eep in the preview theatre nothing stirred. On the movie screen two middle-aged men clad in greasy rags were busily yelling at each other to frustratingly paltry effect. Blows to the face punctuated a
pointless argument, thwack following
thwack like some Alpine folk dance.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
Oflaughter there is none, however. This
frenzy ofjollity is to fall on glazed
indifference from the select audience of
journos gathered to witness it. Screams,
shrieks and kerth wups spill from the screen
into an unbroken silence that hangs over the
auditorium like a funeral shroud. Lips
pursed, arms folded, legs crossed, the hacks
are not amused. They are undergoing one of
the least enviable experiences filmdom has
to offer. The comedy wake.
Mel Brooks, ofall people, should’ve known better than to title a film Life Stinks. On the other hand, if he’d called this lamentable laugh-free zone Life Is Absolutely And Totally Brilliant this viewer
for one reckons that decaying vegetables would’ve been passing overhead in a screenwards direction. A tale of megalomaniac property tycoon Mel taking up a bet that he can survive as a down-and-out on the streets of LA for 30 days, with a gazillion-dollar real estate deal turning on the outcome, as it wends its weary way in search of a chucklette, memories of The Producers inevitably jump to mind.
Could it be that Brooks, canny businessman that he is, might be doing 3 Max Bialystock on us all? Perhaps he has sold shares in Life Stinks a hundred times over so he can pocket the dosh when it fails miserably at the box office. I picture him lighting a fat cigar with a hundred-dollar bill. ‘They laughed at Springtime For Hitler but they’ll sure as hell not laugh at this one!’ he cackles, throwing crinkly green bills in the air like overweight confetti.
Moments of reverie over, and the press lunch is upon us. In a Soho restaurant we’re arranged into groups at a trio of tables. I rub shoulders with the nation’s arbiters of cinematic taste as we all nervously finger the bread rolls and await the Dreaded Question that will surely come.
‘I’m working the room. I’m working the room,’ comes the clarion call from a small white-haired man in a loud shirt. It is Mel Brooks. Earlier on screen he’d been a small red-haired man in a loud shirt but, hey, that’s the magic of the movies for you.
‘Hi!’ he beams in those familiar husky Brooksian tones, surveying the assembly of human miscreants before him. He. is clearly working up to the Dreaded Question.
‘30. How’d you enjoy the movie?’
The sepulchral silence of the screening room returns with a vengeance. Brooks’s beady gaze pans round. Our eyes try to avoid his steely glare, but the pressure is on. Palms begin to grease with perspiration. Lower lips quiver in indecision.
The woman from The Scotsman is the first to break.
‘Itwas. . .’
Brooks essays a quizzical squint of anticipation.
‘. . .fun,’she lied.
Smiles break out all round as the tension subsides. We can now all get on with the absurdity that is The Promotional Lunch. To
’ be fair, everyone is quite happy to be here.
With genuine comedy classics of the order of The Producers. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein to his credit, Brooks’s anarchic blend of scatalogical humour and freewheeling genre parody has done much to shape the contours of modern movie laughter-making from Saturday Night Live and beyond. Indeed, as one who started out writing gags for epochal 50$ funster Sid Caesar’s Show OfShows, alongside a certain tyro named Woody Allen, Brooks virtually is the recent history of American comedy.
Of late though, while TV chat shows and a hugely enjoyable LWT An Audience With special have shown the man in person to be as inventively garrulous as ever, somehow the funny movies don’t seem to be quite as funny as they once were. But today, he’s in vigorous huckstering form. Between mouthfuls of chicken cacciatore, he lets fly with gobbets of Tinseltown wisdom. At 65 there’s still a high quotient of physical knockabout in Life Stinks, but he’s still got bags of energy left for the lengthy process of marketing a movie in the midst of ever more packed release schedules. ‘We wanted to do
I don’t care what you thought of the movie, just tell everyone it’s great.
an old-fashioned Preston Sturges Depression comedy,’ he says of his latest offering, straightaway answering everyone’s first question: Why? Why? Why? ‘Show the rich with black and white floors, show the poor living down by the railroad. So we came up with the idea of a fish-out-of-water picture about a millionaire having to sleep in the slums. That’s the basic idea and we thought it was funny and timely. Six drafts later and it was ready to film.
‘It’s a fable, by the way. A fable. Here’s a monster who’s been changed by the miracle of love when he meets the lady bum played by Lesley Anne Warren. He learns about new experience in his life, but he’s still forged in such a way that he’s always going to choose the white Rolls Royce over living in a cardboard hut. Still, the press in America has assaulted me for making a movie that’s too serious. They said the same things when The Producers came out and they hated it. Springtime For Hitler was not a fit subject for comedy, Jewish people were taken to ovens. Blah, blah, blah.’
A few chews later and he picks up the thread. ‘But you know comedy has to be about something,’ he continues, waving his fork in the air for emphasis. ‘It can’t just be a fat lady slipping on a banana skin and falling. It’s got to be about. . . the human condition . . .’
This from the man who brought you Blazing Saddles’ thunderous ﬂatulence scene.
‘. . . eternal verities. . .’
This from the man who brought you the whole of Spaceballs.
‘. . . social conditions that apply today.’
These words are followed by a brief pause in which he seems to realise such grandiose values are in conspicuously short supply throughout his own filmography. ‘Or, about the kind of movies that are coming out today,’ he hurriedly interjects. "Cause I’ve done a lot of genre satires, y’know.’
To be fair, in the next half hour or so he does put on a remotely serious front to tell us all about the time he spent researching among the Los Angeles homeless and the fundraising work he does within the film community to help the LA Mission. It is, however, probably close to the truth to say that we’re less interested in the caring, sensitive Mel Brooks than the uproarious comic iconoclast who cast Dick Shawn as Hitler and brought on the dancing monks in History Of The World’s all-singin’, all-dancin’ Spanish Inquisition production number. A lull in the conversation helps us wolf down rapidly cooling pasta and then it’s on to the meaningful issues. Bearing in mind that there were probably more laughs on my shirt’s washing instructions label than in Life Stinks, I had to wonder out loud whether there was indeed a secret to the art of comedy?
‘The most important thing is the entertainment,’ nods Mel in sagacious fashion. ‘Ifyou laugh yourself, then it’s funny. Ifyou don’t laugh, but you try to convince yourself “Oh, they’ll love it anyway,” then you’re in trouble. I tell ya, we had such a great time making this movie. The slapping scene when I argue with Rudy De Luca over who’s the richest burn, that was a killer. The production assistants kept laughing and breaking up the scene, so I had to get dumber guys who wouldn’t laugh so much. We ended up stuffing the cameraman’s mouth with paper. Then, when we virtually got rid of the whole crew, I’d slap Rudy one time, two times, then just corpse. I tell ya, it took us a day to shoot the damn thing. That’s what it’s about. You have to laugh yourself.’
Sure, enough, this was the very scene that had provoked the most tomb-like, the most deafening silence at the screening just an hour or so earlier. Johnny Comedy, according to Steve Martin at least, may not be pretty, but he’s damn difficult to pin down. However, just as we are about to launch into a serious debate on the subject, it’s time for darling Mel to grace the next table of hacks with his presence. Perhaps we’ll never bridge that existential abyss that divides what I think is funny and what makes Mel Brooks laugh. Perhaps the gap is gettng
wider as Brooks descends further in the vale ofyears, but the old trouper barges gamely onwards anyhow.
‘I don’t care what you thought ofthe movie,’ he offers a parting shot. ‘just tell everyone it’s great.’
, Life Stinks opens across Scotland on F ridav j 20 September.
The List 13 — 26 September l99l 7