepest cultural impact, that influenced the future generations the most, that started trends, that launched the careers of the greats. So I ask you, using those criteria, what movies should make the cut? I’ve started a poll in the Facebook group for the All New Showcase podcast, and I’d like to invite you all to help me create my list. Please, vote for as many movies as you want, and feel free to add as many options as you like.

Reel to Reel Comedy Poll

Lunatics and Laughter Day 3: Young Frankenstein (1974)

young-frankensteinDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks

Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Khan, Richard Haydn, Gene Hackman, Anne Beesley

Plot: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” Gene Wilder), grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, leaves his inconsistently affectionate fiancé Elizabeth (Madeline Khan), for Transylvania. He is met by Igor (“I-gor,” Marty Feldman), grandson of his grandfather’s assistant, and Inga (Teri Garr), his temporary lab assistant, who quickly displays more affection than the fiancé he left behind. Frankenstein’s castle is kept by Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), who Frederick questions about his grandfather’s “private” library. That night, Frederick is awakened from a nightmare by Inga, and, after a classic spinning bookcase gag, the two of them locate a secret passageway. At the bottom of a cobweb-covered staircase, they find Igor and the elder Frankenstein’s lab. Frederick reads his grandfather’s notes and finds the secret of animating lifeless matter, something he always believed impossible.

Igor and Frederick steal the corpse of an enormous, freshly-executed man to repeat Victor’s experiment. Igor goes on his own to steal a suitable brain for the beast, but as happened to his grandfather, fumbles with it and is forced to take an abnormal brain instead. In town, the people fear Frankenstein’s grandson, certain he is repeating his grandfather’s crimes (which, of course, he is). They recruit Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) to discover what Frederick is doing.

That night the Monster (Peter Boyle) comes to life. Although he seems gentle at first, when Igor strikes a match, he goes berserk and nearly kills Frederick. Igor confesses that he took a brain from “Abby Normal” just as Kemp arrives.  Frederick sends him off, but while he’s preoccupied Frau Blucher finds the monster and releases it. The creature breaks free from the castle, and Frederick vows to find it before it can hurt anyone. They set a trap for it the next evening, luring it with a violin and sedating it. Frederick insists upon trying to convince the creature it is loved. As he speaks to the beast, he not only takes it under his wing, but accepts his own destiny, declaring, “MY NAME IS FRANKENSTEIN!”

He presents the creature to the town, charming them with a song and dance routine before a light blows and it turns on the crowd and the police haul it away. As Frederick and Inga find comfort in each other’s arms, they receive a telegram that Elizabeth will be coming to the castle that night. After Elizabeth again rebuffs Frederick’s advances for the night, the creature – having escaped — returns to the castle. She passes out and he takes her with him to a hiding place in the woods, where she soon succumbs to its own animal desires. After a mere six times, though, the violin from the castle summons him back. Frederick decides the only way to protect the creature is to use his own brain to stabilize it. Kemp leads an angry mob, complete with torches and pitchforks, into the castle, and are about to make off with Frederick’s body, when the stable creature commands them to put him down. He gives a stirring speech and Kemp realizes the error of his ways. In the end, Frederick and Inga are married, whilst Elizabeth and the creature go off to enjoy domestic bliss of their own.

Thoughts: Coming off the magnificent western/comedy Blazing Saddles, it’s not surprising that Mel Brooks would turn his attention to the horror/comedy genre. (He’d later tackle the epic in History of the World Part I, science fiction in Spaceballs and high adventure with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’d return to horror with Dracula: Dead and Loving it, but the less said about that one, the better.) Working off an idea by Gene Wilder, these two took one of the most enduring classics of horror and turned it into one of the best horror/comedies ever.

Young Frankenstein works as a kinda-sequel to the original Frankenstein, building on the mythology of the original Universal films even though there was no official connection. (Young Frankenstein was produced by 20th Century Fox.) It doesn’t really contradict any of the older films, at least no more than some of the official sequels did, but it takes the franchise into an entirely different direction. This is the first film in my little experiment that I’d classify as a “Type B” horror/comedy – more comedy, but using the tropes of horror and spoofing them. The difference is in the plot, really – what puts this in the second category is that the story couldn’t exist without the comedy tropes. Even Abbott and Costello’s antics with the monsters followed a fairly straightforward scary movie plot for the 1940s, whereas certain elements of this film could not be removed or altered without drastic changes being made to the story structure. You could maybe replace the musical number towards the end with something more King Kong-eque, but that would simply feel derivative. And it’d be a lot harder to play up the creature’s abduction and romancing of Elizabeth without the comedy elements in any way that doesn’t make it tread uncomfortably close to plain rape.

The other thing, and the more all-encompassing thing, that makes this a Type B is the characterization. In a Type A universe, we’ve got a frightening situation populated by some funny characters. Bela Lugosi wasn’t a quippy Dracula, and Bob Hope’s cracks about the ghosts were only funny in the context of a world where nobody would take such a thing seriously. Not so for Type B, where all characters – and everything else – can become fodder for humor.  In Young Frankenstein, as in most Mel Brooks comedies, anybody can play straight man to anybody else at any moment. Everyone can crack a joke or make a comment that’s hysterical – to the audience. In-universe, however, nobody recognizes the humor.

The only exception would be Marty Feldman’s Igor, who leans heavily on the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and throwing out some meta-puns that make him seem both wackier than and more savvy than the rest of the characters. His comedy is easily the broadest of the troupe Brooks and Wilder assembled, and he’s probably the funniest as well. His timing is flawless, his sense of propriety non-existent, and his ability to key into other comedy from other eras makes his performance as funny now as 40 years ago.

What elevates this above most other Type B horror/comedies (coughScaryMoviecough) is the way Brooks and Wilder are still capable of crafting real characters instead of caricatures, telling a real story instead of just creating their own Frankenstein-patchwork of other movies. Even this film, which literally could not exist without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration, feels fresh and original.

Just as important, Brooks and Wilder don’t simply repeat moments, but build upon them. The crummy spoofs of the 21st century are frequently completely devoid of actual jokes, instead just referencing a better movie under the assumption that the audience will understand the reference and laugh at the recognition. This is a stupid, asinine way to make a movie that far too many of my 11th grade students mistake for humor. In a Brooks comedy, though, we touch on the familiar moments and make them new. Igor stealing the brain, for example, begins with a glance at the camera, because he knows that we know what’s coming. Then, when the brain of a “scientist and saint” is accidentally destroyed, he goes for the abnormal brain immediately, despite the fact that the next brain over is clearly labeled “visionary.” The camera just pans past the other label, though, and a viewer may watch the movie two or three times before they even notice it. Modern films are incapable of this sort of subtle, Easter Egg humor – a film by Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer (perpetrators of such crimes against comedy as Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck) would be sure to hover over that label, make sure everybody sees it, and drain every iota of comedic potential from it before moving on to what everybody knows they’re going to do anyway.

Modern spoof movies suck, is the point I’m trying to make.

Anyway, the film is built on small moments. Kenneth Mars’s assorted shtick with his artificial arm, the disastrous game of darts, and the bit where a choking Frederick has to play charades to make his incompetent accomplices understand he wants them to sedate the monster that is actively murdering him are the sorts of thing that make for a great spoof. None of these are repeat jokes, they’re built on the characters and story as presented instead of spending all their time making allusions to everything else. In fact, except for the full-film allusion to the original, the only references to anything else are when the town elders imply they’ve dealt with monsters five times in the past (referring, of course, to the line of Frankenstein pictures made by Universal) and Madeline Kahn’s hairstyle after she becomes the creature’s “bride.” And as those are both clearly references to the Frankenstein lore as a whole, if not the first movie specifically, we accept them.

When the movie references the original directly, it often does so in order to subvert it. When the creature encounters a little girl playing with flowers, we’re prepared for the worst, based on what happened to the little girl in the Boris Karloff original. Instead, we get a hysterical seesaw gag which completely takes us by surprise and is more than funny enough for us to forgive the fact that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story. Gene Hackman’s cameo as the blind man serves a similar purpose – not actually progressing the plot, but showing us the character of the beast as it attempts to make friends and is thwarted, not because he’s a monster, but because his potential companions aren’t entirely capable.

When I asked for help assembling the movies for Lunatics and Laughter, one of the first suggestions I got was Scary Movie. And while I considered it, I decided not to do it, at least for the first phase. It may make the expanded edition, but only because of its influence on movie as a whole, not because of the quality. As you’ll see as we continue our march to Halloween, the vast majority of the movies I’ve chosen for this project are A-Type horror comedies, because most of the B-Types, frankly, are terrible. This is hands-down the best, the finest, the funniest horror spoof I’ve ever seen, and it’s frankly ruined me for most of the other ones. And for that, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder most assuredly have earned my thanks.