Vaudeville vs. Wagner: The Genius of “Spaceballs”

I write this post this morning at a time of stellar confluence, a constellational alignment — a harmonic convergence, if you will. Today is the birthday of Mel Brooks (b. 1926); Spaceballs just turned 30 years old; and Stars Wars, the film (among others), which Spaceball parodies, just turned 40.  An auspicious time, one thinks for a reconsideration of this cinematic last gasp.

Yes, “last gasp”. For we can agree, can’t we, I should hope, that Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) are all unambiguously terrible, symptoms of an exhausted talent, adrift in a culture that had progressed beyond his ability to connect. Yes, Brooks was to reinvent himself a few years later on the musical stage with great, even unprecedented, success, but his days of making perfect screen comedies were even then behind him, as long as a quarter century and more ago.

Candy as “Barf”

For years, I would have set the period of decline a decade earlier, marking the descent with The History of the World, Part One (1981), the unnecessary remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), and Spaceballs (1987). I’ve since re-evaluated the first and last of these, and will talk about the former film on another occasion. But when Spaceballs was released…one rolled one’s eyes. Brooks was passé. This movie was passé. For so many reasons. Among others, there’s the fact that in 1987, what could have been less relevant to anything than Star Wars? The last film in the series, Return of the Jedi had been released four years before. For all anyone knew at that time, the Star Wars franchise was dead, permanently a thing of the past. It was no longer in the zeitgeist. I was 21 when Spaceballs came out; a fifth of my life had passed since Star Wars was “over”; half my life had passed since it had begun. So there was that. But then there was the fact that a new generation of comic geniuses had pressed the re-set button, and basically Brooks had been bested and made obsolete on no less than two different fronts: on his left were the SNLSCTV guys who were making edgier, more youth-oriented comedy (I found the fact that he cast two of the stars of this movement,  John Candy and Rick Moranis, in Spaceballs, embarrassing at the time, as though Brooks thought he could hire his way back to relevance). And to his right, Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker were beating him at his own game with dead-on, far more uncompromising and knowing parodies like Airplane! (1980) Police Squad! (1982), and Top Secret (1984). (ZAZ would lose their own advantage, at least from a critical perspective, soon enough, but for the moment in 1987 they had re-set the bar higher than Brooks himself was able to hit.)

Furthermore, though mainstream audiences and maybe even Brooks himself didn’t know it, there was already a perfect Star Wars parody, Hardware Wars, a comedy short released in 1978 which I wrote about here. I was an enormous fan of Hardware Wars; only a miracle would not make Brooks’ film suffer by comparison. And Hardware Wars had been made on a shoestring. It’s about vitality. (For an interesting parallel completely WITHIN Brooks’ body of work…Brooks’ 1975 Robin Hood tv series When Things Were Rotten is vastly superior to the $20 million stinker Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) Note the date of Hardware Wars. 1978! That was the year for a Star Wars parody! When it was topical, not when it was a decade-old fad already in pop culture’s rear-view mirror!

You know what we needed in 1987? A really devastating Top Gun parody. THAT would have been comedy doing its job. One finally arrived in the form of Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! (1991), which was a smash success, although not the biting satire I would have hoped for. But at least it had its finger on the pulse. Much more to the purpose was Alan Spencer’s Dirty Harry parody tv show that ran 1986-1888: Sledge Hammer! That one was right on time, and on the money.

And not least of which…Jesus, that title! “Spaceballs“?! Balls? Really? And dick jokes? Brooks had been brilliant on his own, and brilliant in collaboration with Gene Wilder. Now he was collaborating with this hacky dude Ronny Graham, and it seemed like the whole enterprise was reaching, down, down, to recapture the glory of farting cowboys in Blazing Saddles. The remainder of Brooks’ film career was to be at about this level, actually.

What did this exhausted 60 year old man know about what was going on in the world? What did he know about Star Wars? Ah! And now we come to our point. For time, I feel, has vindicated and rehabilitated Spaceballs in all sorts of ways. Outside of its own time, we can see it better, more objectively. It has many virtues we (or at least I) never could have spotted at the time. I watched it again not long ago, and found the experience to be highly rewarding.

To get an easy one out of the way: as we never could have known at the time, the Stars Wars franchise would return years later, much like Star Trek before it, to be a sort of apparently permanent, open ended phenomenon, with many more sequels, prequels, and outlying stories to follow. Rather than a fad of the past, it lives now in a sort of timeless place, allowing Spaceballs to live there, too, as part of its universe, much as High Anxiety lives alongside Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Young Frankenstein lives practically within Universal horror. That’s a relief, but a kind of accidental one. That’s  just time catching up to salvage Brooks’ movie. But Spaceballs (ugh, change the title, though!) has inherent, timely virtues of its own, and three decades later it is easy to see that its creator was vastly smarter, more insightful, and more prescient than I gave him credit for at the time.

To be au courant is important to success. but it also an element that is superficial. As I said, four years, ten years, were a big deal to me at age 21, but to a 60 year old man, they are nothing. Those years passed, and Brooks hadn’t noticed that Star Wars was no longer a thing. So he went ahead and made his parody. And I’m glad that he did. Because a 60 year old man SEES things. He has an objectivity that people who are immersed in the latest pop culture (young people, generally speaking) do not. A few years ago (a bunch of years now) I went to my kid’s junior high graduation. And I had a flashback. The TUMULT of applause and screams and cheers when the popular kids went up to get their certificates! I remember being in Junior High, and thinking that about the popular kids, and thinking they were significant somehow, that they were important in some way. Whether you loved them or hated them, they dominated your life somehow. But, now as a parent, and a parent who lived in a different city (for as you well know, parents too are often sucked into the school culture of popularity), I was looking at this phenomenon with total objectivity, coolly, from a height and distance. To me, it was all very amusing. “They’re cheering for these kids like they’re rock stars! But they’re just kids! They’re just some other kids!”

In other words, I was unmoved by whatever anyone thought was going on here. I wasn’t impressed. I’m not saying I was judging any of it or anyone harshly. I was just aloof, detached, not on board to scream for Jimmy like he was The Beatles, because I was out of it, and could see that he was just another kid. He might be good looking or charming or something, but the odds are pretty good that the next Bill Gates in the class wouldn’t be that kid, it would be some dork who probably didn’t even show up for the ceremony because everyone hates him and he hates them right back.

So Brooks SEES Star Wars, he sees it in a way that many of us can’t or couldn’t. He doesn’t have any particular animus against it, he just doesn’t feel any need to show it slavish respect and worship. As a matter of fact, his attitude towards it is very much like his attitude toward the western in Blazing Saddles. It is a different approach than the one he takes towards musicals or the horror of the 1930s as in The Producers or Young Frankenstein. Those parodies are loving and indeed a little worshipful. But the HEROIC, you see, he is outside that mindset, and that is the point of this essay.

What is the heroic mindset? As is well known, George Lucas was under the spell of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces when he laid out his masterwork. It obviously, baldly draws from well-known sources in its bid to set up an original mythology: the epic poetry of the Greeks and Vikings; the opera of Wagner; and Tolkien (with its own echoes of Celtic, Norse and Germanic mythology). The story has that shape. John Williams music draws overtly from Wagner. And to stretch the point to a place where it is unmistakable, in one famous scene, there are visual echoes of the 1937 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally in Triumph of the Will:

George Lucas is not a Nazi, of course. He is a cinematic storyteller. As such, he is concerned with summoning powerful iconography and, according to certain conventions, a heroic ideal. He is not alone in this. We live, after all in the age of the superhero movie, where all of our protagonists must somehow be more than human and all our stories must be about the fate of the planet. Even our stories that are not overtly about those things now tack in that direction (see my earlier critique of Poseidon). Mere people aren’t good enough; everybody’s got to be Superman! A term coined by Nietzsche, I might add!

This worship of the strong, the invincible, the independently acting vigilante hero who is answerable to nobody but himself and the voices in his head makes some of us — makes me — a little skittish. It feels like conditioning for Fascism. I have been moaning about the deleterious cultural effects of action movies for decades, and people tell you you’re a Cassandra, “It’s just movies!” Yet what do we get in 2o16? A Fascist President, complete with rallies, a stream of Orwellian doublespeak, and a program for stepping on the necks of certain groups of people in pursuit of a vague, ill-defined “greatness”. Look! Look at the asshole in this picture, look at his costume. What do you think inspired it?

Motherfucker thinks he’s a superhero, gonna save something. Like a Knight? A Dark Knight? Or perhaps a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan?

And what does a certain comedian think about that sort of thing? What has he always felt? What respect does he have for it? I’ll show ya:

All the sudden, Mel Brooks looks to me like the hippest, most relevant comedian on the planet, Look at that picture. It’s recent! 

And now a little history lesson, so you know where we are. For decades, Hollywood was a place were the stories were designed to generate sympathy for the little guy — to communicate his perspective, but also, yes, to draw him to the theatre. Chaplin, Capra, Hawks, John Ford. Yes, there were superhero serials, and yes sci-fi fantasy like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (another model for Star Wars) but that was considered entertainment for children. Grown-ups watched stories about people.

OR…they laughed. Deconstruction has been a major thread in America since the days of vaudeville, burlesque, and Weber and Fields. WASP newspaper critics often sneered at this kind of disrespectful low-brow comedy back in the day, but they did so from a place of willful ignorance. Aristophanes came out of the same culture that produced the tragedians. He was there to lampoon them, keep them humble, keep them “real”. The first democracy gave birth to the first spoofs. When American cinema was born, guys like Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel parodied the heroic movies of their day. TV sketch comedy, where Mel Brooks got his start, would do the same.

During the Vietnam Era, the only Batman game in town was a camp tv series that poked relentless fun at the idea of a Caped Crusader. In the 60s, there was a healthy and perceptive idea abroad in the land that people who went around calling themselves saviors and heroes just might be buffoons. The guys who show up to your village to save you from the scourge of communism just might burn down your hooch and shoot every man, woman, child and infant. In fact, it was against this backdrop that Mel Brooks had his first smash success, the tv series Get Smart, which ran from 1965 through 1970. Get Smart turned Cold War super spy James Bond on his head, turned him into an idiot. It’s not that Mel Brooks wasn’t/ isn’t a patriot. He served in World War Two — literally went to Germany to fight Nazis. But you have to keep your eye on the ball. Fascism isn’t just a uniform. It’s a mindset and a way of behaving. And it is to be fought WHEREVER it is, at home as much as abroad, even if it is sitting right across from you at Thanksgiving dinner.

Then something dreadful happened. As Ronald Reagan began to heat up the Cold War again, the culture decided (after a REALLY short time) that the era of apologizing for Vietnam was over. Carter had bungled the response to the Iran hostage crisis, and a few other things besides. The Reagan philosophy was “Let us no longer be crippled by doubt”. Which was fine, as far as it went. Who doesn’t want to destroy totalitarianism? (In fact, that is the point of this very essay). But what rapidly evolved was a cinema that glorified military violence for its own sake, and patriotism at any cost, including the loss of America’s democratic, compassionate soul. It was now okay to kill the enemy for no other reason than the fact that we are us. And where the 60s and 70s had been an age of anti-heroes, and self-examination, it now appeared paramount to re-establish HEROES. Not just heroes, but unquestioned, unquestionable demi-Gods, the kind of characters who destroy buildings and cities to save their girlfriend or something.

But, “Whoa! The laser gun is cool!”

Pizza the Hut: THAT’s puttin’ ’em in their place!

Mel Brooks looked at that mentality, and said, much to his credit, “I’m not so impressed.” Your proto-Fascism has no power over me. This crap you fetishize is immature. The names are hokey, the plot is stupid, your intentions are nakedly self-aggrandizing. It is cloaked in mysticism, but contains no wisdom. There is a level at which a jackass with a gun is childish… therefore a jackass with a gun who is wearing a comically large helmet and falling down and swearing all the time is actually much more mature for laughing at the folly of it all. I KNOW the Buddha and Jesus would agree with me here!

I had a great epiphany a few months back at the Coney Island USA spring gala, when Reverend Billy was there and gave his (usual) great speech about how Coney Island was a a kind of holy place, for being the birthplace and haven for every kind of freak. Not just the literal ones, the born different, but the spiritual ones, too. Outsiders. And New Burlesque, like the sideshow, is so much about embracing all bodies, and celebrating self-ownership by women, the LGBTQ community etc (at least the worthwhile shows are).

Brooks, to state the obvious, is from an outsider culture. He STATES it. At the end of The History of the World, Part One, he announces that his next movie will be Jews in Space. And he made Jews in Space and decided to call it Spaceballs instead. He gives us a “Druish Princess” whose servant is played by Joan Rivers, for God’s sake. And “May the Schwartz Be With You!” Brooks is in dialogue with the dominant culture, the Anglo-Saxon culture, which appears to be getting off on some weird Aryan worshiping mythos. The vaudeville spirit is about creating a unique whole out of a zillion diverse parts, allowing them to remain different, allowing them to remain themselves, not asking them to cleave to some “ideal”. Taking the beautiful and powerful down a few pegs, that’s the stuff for me. God bless you, Mel Brooks. We need a thousand more like you right at this very moment.

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