Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The Critic' (1963): Symbolic of junk!

"Could this be the sex life of two things?"

By 1963, Mel Brooks was 37 years old and already a fairly well-known comedian and writer, even if he hadn't yet done any of the things with which we truly associate him today. Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein were all in his future then. But he'd written for a couple of crucial early TV sketch programs at that point in his life, namely Your Show of Shows and Sid Caesar's follow-up show, Caesar's Hour. Also, perhaps more importantly, Brooks had recorded three popular, well-regarded comedy albums with fellow Your Show veteran Carl Reiner. These LPs, mostly centered around the duo's much-imitated "2000 Year Old Man" routine, in which Reiner would play an earnest interviewer and Brooks would play an impossibly old European Jewish man who had seemingly witnessed all of human history first-hand and, frankly, seemed pretty blase about the whole experience.

An ad for The Critic.
Also by 1963, Connecticut-born filmmaker Ernest "Ernie" Pintoff was 31 years old and already making a name for himself with his then-ultra-modern cartoons, like Flebus (1957), The Violinist (1959), and The Interview (1960), which combined "hip" humor with jazzy, almost abstract minimalist artwork. The Violinist, in fact, had garnered Pintoff a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination. Not too shabby. Clearly, like Brooks, Ernie Pintoff had established himself as a showbiz up-and-comer. As fate would have it, Pintoff finally won his Oscar when he collaborated with -- you guessed it -- Mel Brooks on 1963's The Critic. Half a century later, Brooks reminisced about The Critic when he was interviewed for the  PBS documentary Mel Brooks: Make A Noise. These were his thoughts on the origins of the short film:
"There was a brilliant guy, a cartoonist and sweet as sugar. His name was Ernest Pintoff, and he said, there was a guy called Norman McLaren who used to do films, beautiful films that were truly avant garde. I'm talking about late '40s, early '50s. So when Pintoff said to me, 'Look, I've got a good idea. You watch one of these films and just mumble to yourself.' I said, 'That's good.' I'll be this old Jew trying to make sense out of what I'm seeing. There's no better philosophical sound than a Jewish accent. If somebody's going to wax philosophically, he'd better have a Jewish accent, or he's going to sound like a dope. A Jew never sounds like a dope. Anyway, we made this little short and submitted it, and it won an Academy Award."
And deservedly so, since The Critic is a total delight, even today. There's not much to it, really, just some sprightly harpsichord music, various dots, blobs, and squiggles, and the cranky Semitic commentary of Mel Brooks' character, a 71-year-old Russian-American named Murray, who pays decent money to see a foreign film and feels ripped off when he is presented with meaningless modern art instead. Simple as it is, The Critic is an obvious predecessor to TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000, and writer-performer Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo from seasons 2 through 10) has acknowledged it as an influence. I wonder, too, if Woody Allen caught this film before making What's Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966.

Within a few years, Mel Brooks would be writing directing and occasionally starring in full-length films of his own. Ernie Pintoff spent most of his career directing perfectly-ordinary, yet successful network television shows, including Kojak, Dallas, and The Dukes of Hazzard. He passed away in 2002. In any event, here is the film itself. Please do enjoy. "It must be some symbolism. I think it's symbolic of junk!"