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Fresh Perspectives: Classic Directors and Not-so-Classic Films…

I caught Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety at the weekend, and I have to admit, I liked it. I’d only heard the movie mentioned in passing from time to time, never discussed with the same reverence as Space Balls or Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, but never with the same bitterness as Dracula: Dead and Loving It. It never really made it on to any conscious “to see” list with any of the great works from iconic directors. However, I really enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t consider it a forgotten classic, or a misunderstood gem overlooked in Brooks’ impressive filmography. It has its flaws and problems, but I enjoyed it. In fact, while I wouldn’t consider on par with some of his stronger films, I dare say that I actually enjoyed it more than some of them, despite the fact I hadn’t heard that much about it. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if I enjoyed it more because I hadn’t heard that much about it.

High expectations can lead to monstrous results...

I love film, I’ve loved film ever since I was a kid. Even then, I used to seek out so-called “classics” to watch, the titles recommended by friends and family as landmark films within particular genres. I’d track them down on television at obscene hours, I’d import the DVDs, I’d scour the local video shop for copies. And while any number of those classic films impressed no end – films like Pulp Fiction or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or The Godfather – I couldn’t help but feel that some of them let me down, that they disappointed me. Of Brooks’ films in particular, I remember feeling a lingering feeling of disappointment over Space Balls, which I still have difficulty loving.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that I thought these were bad films. Perish the thought. In many cases, I actually really enjoyed them, and thought they were quite good. Sometimes I even thought that they were great. However, the films had been built up inside my mind beyond that status – they’d been pushed past the familiar realms of “good” and “great” into the nearly mythological realm of “masterpiece” or “classic.” Some seemed keep going even beyond that – hurdling incredibly into a realm where words did not exist to measure the awesome levels of quality they transcended. And then I’d stick them in the player and I was left at the end remarking, “that was… pretty good.”

Gun-to-the-head, I quite enjoyed that...

Now, I’m not a snob. I don’t expect to have my mind blown with quality every time I sit down, though some might state that suggests I have low standards as a movie viewer. “Pretty good” is a fairly decent accomplishment, but it seemed like a bit of a letdown after all the hype these sorts of films received. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m so cagey around classic films, which you’ll rarely see reviewed here. It’s not that I have a bias against them, it’s just that I worry I can’t contextualise them properly.

And it’s not something that’s restricted to old films, though it is something that frequently builds up around them thanks to the considerable lead-time they have in establishing a reputation. New releases, screened for the press (or overseas), can suffer from the same effect, where the positive reviews and word of mouth tend to build the film up well past the point where any reasonable film could match expectations. I suppose that’s why I was less taken with The Town than most. Again, there are exceptions where the end product matches the hype (The Dark Knight, for example, or The Social Network), but they are very much the exception rather than the rule.

Banking on expectations?

So, I suspect, that’s why the smaller films from big directors tend to impress me more. the films that sort of get lost in the shuffle in the rush to evaluate “classic Woody Allen” or “classic Mel Brooks”, and the films casually brushed aside in conversation with film critics, with a “yeah, but I really want to talk about Annie Hall…” These are films you just happen to stumble across with a director’s name attached, rather than actively seeking out, and pop on with an “ah sure, why not?”

And it’s the opposite effect, in all its delightful glory. Instead of expecting too much from a bad film, you expect nothing (or worse) from a solid little film. It’s worth noting that some really good directors on an “average” day are miles ahead of most directors on a good day. So you sit down, aware of the fact that there are going be flaws or problems, and that it’s not going to blow your socks off, but despite – or perhaps because of – that, you end up really enjoying the movie.

We'll always have Paris?

It’s incredibly tough to see a movie with no expectations, especially in this rapid-fire internet age, with any and all information pumped continuously into circulation so it seems that every single movie is a massive cinematic event. Sometimes it’s nice to just see an average film from an above-average director.

33 Responses

  1. Speaking of passed over films from great directors, I recently watched Woody Allen’s Anything Else based purely on the fact that it’s one of Tarantino’s favorite movies of the last 20 years. It certainly is a pretty odd film, mostly due to Jason Biggs beings cast as the lead. I think he fit the part, but it was just very bizarre to see him as the central focus. However, Woody Allen’s character was (as usually is) the funniest in the film. It’s not as good as many of Allen’s more modern movies but I enjoyed it a little more than Manhattan Murder Mystery.

    • It’s strange, I tend to diverge a bit from popular opinion when it comes to Woody Allen. Especially his modern work. I didn’t love Vicky Christina Barcelona as much as most, but I actually liked Match Point a little more and Cassandra’s Dream a lot more. It’s strange, because my tastes (with the odd exception like Avatar) seem to be reasonably well-tuned to the mainstream, but I tend to go a bit nuts when it comes to the cult directors. I am also the only person on the planet convinced Scorsese’s Casino is as good a film as Goodfellas. But we’ll discuss that another day.

  2. I know exactly what you mean with Mel Brooks’ films. Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights still make me laugh, but I enjoyed them much more as a kid. I now view The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein as his masterpieces (as many do), but those are still three films I enjoyed when I was younger. I also highly agree with High Anxiety being a pleasant surprise, and I think Dracula: Dead and Loving It is quite underrated and at least on par with Spaceballs or Robin Hood.

    • It’s funny – I remember watching Robin Hood: Men in Tights as a kid, back before I really associated films with directors (they were more innocent times, weren’t they?), and I remember quite liking it. However, I’ve been surprised at the somewhat harsh reaction it gets from critics in hindsight (which is strange, because there are fans who also seem to genuinely love it), and I’ve been afraid to revisit it lest my memory be tarnished. I remember being disappointed in Dracula: Dead & Loving It (again, at an age too young to recognise Mel Brooks, but old enough to be familiar with Leslie Neilson).

      • I think Robin Hood: Men in Tights certainly has some funny moments; the fight between Robin and Little John with the constantly breaking staffs felt like a joke that had been waiting a long time to be made, and the randomness of Robin’s Mark Twain disguise still makes me chuckle. But on the whole, I liked it much less now than as a kid. The gags are too simple, perhaps too straightfaced, and Brooks’ vulgarity seems to take everything down a notch. I find Spaceballs to be funnier, and Young Frankenstein to be Brooks’ best and most enjoyable.

  3. I agree, sometimes it’s better when I movie has a few flaws: it adds texture, you can interpret and debate the flaws, and speculate on how the flaws could be fixed. Often I have a lot less to discuss about a movie with no flaws at all.

    • I agree entirely. If you just love a moivie, there’s only so much you can say without reducing your commentary to hyperbolic rambling. Whereas, with less perfect films, you have the ability to springboard off the good and the bad, there’s a lot more room for discussion. I also find that there’s generall a lot more to say about imperfect films, merely because there’s been less said about them overall – the classics are debated to death, so it’s hard to find a position with a hint of originality, while films that have avoided that sort of attention make better fodder, because there’s fewer “absolute” opinions about them.

  4. I love Mel Brooks’s early films and consider Young Frankenstein the best comedy ever made, but I have never seen why people hold Space Balls with such reverence. The humor is broad and obvious and often doesn’t even stay focused as a satire of Star Wars. I always appreciated High Anxiety, which does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to make fun of Alfred Hitchcock films. I hated Dracula: Dead and Loving It when it first came out, but recently watched it again (the first time since it was in the theaters) and found it to be pretty good. It’s not wildly funny, but it is meticulous in trying to recreate the look and feel of Coppola’s version of Dracula. Even Leslie Nielson refrains from mugging to the camera for the most part. I wish Brooks would make one more movie, though I’m afraid that if it’s not good, that’s what his legacy will be.


    • Glad to hear I’m not alone on Space Balls. I don’t even know why it didn’t really work for me. I think it just felt too easy. You’re right, it lacks the focus of High Anxiety, which is probably what I liked about it. Even the most tangential and surreal scene fit in as a a reference to Hitchcock’s mor (arguably) tangential and surreal film, The Birds.

  5. High Anxiety is the favorite Mel Brooks film in my family, with Young Frankenstein pulling a close second. That said, I definitely get what you’re saying, I personally was hugely let down by Casablanca. With that, I wasn’t even expecting the best film of my viewing life, just a solid film. It was good, but nothing special. I hesitate to say that, because people are very defensive of Casablanca. Maybe it’s because I already knew that *spoilers* Ol Rick was going to make Ilsa leave him, or maybe it’s because despite being a teenage girl, I am not a big romance/drama fan. The old movies I love are mostly comedies like Jimmy Stewart’s You Can’t Take It With You. This is partly why hype is so dangerous, you can end up ruining a perfectly good film, or even a great film with stellar expectations. So be careful what you say to a friend, because it’s always better to be pleasantly surprised than let down.

    • Yep, I feel the same way. I try to control my expectations before I see a film I’m anticipating, because there’s nothing like being bittelry disappointed by something you were looking forward to seeing. Better to be the other way around, as you note.

  6. Interesting piece. I often find myself able to enjoy films that I don’t immediately think are “great” for whatever reason. I think that sometimes a film may not be great overall but has certain elements that are good enough so that you enjoy the overall package. Say for example that it is beautifully shot, or certain actors give a great performance, or the script is interesting, or that you just appreciate that a certain movie knows exactly what it is and tries its best to fulfill that promise (like action movies that don’t bog down with lame sub plots but just focus on action/explosions etc).

    • Thanks Arch!

      I have to admit, I admire a great many silly movies because they don’t overcomplicate themselves. I know it’s considered a sin in some critical circles, but there’s nothing wrong with a good “brain off” blockbuster – but only if it’s done right. I’d argue Demolition Man (yep, I know that’s a crazy opinion) and the original Die Hard do it best. I’d also argue that Michael Bay lost the ability to make that sort of movie after The Rock, which was one of my very favourite action films of the nineties.

      • Agreed. One of my major complaints about some movies is that they don’t know what they want to be. It’s a little bit like going to a pizza place that also serves egg rolls, and burgers, and seafood, and steak…at some point you suddenly realize that they are trying to do a hundred different things at once and doing none of them well. If I wanted Chinese food, I’d go to a Chinese restaurant and it’s the same for me when it comes to movies. I understand that there is often some bleed over between genres, and sometimes a genre bending movie that combines different elements (much like fusion cooking) can be amazing…but in the wrong hands it is lethal because everything becomes a muddled mess.

        I think that is why I tend to be far more forgiving of certain movies’ flaws if I can clearly identify what they are trying to do and the general requirement/constraints of a particular genre. It’s a bit like seeing a fun sword and sorcery movie from the 80s with lots of action and ridiculous costumes and enjoying it despite the fact that the dragon/goblins/mythical creatures don’t hold up to today’s eye in terms of special effects, or the acting is a little suspect. Or seeing a smaller budget movie with great ideas and good acting that can’t quite overcome the fact that you immediately notice the film was clearly not shot in Chicago/NY/wherever due to money constraints.

  7. Dracula Dead and Loving it for me has become much better with time, of course it isn’t up there with Blazing Saddles, History of the World or Young Frankenstein, but i do think it is a step above Robin Hood and most definitely a step above Spaceballs, which i feel was a Mel Brooks film that was much more obvious and in your face with its humour than his other work.

    • I’m actually somewhat relieved to see I’m not alone in “not getting” Spaceballs. Part of me does want to have a Mel Brooks marathon, just to catch up with all these films again. Some of them (particularly Dracula and Robin Hood), I haven’t seen in at least a decade – I wonder if they might hold up well for me.

  8. Getting back to overlooked Woody Allen films, he made two films back to back in the eighties, right before he got “popular” again, briefly, with “Hannah and Her Sisters.” I’m referring to “Zelig” and “Broadway Danny Rose” which are mostly in black and white (There are some hilarious framing narrations in “Zelig” that are in color) and they are both funny, and almost perfect. “Zelig” has even entered modern usage: several times this year, various writers, ususually in obituaries, have described someone who is desperate to blend-in as being “Zelig-like.” You’ll have to see the movie to understand this reference. “Broadway Danny Rose” features among many other pleasures, a shoot-out in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Baloon warehouse (complete with helium leaking into the faces of gunmen) and a roundtable of classic borsht-belt comedians.

  9. I’ve learned to take the label of “minor film” at face value. So much of a film’s critical reputation is based on what hype that often circumstances help one film become a classic and weigh another one down. For instance, I think that Ride the High Country is one of Peckinpah’s three great films, every bit as good as The Wild Bunch. It just had the misfortune of coming out when the Western genre was on life-support, not to mention it lacks the latter’s infamy (which helped establish it in pop culture history). Likewise, my favorite Hayao Miyazaki film, The Castle of Cagliostro, is one of his least acclaimed. It admittingly lacks the subtle nuance and depth of his later work but as a swashbuckler its first rate.
    And I think that there were a lot of people who share your sentiments on The Town. Its a good film, very well crafted, but if you’ve seen a lot of classic crime/heist movies it really is nothing special. I know that probably sounded incredibly arrogant but I just couldn’t get over the film’s utter refusal to stray from conventions right down to the cop-out ending that just felt tacked on to be crowd-pleasing.

  10. My favourite Scorcese movies are After Hours and The King of Comedy, both of which, while not obscure by any measure, don’t get discussed in the same breaths as Goodfellas or even The Departed. After Hours led me to discover a few other hidden gems that I had not heard of by seeking out more works by the writer, Joe Minion. Motorama and Vampire’s Kiss are two great comedies that you should check out. Really quite strange and unique movies, you should definitely check them out. And agreed about expectations, I thought Zodiac was ‘pretty good’ in theatres, after being excited about seeing it for months. When I rewatched it on DVD a year later it blew me away and is now one of my favourites.

    • Kevin, I love “Motorama.” It’s been years since I’ve seen that movie, but it’s one of my favorite obscure little films.

    • I applaud you for even mentioning BOTH “King of Comedy,” AND “After Hours” as they are my 1st and 2nd favorite Scorsese films of all time: I’m hoping I’ll love “Hugo” in the same manner. I have seen MANY violent films over the years, and Marty does them better than anyone alive… but I really love it when a director does a masterpiece that you don’t expect from HIM… and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” is my 3’rd favorite “Marty Movie” for the same reasons.
      (My 4th favorite is actually Marty’s American Express commercial, wherein, dissatisfied with the home movies he took during his nephew’s birthday party, he calls the kid and utters this classic line… “Hey, it’s Uncle Marty! How’d you like to turn 10 again!”
      Now THAT’s funny!

  11. For some reason I think The Town is a bit more impressive if you’ve also seen Gone Baby Gone, the first film Affleck directed. That movie is pretty much a masterpiece

  12. High Anxiety has the magnificent Madeline Kahn in it. What’s not to like? She is also the shining star of Blazing Saddles “I’m tired” & Young Frankenstein “Don’t touch the hair” – she should have won an Oscar for Paper Moon but Tatum O’Neill stole it from her.

  13. You’re definitely right that often a classic film’s towering reputation can set your expectations too high when you finally see it. The classic movies I love the most were ones about which I knew little before I saw them. I didn’t know the ending of Casablanca the first time, so it genuinely surprised me when Rick gave up Ilsa — I had predicted that the movie would justify them running off together, and the surprising moral strength in Rick at the end made me love the movie. And Citizen Kane — I was really lucky to know virtually nothing about that one. I saw it just before I really got into “classic” films and film criticism, and so was able to accept the movie on its own terms. And again, I loved it, purely for itself and not because of anything anyone said about it.

    Still, I’ve had some experiences like yours. Spielberg’s Close Encounters With the Third Kind left me cold and felt like mysticism for the sake of mysticism, though it was interesting and had some atmospheric artistry that I liked.

    And on a similar note, but with classic actors instead of directors, my favorite Errol Flynn movie is The Dawn Patrol (1939). The swashbucklers are great, but this one gets Flynn to settle down and really act. Plus it features a nuanced, non-villainous role for Basil Rathbone and a great turn by a young David Niven. +)

  14. I totally agree with this post, however I had that problem with The Social Network, where I found that the hype hurt my enjoyment, because I didn’t much care for it, and I still, to this day, get flack from everyone because it didn’t make my “Best of the year” list.

  15. Your article touched upon a common though inexhaustible subject. Years ago, it was the place of the professional critic to evaluate and illuminate film to enhance the viewing experience of the reader. Reference points would be scrutinized but in the service of contextualizing relevant highlights (whether thematic, narrative or aesthetic in origin) to clarify the film as a contribution the whole of that most evolutionary of popular art forms: the cinema. Of late, and this would date back to the increasing emergence of the “reviewer” rather than critic, of which the inglorious Ebert is the seminal manifestation, film criticism has turned from analysis to plot summary. If one were to examine the text of most of today’s prominent reviewers, checking their content against studio distributed press materials, one would find a shocking similarity in content. Today’s reviewers feel compelled to fill column space with a virtual table on contents of the film as it requires little genuine background, ability nor intelligence. The few professional “critics” still in operation, and worth paying attention to, I usually read after I see a film as their thoughts are an enhancement to the film going experience, whereas the reviewers purpose at that point has been rendered obsolete: I need not be reminded of mere plot lines when I have already seen the film. As far as the reasoning that the emergence of the internet has made too much material instantly available to maintain a fresh eye, I disagree. Before the Net, there was much more attention paid to the community of critics and the film going experience was a true cultural event, one that was discussed with energy and passion by anyone who attended even if they normally weren’t as fundamentally immersed in the film culture on a habitual level. Film discussion and argument is always more intelligently heated and intense (spontaneity of thought truly leads to fascinating directions in conversation) and detailed when face to face rather than over the less strenuous nature of internet anonymity. There isn’t a film out there, no matter how brazenly entitled with the honorarium “CLASSIC” (whatever that really means, but that’s an entirely different discussion) that doesn’t present endless opportunities for fresh thought. And true Critical Thought should embrace the minor effort with the analytical enthusiasm one would equally employ toward a so-called “masterwork”. As far as the discovery of more obscure efforts, especially by filmmakers of unexpected resources, that is one of the fundamental joys of sitting in a darkening theater. Public reputation is not always mirrored by artistic success. I cannot think of a major director of higher reputation than Kubrick who, along with undeniable triumphs, produced so many indefensible artistic failures.

  16. I think Kubrick is generally regarded as a great director, even a pretty eclectic one, although for me his greatest films are sci-fi or terror. However, not only is DR STRANGELOVE considered one of the funniest films of all time… but PATHS OF GLORY, never discussed when I was a “serious” film guy, has surfaced in my consciousness as a pretty bold classic. The problem for a lot of “serious” people is that all the ostensibly French characters speak in the flatest most neutral American accents possible: Kirk Douglas, George MacReady, Richard “Oscar Goldman” Anderson, and Ralph Meeker are not exactly known for their accent work. Kubrick took a calculated risk in guessing that audiences would better accept the complicated war/anti-war debate the picture engenders if the characters were seen as everymen and not “frogs.” He was right in his time, but some people savage the film now, even though the settings feel authentic as hell and the visuals are staggeringly good in black and white. I reccomend any “serious” Kubrick fans who haven’t seen it… give it a chance with these factors in mind.

  17. Also, if you’re a fan of Robert Wise, DEFINITELY one of the most eclectic directors of all time (2 classic musicals, one classic sci-fi, One classic Horror, two classic noirs and countless others… you should check out some of his stuff BESIDES WEST SIDE STORY, SOUND OF MUSIC, and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: I’m speaking specifically of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, one of the most suggestive (as opposed to openly-demonstrative) horror films ever made… and THE SET-UP, with the immortal Robert Ryan in a rare leading role as a boxer pressured to throw a fight! It’s based on a sports poem, of all oddities, and it’s actually quite poetic in cinema form! I doubt that both films total 4 hours alltogether: make time for them both!!!

  18. Also speaking of Wise, I think THE ANDRAMADA STRAIN has an awful lot of good things in it… even though it’s far from classic sci-fi…

  19. And I know, I spelled the title wrong… see the movie anyway.

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