Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Critic (1963)

The Critic (Columbia, 1963)
Dir.: Ernest Pintoff
Writer/Voice: Mel Brooks
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

If you are a regular reader of my posts here on the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, then you know that the articles on this site are comprised of three main elements: an introduction usually containing personal remembrances of the cartoon at hand or based around something that happens in the film that I can relate in some way to my meager existence; a detailed overview of the plot and action in the cartoon; and some historical tidbits mixed in with a critical look at the film. 


The mix is almost always larger towards the overview portion naturally, especially for films of long ago that I feel need to be noticed more by current generations. The personal material is meant to show my connection to the material (however thin it may be at times), and at the heart of the matter, the relating of these connections is the reason for me to even come to the table in the first place. 

The third element, the criticism portion, is probably the most important to the reader, because many of you are likely looking around to the internet to see what other people are saying about a favorite film of theirs, especially, in the case of many animated films, they haven't seen a film since they were a kid. (I know that's how I approach the internet when I am browsing online.) Because of this, I want to impart an impression to the reader that not only have I seen the film under the microscope, but that I have studied it appropriately and formed a solid understanding of its intent, its purpose, and its place (if any) in the cultural landscape. (Hence, the rating at the top of each post as well. This is the rating that I register on IMDb and adapt to other film sites that I use, such as Letterboxd and Flickchart. Consistency is important to me. It's also a bit OCD.)


We rush to seek out the opinions of others, but we rarely like what we find. Especially when the chosen opinion of another does not exactly meet up with our own critical take on a film. Or even worse, when a critic with whom you have become familiar doesn't match with their review the one you had already written for them in your head. "That movie was great! I can't wait to see what [fill in the blank with the critic of your choice] says about it," thinking all the time that just because you loved the movie, that surely a critic as esteemed and influential as [fill in the blank with the name of that critic who is just about to disappoint you] will see it in precisely the same way that you did. And then you will write that critic off (at least temporarily) because of this. Wars have been fought for less.

Most popular animation of the theatrically released kind -- you know, the type that we really don't see anymore -- tends to lean toward "the funny". Because we are culturally predisposed to think of animation in the broadest sense as being silly fun, most popular television animation today -- the majority of it, but not all -- is also bent to the humorous side of entertainment  And reviewing any of it is pretty straightforward. Was it funny? Was it not funny? You can have the most superior draftsmanship in the world in your short film, but if the prevailing intent of the film was to make the audience laugh, but then the audience does not laugh and is, in fact, bored out of their minds, then your deft sense of line and smoothness of animation is not going to save your short (except perhaps in film classes). And it really must throw everything for a loop when shows like South Park or Beavis and Butthead come along and make much of the world convulse with laughter, even though a surface glance makes it seem like there is little in the way of a thoughtful aesthetic behind the design of the characters or the animation. (Which would be wrong but it is easy to think that...)

But when it comes to abstract animation, what is the average person to think? We come to it without a visual reference to tell us details we generally need to process given information into emotional thought. We commonly expect humor at the very mention of a "cartoon," but then we are presenting with swirls or straight lines, bursts of color or flourishes of dots, or even fields of little but a single color. None of it may seek to represent "character" to us as we tend to perceive it, except for what our minds may instill upon us as we view the piece and naturally seek to bring acceptable order to what we are seeing. Is it meant to be anything at all? What did the artist mean by this? Is this some kind of joke, and if so, why am I not laughing? Why am I being forced to watch this? All common questions when confronted with something out of our normal realm of "accessible" art.

So, what is an old man possibly looking for a little French naughtiness in a movie theatre to do when confronted with such a film? Well, if you are voiced by the great Mel Brooks in a 1963 short called The Critic, then you kvetch your way through three minutes of abstract animation, whining about the lack of story and sense, and end up winning an Academy Award for your efforts.

In The Critic, we -- like the old man -- are hit right away with permutations of various shapes -- rectangular, circular, triangular -- moving about on solid though flashing backgrounds while harpsichord music in a Baroque style plays on the soundtrack. (The music, I believe, belongs to the film we are watching about the old man wrestling with concept of abstraction and not to the animation he is viewing; that would give him something onto which to cling.) The shapes subside, and a series of squiggly lines, much like a river, takes their place, and we hear the voice of Mr. Brooks, using a variation on his voice for The 2000 Year Old Man, say, "What da hell is dis?"

A smattering of dots appears, and as they group together closer, he adds, "Must be a cartoon." We sense that he is in a theatre watching something he did not expect. We are never shown anything outside of the abstract animation at all, and our perception of the old man and his surroundings only comes from the information given -- his voice, other voices (such as the person who shushes him right after he said the last line above), and his response to his surroundings.

Upon a deep red background a blob of white appears. Small black dots shaped rather like seeds or raisins begin to speckle the white blob, and we hear the old man actually make an attempt to understand the images. "Must be boith! This looks like boith. I remember, when I was a boy in Russia, the biology... It's boith. It's born. Vhatever it is, it's born. Look out!" The white blob has become so speckled it is now black, and from the other side of the screen a long scalene triangle flies straight, almost looking like an airplane into the side of the blob. "Too late! It's dead already," he adds. The screen goes black, and after asking, "Vhat's dis?" again, the old man yells for the usher.

A pinkish background is shown where a large black dot appears and is orbited by smaller specks. "Dis is cute. Dis is cute," the Brooks character says. "Dis is nice... vhat da hell is it?" The pink turns to green and then splits into two colors while the black dot has transformed into a long squiggle with a large dot at each end, and a series of increasingly smaller squiggles on each side of the large squiggle. Old Man Brooks has already, just over a minute into the cartoon, given up trying to decipher the art invading his senses. "Oh, I know what it is! It's garbage, dat's vhat it is! Two dollars I pay for a French movie, for a foreign movie, and now I gotta see dis junk."

What looks like a black splotch with eight legs distended shows up on a blue background. "Vhat is dat? Looks like a bug." Four squiggles appear on the left side of the screen to match the splotch on the other side. Then black dots are added to the ends of the lines on the left splotch, and both splotches begin to slide towards each other and meet in the center. "Yes, it's two... two things... dat, dat... they like each other." The splotches converge and then move away from each other. The one on the right begins to form black dots on the ends of its lines as well. "Sure, look at the sparks. Two things in love. See how they got more alike?" The splotches get together and intertwine in the center again. "It envied the other thing so much," the old man observes, "Could dis be the sex life of two things?" The color black, seeming like paint, drips down from the top of the screen and wipes away the splotches. "Sure, ya can't show dat on da screen, you'll get arrested. You have to pull the curtain."

"Hey, would you shut up?" demands a feminine voice, as we are shown a series of flashing images of various colored backgrounds with groupings of long rectangles. "I'm 71," answers the old man, "I've got a right to be loud, lady. I'm gonna die soon." The rectangles give way to more dots, which vary in quantity and position with each flash of changing background. "Vhat is dis?" continues the old man. "Dots!" A single, large dot is shown. "Could be an eye," he adds. "Could be anything." Several lines project out from the dot, and the old man says, "It must be some symbolism." As a rather elongated oval appears and starts to have what look like sharpened legs added to it one by one, the old man adds, "I think it's symbolic of junk."

More legs are added to the oval, until it genuinely does look like some form of arthropod. So the old man is not far off when he whines, "Uh oh, it's a cock-a-roach! Good luck to you with your cock-a-roach, mister! I didn't come two dollars to a movie to see cock-a-roaches!"

The images slowly become more elaborate in their shapes and the colors used around and inside them. A random movement of animation forms a momentary shape that causes the old man to yell out, "Lips!" Then he adds, "See? Even if they don't wanna, they get doity!" He gets shushed again, so he yells, "Don't shush me, lady!" A gruff male voice chimes in, "Hey! Quiet, will ya!" This doesn't stop the old man for a second. "Doit," he finishes, "Doit and filth."

The images continue to flash quicker and quicker, and the old man no longer pays any attention to what is happening onscreen (nor will we from this point). He rambles on with his diatribe against the filmmaker. "Da fella dat made dis, he must be... must be over thoity if they let 'im do dis kinda thing, right? Vhy does he waste his time with dis? Fella like dat could probably drive a truck... do something constructive... make a shoe." He sighs out of exhaustion with the whole affair. "Oy! Two dollars... out da winda, Murray!"

As the short credits for the film begin to roll, Brooks' old man character sums up his epic kvetch. "I don't know much about psych-a-nalysis, but I'd say dis is a doity picture!"

Ernest Pintoff got his start directing animation when he began production on a Terrytoons short named Flebus (we will be getting to this film next month) in 1957. However, Pintoff left the film (which he also wrote) and Flebus, which went onto great popularity, was completed by Gene Deitch. His next film, however, was The Violinist, which paired him with Brooks' writing and performing partner, Carl Reiner, and it went on to gather Pintoff an Oscar nomination. After a couple of other films, Pintoff was asked by Brooks to produce the animation for The Critic after Brooks encountered an old man at a showing of a Norman McLaren abstract short who behaved much like the one in The Critic, yelling confusedly at the screen throughout it. In viewing the completed footage for the very first time, Brooks improvised his dialogue.

The Critic comes in at a tight three minutes and twentyish seconds, and there is not a wasted moment on the screen. The delineation of the old man through only the use of Brooks' memorable voice tells the story; the limited animation is only there as a prop off of which he can throw his insults and disgust. The Critic has the look of an abstract film, but the result is not in the abstract at all. It tells a very clear story of the struggle any person would have when meeting an art form with which we have no experience or personal preconceptions.

We all probably have stories of being in a movie theatre where someone in the audience had a meltdown over something on the screen that either upset them emotionally or had content that made them furious either through their inability to deal with and thereby understand it or because they were prudes in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

My favorite personal story of such an incident was at my very first viewing of David Lynch's Blue Velvet in 1986, where a dad with a wife and three kids in tow (including a damn baby) stormed out the showing while screaming at the top of his lungs at the screen. And this was only about twenty minutes into the picture. It wasn't the film's fault that he was a total damned idiot for bringing his young children to a David Lynch film. And it wasn't the film's fault that he couldn't handle the "weird goddamn shit!" (his phrase) that the movie threw in his face; hell, the really weird stuff hadn't even happened yet.

But the movies, whether they are normal narratives, abstract film, or psychological horror-noir masterpieces, are not just there to be simply viewed. While many people prefer to approach movies as mere mindless entertainment, to be seen once and discarded, others -- such as myself -- cannot consider this method for even a second. The "just want to shut off my brain and not think for two hours" mantra is not for us. Though we sometimes wish we could apply that mantra, we recognize that the art of cinema has a deeper significance for us, and that it is a vital part of our inner life.

Because of this, we can't "shut off our brains" when we go to a movie. We have an urgent need to recognize that our reason can be upended by our natural instincts and emotions at any turn. To each screening that we go, we carry in that baggage. If you come in upset about something, there is all the likelihood a purposefully upsetting film is going to create more tension for you. But there is also a chance that such a film might help you work through whatever was bugging you in the first place. We also need to be aware that our emotions might also cause us to read things into a scenario that were never put there by the filmmaker, or we make us fight back instinctually against things that we fear may cause us injury, even if they are merely on a movie screen. It's all in how we process outside information, and it is only tempered by whatever limitations -- artistic, educational, even emotional -- that we carry into the process. And, in the end, it can color your critical opinion of a film or other piece of art.

The old man in The Critic comes to an abstract film, and through his own limitations and a lack of experience with the art form (or even possibly with the act of true critical thinking), he can only cope with the situation through mockery of something he doesn't understand or really care to understand. He surrenders to the little that he knows and to his instincts, because it is easiest. While he makes a facile attempt early on at trying to make sense of his cinematic surroundings, in the end, he is there to hopefully see some boobs and nothing more. And so, forgetting his own desire to act as a cinematic Peeping Tom at a foreign film, he derides the animated film he wasn't expecting as nothing but "a doity picture".

Too bad the old man didn't have the internet in those days. It's so much easier to see boobs. And he could have saved his two dollars.

RTJ


*****

And in case you haven't seen it (and you really, really should...)

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