#191. The Anthology

The majority of film plots are created by stringing together scenes of dialogue or action to tell a story. These segments cannot stand on their own very well and need the rest of the film’s context to be understood. But, what if a scene contains an entire plot? What if these segments are almost entirely unrelated to each other? Sure, short films have been made that would fit the first description, but what if a movie was comprised entirely of short films? These feature-length movies are known as “anthologies.” Often, the anthology film will have a common theme that will tie the independent segments together, but many times these films are just a way to get in as many gags as possible in the shortest amount of time. This week’s two movies are anthologies but are anthologies for two completely different reasons.

                                                     History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sketch comedy is perhaps one of the most prolific users of the anthology structure. Most jokes don’t take more than a few minutes to set up and deliver a punchline. Furthermore, if these comedic segments are not related to each other, the anthology is the best way to present them. One of the best examples of the comedic anthology is The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), which is a series of unrelated comedy sketches. Of course, the comedy group best known for comedy sketches would be Monty Python. The film that best utilizes their skill for sketches, and is perhaps the closest approximation of a Flying Circus movie, would be The Meaning of Life (1983). This anthology follows a bit more of a structure, as it progresses through the stages of a person’s life, albeit not the same person.

Another structured anthology film would be that of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). While there’s not nearly the amount of character parallels like in Three Ages (1923) or character cross-linking like in Cloud Atlas (2012), the theme of this Mel Brooks comedy is that of history. As such, the anthology of sketches is arranged chronologically, starting near the beginning of civilization. From the creation of many ideas and products in the Stone Age, the next sketch highlights the events of the Old Testament. Even within these sketches, other sketches can reside. The logical transition for the film is then to a sketch about the Roman Empire, which pulls in some New Testament references. After a brief stop-over at the Spanish Inquisition for a big musical number, the film concludes with the French Revolution, as well as a few previews of the unmade “Part 2.”

FantasiaFantasia
Year: 1940
Rating: G
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

One of the challenges of animation is continuity. Because characters must be drawn in the same way, and the animation must abide by the same style throughout a film, sometimes these movies would take an incredibly long time to create (obviously, before the heavy use of computers). One way to speed up production would be to have several animation teams working on shorter segments unrelated to each other. Furthermore, the music for a film is usually composed so that it carries a melodic theme throughout. However, if famous pieces of music are the structure of the film, it can be difficult to tie these different musical works together to a coherent narrative. Granted, if the pieces are all performed by the same person, like in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), the performer can be the theme of the anthology. However, Fantasia (1940) is not like that.

Anyone familiar with classical music will know the animation of Warner Brothers and Walt Disney have ingrained certain musical pieces into our cultural fabric. Fantasia was meant as an ever-evolving film. New segments were intended to be inserted in subsequent re-releases, thus expanding the film’s anthology as time progressed and the animated sequences were completed. Unfortunately, only Fantasia 2000 (1999) stands as the sequel to this groundbreaking film. Still, Fantasia’s legacy is seen in how easy it is to recognize pieces like Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach), the Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas), Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), The Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven), Dance of the Hours (Ponchielli), Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky), and Ave Maria (Schubert).

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome anthologies

#190. History Lessons

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This famous quote by George Santayana highlights the problem society often suffers: long term memory loss. If something didn’t happen recently, we forget the conditions which led to it. Perhaps the reason for this is because history can be bogged down in details. History can be boring. However, as I’ve written before, history can be tolerable if it’s entertaining. The best times we can learn from our history are if we are open enough to laugh about it. Granted, history can be very brutal and unforgiving at times, but if we allow some of the accuracy to be tainted, these tragedies could be turned into comedies. Although sometimes it’s just fun to see that, as much as things change, some things remain the same. This week’s two films feature some comedic history lessons.

Three AgesThree Ages
Year: 1923
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 63 minutes / 1.05 hours

The more things change, the more things stay the same. There are certain elements of the human condition that tend to reappear, time and time again, regardless of the historical period. This theme can be seen in a number of films, including Cloud Atlas (2012), which even goes so far to show the parallels and connections of history well into the future. However, one of the most famous instances of the historical parallelism plot is that of Intolerance (1916). In this film, we see four different historical eras: Babylonian, Judean, French, and Modern. Each of these eras highlights the intolerance that has caused so many problems throughout history. In doing so, director D.W. Griffith tries to show us that our bigotry is not a new concept, as it has been around since time began. That being said, another human emotion which has been around forever is love.

Buster Keaton took a more upbeat approach to Griffith’s story with Three Ages (1923). Both share the multiple, historical periods, but Three Ages tries to highlight the struggle of man to win the heart of a woman. As such, Three Ages also mimics Intolerance by only using three archetypes: the boy (Buster Keaton), the girl (Margaret Leahy), and the rival (Wallace Beery). In the Prehistoric Age, the rival wins the girl by knocking her over the head and dragging her away. In the Roman Age, the rival wins the girl by beating the boy in a chariot race. Finally, the Modern Age (i.e., 1920s America) has the rival winning the girl over with massive amounts of wealth. Fortunately, it is in this final age when the boy finally gets the girl by stepping up and showing some confidence. Despite his monetary lack, the boy and girl have one thing in common: love.

History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sometimes, the best way to learn history is to see an incorrect version of it. For instance, the comedy album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years takes the stories we’ve all heard in school and puts a humorous and musical twist on them. From Christopher Columbus sailing to Miami Beach to open an Italian Restaurant to the accidental serving of turkey instead of an eagle for Thanksgiving to a very indecisive George Washington as he chooses his boat to cross the Delaware River, each segment is meant to twist history into comedy only because we know what actually happened. Or do we? At any rate, much of the comedy of these historical pieces comes from the use of anachronisms, which are modern items and ideas placed in a historical period before their time.

Mel Brooks’ slightly askew history lesson comes in the form of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). Instead of showing all the different historical eras together in a parallel format, like in Three Ages, Brooks takes the very standard, chronological approach. Starting with the Stone Age, we see a world filled with firsts, which inevitably creates the first critics. Next, the Old Testament is parodied with Moses (Mel Brooks) bringing down the Fifteen, scratch that, Ten Commandments. Continuing on to the New Testament, the Roman Empire is shown to be filled with excess as Comicus (Mel Brooks) escapes certain death. Bet you didn’t know the Spanish Inquisition was a musical. Nobody expects that. Finally, in a case of mistaken identity, we see the French Revolution where “it’s good to be the king.” If only the sequel was real, we’d also get to see Hitler on ice.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 hilarious history lessons

 

#024. Mel Brooks

A lot of comedies tend toward the gross, the rude, and the uncouth. However, there are some that use wit and comedic timing to generate laughs. Personally, I prefer the latter. If the laughs aren’t aimed at the lowest common denominator, then the film generally has some merit as a legitimate piece of cinema. While some of the best comedic timing comes from well-choreographed slapstick (see films by The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, or Buster Keaton), there are cases that could be deemed “self-aware.” Mel Brooks is perhaps the master of the self-aware comedy. I’d like to make a distinction between self-aware comedies and films that are merely self-aware: the former is the exaggeration of the latter. Self-aware films are still a part of their respective genres, where the self-aware comedies of Mel Brooks are considered to be comedy in genre, but tend to poke fun at the genre they are based on. This week’s two films highlight the self-aware comedies that Mel Brooks excels in. Interestingly enough, he really doesn’t appear in either of them, which is uncommon for a Mel Brooks film.

Young Frankenstein
Year: 1974
Rating: PG
Length: 106 minutes / 1.77 hours

Everyone is familiar with the monsters of Universal Studios. These classic black and white films set the foundation for the horror genre that we have today. Movies about Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster have stood the test of time and are now referenced as part of our collective pop culture. In Young Frankenstein (1974), Mel Brooks takes the series of Frankenstein movies from the 1930s and ’40s and pokes fun at the whole set in one masterful jab. Shot in black and white to emulate the film style of the original movies, Young Frankenstein uses the characters, themes, and motifs from the classic films and over-exaggerates them into a caricature full of comedy.

Young Frankenstein follows the plot of the first Frankenstein (1931) film but adds in a few different sections from other Frankenstein sequels. Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) has resisted his grandfather’s legacy, up until the point where he moves into the castle he inherited. After The Monster (Peter Boyle) is created, it goes on a rampage, eventually running into a blind hermit (Gene Hackman), which was a re-enactment of a scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In order to keep peace in the village, Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) sets out to capture the Monster (again, a reference to Son of Frankenstein (1938), especially with the artificial arm). Of course, the Monster just wants to be understood, which helps the film end on a happy note.

The Producers
Year: 1968
Rating: PG
Length: 88 minutes / 1.47 hours

While the last film of this post made fun of classic horror movies, The Producers (1968) is Mel Brooks’ parody of musicals. Or, more accurately, what it takes to produce one. Broadway can be a strange place, especially with what becomes a successful smash-hit and what doesn’t even make it to the stage. What’s somewhat ironic about the whole thing is that The Producers was eventually turned into a Broadway musical, and then turned into a movie again in 2005. So, by the end, it had become a movie about a musical, based on a musical about making musicals, which was based on a movie about making a musical. Are we clear? No? Great.

When accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) starts his job working for Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), he discovers something interesting about some of the musicals Max has produced. They both learn that, while Max is not a successful producer by any means, for the musicals he produces which flop, he doesn’t have to pay the investors. With this revelation in place, the two men start planning the most unsuccessful musical ever seen on the stage. With the unique biographical premise of Franz Liebkind’s (Kenneth Mars) Springtime for Hitler, played by the most un-Hitler like actor (Dick Shawn), they’ve got a sure-fire flop on their hands. Or do they?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Mel Brooks masterpieces

Bacon #: 2 (Spaceballs / John Candy -> Planes, Trains and Automobiles / Kevin Bacon)