Monday, February 6, 2012

"The Critical Condition"

Mel Brooks reminds me of my brother. Brilliant, but scattershot. Their comedic batting averages may not rival my own, a reflection of my more reliable consistency, but, since home runs and bloop singles are counted equally as hits, my “prodigious clout” deficiencies are buried in the statistics. I may fly more often, but I don’t, at least not as often, soar.


I see The Producers or Blazing Saddles (both written and directed by Mel Brooks), and while others number these efforts amongst the greatest comedies in cinematic history, I say “Hit and miss”, an undeniably accurate assessment, though quite possibly beside the point, “the point” meaning “the point that really matters”, that being that these movies have moments that go places comedically (e.g., the “beans” scene in Blazing Saddles) that no comedy has ever gone before, and isn’t that, upon further consideration, a more meaningful evaluation?

Returning to my original reaction to the Mel Brooks oeuvre, it behooves me as an honest man, which I, perhaps inaccurately, perceive myself to be, to ponder the source of that reaction, and take seriously the question,

“Who exactly am I critiquing here – Mel Brooks…"Or my brother?

Criticism is entirely subjective. Everybody knows that. But, also, we don’t. Though the situation has changed greatly since the arrival of the internet, where now everyone including Your Humble Servant is a critic, audiences did at one time rely very heavily on the word of a small but influential coterie of critics – on Broadway, there was a time when a New York Times review alone could make or break a production – effectively elevating their opinions to Holy Writ.

“Shmedlap called it ‘A dog!’ We will not be seeing that!

To this day, there are still paid, professional critics. We met one on our recent theater tour in London; he’d been reviewing theater (for him, theatre) for the Guardian for forty years. I was interested in what that was like. But, being polite, I asked him a different question than the one I wanted to ask him. The question came out,

“I’m interested in knowing what it’s like to be a theater critic, especially for a really long time.”

An innocuous puff ball, to which I received a transitorily satisfying response about going to the theater hoping for surprises.

What I really wanted to ask him was this:

“How can you tell, or do you ever wonder, and if you do, does it at all trouble you – okay, let’s go back to ‘How can you tell’ – How can you tell if your reaction to a show is a product of what’s being presented on the stage, rather than a visceral response triggered by your own personal background?”

I identify Mel Brooks my brother. Can I then truthfully evaluate his efforts uninfluenced by the backstory of our fraternal mishigus (foolishness)?

(Sticking with the name Brooks, James L. Brooks once yelled at me, and, since then, apart from the Shirley MacLaine-Jack Nicholson portions of Terms of Endearment, I have never enjoyed any of his pictures. Question: Is my reaction the result of what is emanating from the screen, or of an eviscerating verbal beat-down?)

Making it personal: The first television show I created was called Best of the West. When the pilot aired, it was inevitably reviewed. In a lot of papers. Even Canadian ones.

The reviews were generally positive. There were a couple of “raves”, and some were unfavorable. What intrigued me, however, after the “Ouches” of the “Unfavorables” had worn off, was that all of the reviews were different. Even the ones that liked it liked if for different reasons. There was virtually no across-the-board consensus.

I found that really odd.

I know. It’s not math. There is no right answer in the back of the book. It’s a show. You react the way you react.


It’s one show. And the reactions were all over the map, each reviewer responding to the same material in a uniquely different manner. This made me wonder,

First, of course,

“Why didn’t they all like it?”

But second, and more importantly from a global standpoint,

“If every reviewer has a different reaction to the same piece of material, is it, then, really the show the critics are reviewing? Or are they actually, as in the standard Rorschach Test, in reality,



The experience made me wonder what exactly was going on.

I have yet to figure it out.


Keith said...

Mel Brooks is definitely hit and miss. If you didn't enjoy Broadcast News, then, yes, you do have some strange bias. And reviewers are just representative of different audience types. I generally agree with Roger Ebert on dramas, but his opinion on comedies means nothing to me.

Subjectively yours...

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; I hope you figure it out. I'm sure it will be a very interesting post.

Comedy and drama are very subjective. That you see your brother's work in Mr. Brooks's is "interesting", and let Freud handle it. Mr. Brooks's sensibility is to swing for the fence, and many times he flails wildly at it. Yours seems to have been aimed more at on base percentage. Unless you're the best at that no one remarks on it. While the Home Run King of an era is talked about. Flash over results, it's an age old condition.

yours sincerely,


Johnny Walker said...

William Goldman has an exercise which he tries to get all students of screenwriting to do (and he's very serious about it): Watch the same film, three times in one day, in a movie theatre.

As someone who actually attempted this punishing and gruelling exercise, I was totally surprised that I ended up learning exactly what he wanted me to.

On the first showing, I enjoyed the film for what it was. (A tame comedy.) On the second showing I watched the film again, but with less interest, picking out one or two new things. On the third showing I couldn't stand watching the film again. I was absolutely sick of it. So I found myself paying more attention to the audience.

To my shock I knew exactly when the big laughs were going to come. I sat there and found myself thinking, what's next? Oh yeah, there's a big laugh coming up... and lo! if I wasn't absolutely right, every time.

The point of this exercise was to show that a film actually plays the same to every audience (generally speaking). Yes, there will be people in there who are hating every moment. Yes, there will be people there who are enjoying it, but will afterwards say they did for different reasons. But, on the whole, the audience reactions are in the same place. Especially the bits where it drags, and people start shuffling in their seats.

So while, on the one hand, it may seem impossible to review something with anything approaching actual objectivity, this exercise proves (if you care to do it) that major successes and flaws are felt by all audiences.

Afterwards we may rationalize our reactions to the film in different ways: "Those two funny moments didn't make up for characters I didn't care about" or "Those two funny moments were comedy genius. I loved that film!" but I wager that the majority of the time even those on the opposite ends of appreciation for a film or TV show will find common ground and find themselves agreeing on what didn't work.