POSTED May 15 2013

Mel Brooks: You can’t torquemada anything

Mel Brooks as a distinctly Jolson-like Torquemada

Mel Brooks as a distinctly Jolson-like Torquemada

At the Cannes Film Festival in 1981, Jerzy Skolimoski’s Hands Up, long suppressed by Polish authoritiesscreened out of competition. Apart from horizontal pans of war-torn Beirut and a sequence intimating that the truck driven by a character was used to transport Jews to death camps during World War II, I remember few details from the movie because of the short that preceded it.

Gilles Jacob, Cannes’ mahoff, strolled out to the stage to say that he had invited Mel Brooks to show his new film and that although Brooks had declined the honor, he had sent a segment of his new film, The History of the World, Part I. It was “The Inquisition” sequence. I am reasonably certain that in the history of Cannes no film — or movie segment — has ignited such explosive laughter. Thirty years later, I’m still laughing at the image of Brooks as an Al Jolson-ish Torquemada, of whom his minions complain, “You can’t Torquemada anything.”

The confluence of the beginning of this year’s Cannes festival and the PBS Ametican Masters documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise airing on Monday May 20 brought back this movie memory.

And this brings up a question: What is Brooks’ artistic legacy? For a guy who gets a lot of laughs and a lot of awards (he’s an EGOT, winner of Emmys, Grammys, and Oscar and Tonys), Brooks doesn’t get much critical respect.

He should. It’s no accident that he’s won all those awards. He’s made important contributions to television (as a writer for Sid Caesar and co-creator of Get Smart), to stand-up comedy (“The 2000 Year Old Man recordings with co-conspirator Carl Reiner), and as a movie producer of films such as The Elephant Man, The Fly, Frances and My Favorite Year (he’s drawn to stories of outsized outsiders).

He himself won an Oscar for his screenplay to The Producers, but he’s not just a wordsmith and punster. He was the guy who parodied show-business conventions in the movies and in theater. He spoofed Dr. Zhivago in The Twelve Chairs, cowboy movies in Blazing Saddles, monster flicks in Young Frankenstein and Hitchcock films in High Anxiety. His movies function as a kind of pop movie criticism: With their exaggerated lighting, music and camera moves, he made the audience laugh while schooling it in genre tropes. I’d argue that he is as dogged a deconstructionist of genre as Robert Altman.

With their revue style and winks at the audience (not unlike Marx Brothers movies and the Bob Hope/Bing Crsby films) , Brooks’ comedies paved the way for the Airplane! and Naked Gun and Scary Movie franchises.

My favorites among his films are The Producers and The History of the World, Part I. Yours? Thoughts on his artistic legacy?

Here’s the clip I saw at Cannes:

Mel Brooks as a distinctly Jolson-like Torquemada

Mel Brooks as a distinctly Jolson-like Torquemada