photo & text by nacrowe
i grew up on GENE WILDER films.
his MEL BROOKS collaborations on iconic films like THE PRODUCERS (EMBASSY, 1967), BLAZING SADDLES (WARNER BROS, 1974) and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1974) have transcended entertainment and have become touchstone moments of family lore that my brother and i share with our father. when i think of the cultural impact of WILDER (not only in relation to BROOKS but also his buddy films with RICHARD PRYOR and, of course, his seminal role as WILLY WONKA) i think of an idea of a MASCULINITY defined by EMPATHY and COMPASSION. even when his characters are in manic or morally corruptible mind-states, there is still that sense that this is a character acting out of LOVE.
KISS ME LIKE A STRANGER: MY SEARCH FOR LOVE AND ART (ST. MARTIN'S GRIFFIN, 2005) was a tender memoir that WILDER wrote about his life journey late into his career around the time he stopped making films. it cleverly utilizes his counseling session dialogue with his long therapist as a means of structuring his life into various vignettes showcasing key moments in his personal life and professional career. you learn about his need to please his mother and his compulsion towards over-thinking situations and meaning of his relationships with classmates, family and potential romantic interests. this compulsion leads him to acting as a means of expression, as well as recognition, and he is taken by theatre from an early age that he shares with his older sister CORINNE.
the memoir gets into the technical aspects of METHOD ACTING per the teachings of KONSTANTIN STANISLAVSKI which he studied in NEW YORK CITY at the HB STUDIO under HERBERT BERGHOF and UTA HAGEN, and later the pretigious ACTORS STUDIO under LEE STRASBERG. METHOD ACTING utilizes SENSE MEMORY to enhance ones performance by looking to one's one experiences for analogue touchstone moments to relive and bring and emotional depth to a performance. its interesting to know this background given WILDER's legendary penchant for comedic roles, but there is a sense of real PATHOS in his characters. a real drive and emotional core that makes them so endearing as they feel like genuine people making absurd decisions.
the memoir also touches on each of his four marriages, including his time with legendary comedian GILDA RADNER, who sadly passed from OVARIAN CANCER in 1989. there is a real INTIMACY in how he speaks of their relationship, with him often beckoning her to treat him with the same respect she does complete strangers. from her perspective, that neediness and selfishness she displays towards him is a form of INTIMACY, as he is the only one she can treat in that manner. she doesnt have to put her guard up with him. its a totally neurotic yet deeply touching dynamic and just shows how complicated and IDIOSYNCRATIC human relationships really are.
again, i am such a admirer of GENE WILDER (since childhood) that i would have loved anything written by him even if it wasnt cleverly constructed, heartfelt and genuinely bittersweet concerning a life well-lived and well-loved. that it was a touching story that really shows the depth of his love and appreciation for past collaborators and relationships only makes me want to go back and rewatch his catalogue again. KISS ME LIKE A STRANGER is well worth seeking out and reading and if you havent seen his work in THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, then stop what you are doing this weekend just take it all in.
and youre welcome.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
sometimes you feel so connected to a piece of art that you start to wonder what you were like before encountering it. such is the case with me and the work of MEL BROOKS in general. as i think i mentioned before in my REVIEW of SPACEBALLS (BROOKSFILMS, 1987), my first viewing of his movies was early, like around kindergarten.
so that should explain quite a bit about me.
i remember during one of my first semesters at RUTGERS UNIVERSITY as an undergraduate attending a required class that was focused on the gifted and all-too-human cultural prodigy that was PAUL ROBESON. somehow with a fellow classmate, who was AFRICAN-AMERICAN, i got into a heated discussion about whether or not BROOKS was racist. if you haven't seen BLAZING SADDLES (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1974), it is a send-up of WESTERN films in the tradition of JOHN FORD, HOWARD HAWKS, JOHN WAYNE, ANTHONY MANN, etc. and really just eviscerates them. the language alone is something that likely wouldn't be allowed in today's political and cultural climate, as it regularly used racial epithets and ethnic, gender and sexuality-oriented slurs. but you have to ask at whose expense in the film. the answer to that is the white men. the only people being debased and pilloried in BLAZING SADDLES are the dumbass white frontier folk (men, women, young and old) that use it.
during those arguments i eventually won given that i mentioned that one of the co-writers of the screenplay was none other than RICHARD PRYOR, arguably the greatest comedian of all-time (he has my vote). if you didn't know, he's also black. years later i watched the director's comments by BROOKS and learned that all the great one-liners in the film are more or less PRYOR's, but the racist stuff was all BROOKS. hilarious.
i understand that now life is more complicated given that foolish people think that given media where people use unfortunate language that somehow gives them permission to do the same. i am talking about white people here. this phenomena is something famously that CHRIS ROCK, DAVE CHAPPELLE and countless other comics of color have had to deal with over the years, white appropriation. forget about it now in the age of TRUMP. so i get why this film still chafes at people.
but for its ability to utterly annihilated the tropes of a bullshit genre that was created to showcase the primitive superiority of the white man (a la MANIFEST DESTINTY), i am a huge fan of this film in its original savage context. not how a moronic TRUMPIST may misinterpret it and weaponize it for their own regressive agenda.
art by nacrowe
i don't where my sense of humor and the work of MEL BROOKS divides. to me that separation ended a long time ago as i was basically raised on his films, most notably SPACEBALLS (BROOKSFILMS, 1987), BLAZING SADDLES (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1974), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1974), THE PRODUCERS (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1967) and HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I (BROOKSFILMS, 1981). all absolute classics. the dialogue in his films a long time ago became short-hand in my family.
the first time i saw SPACEBALLS was with my father in kindergarten. i didn't get any of it. my dad realized i'd never seen STAR WARS so after that was done i got some of the jokes.
i could go on about the incredible cast (RICK MORANIS, BILL PULLMAN, JOHN CANDY, JOAN RIVERS) or its commentary on franchise film-making, or even the legendary set-ups and one-liners, but really this film has to be experienced to be appreciated. i want to safeguard that experience by encouraging everyone and anyone to seek it out, even if you are not a sci-fi fan. it transcends the genre it parodies.
for me BROOKS is an american treasure. being the quintessential brooklyn-ite, he is a bit of throwback to an era of comedy writing that has largely been passed over for cheap gags and gross-out humor. given that part of my family is from brooklyn, i always considered his humor a channel to a different time and aesthetic regarding humor that is very urban, very pointed and very intelligent. it's almost aspirational and for whatever reason i associated it with my families roots. what i love most about his parodies is that he uses them to interject criticism about the genre they cover. SPACEBALLS routinely goes after the ridiculous reliance on spectacle as an audience-draw in sci-fi films as well as the blatant money-grabbing consumerism of the time with LUCAS and SPIELBERG-related properties like E.T or INDIANA JONES. it is funny because many of the same special effects people that worked on those films did so for SPACEBALLS as well. BLAZING SADDLES likewise went after the inherent racism portrayed in the american WESTERN FILM and american society en masse as well. that is a subject for another review. with BROOKS you can take the film at face-value or dig deeper, which is the sign of any quality film product. its just a pity he doesn't get the critical due he deserves since for whatever reason, the film industry doesn't take comedies as seriously as dramas in the UNITED STATES.
don't ask me why that is. as a writer, director, producer and actor he cleans the floors of most of his peers, including LUCAS and SPIELBERG. just my opinion.
check out the film. let me know what you think in the comments. and if you ever find a legit website that sells SPACEBALLS THE T-SHIRT please let me know.