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Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein

1974. Directed by Mel Brooks. With Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars

Young Frankenstein has been recommended as the funniest Mel Brooks movie, and I can see how it might have caused a certain self-congratulatory giddiness at late-night shows in the middle 70s. But the moment seems to have passed. While admitting that home video may not be a good delivery vehicle for this sort of thing, I have to say that Brooks's frenetic talent for burlesque humor combined with his really awful sense of movie pacing left me feeling simultaneously exhausted and restless.

The movie is less self-referential than I'd expected, unless you count Marty Feldman's incessant leering at the camera as daring 4th-wall-breaking. But in another sense, it's completely self-referential, in that it depends entirely on the audience's familiarity with other movies. It's an extended (oy, is it extended!) sendup that gains most of its laughs--and all of its structure--from playing off the original Frankenstein series. The scene where the escaped Creature encounters the little girl is a great example. It's worth a solid laugh when the girl asks "What shall we throw in the well next?" and the Creature glances conspiratorially at the camera. Brooks has the uncharacteristic good sense to fade the scene out at this point and let the audience bask in their cynical knowledge that the Boris Karloff Creature drowned a similar little girl under similar circumstances. The child's "innocence" in this version comes from her not being in on the joke; she's an extreme example of the out-of-it person who deserves what she gets.

The episode seems quite arbitrarily inserted--one problem with Young Frankenstein is that it has no plot arc, but lurches along from escape to recapture to escape in order to accomodate Brooks's favorite scenes from at least three earlier movies. The little girl scene and the scene with the blind man have no real function in Brooks's story except to recall, and mock, the rather poignant parallel scenes from older movies. The creaky-armed constable played by Kenneth Mars is utterly inexplicable unless you get the allusion to the Lionel Atwill character in Son of Frankenstein, a character so bizarre in the original as to be, one would think, beyond parody.

Much of Young Frankenstein sounds like it was dreamed up by fraternity boys (Brooks and Gene Wilder collaborated on the screenplay). There's undeniable fun in see vulgar Yiddish humor mapped against one of the most pompous of the popular genres--those James Whale movies were full of flutey British accents and melodramatic posturing. This sort of thing can be pretty entertaining when you're riffing over a joint, or putting together a skit for the student variety show, or even watching Sid Caesar do 6 or 7 minutes on live TV. But a full-length, big-budget movie parody is a strange creature. I wonder if part of the joy audiences get from this movie comes precisely from seeing major resources--lots of money, elegant photography, substantial sets, professional makeup and costumes, name actors, etc.--put at the service of a fundamentally sophomoric idea. It's got a subversive counter-culture feel to it: the smartasses hijack a major motion picture studio, lay seige to some of the most durable icons of the classical cinema, and gleefully expose them for the cliche-ridden absurdities they are.

Ultimately, it seems to me that Young Frankenstein is not really self-referential, just media-referential. True self-referentiality conveys a kind of dizzying instability; even the passing joke to the camera in a Bob Hope movie momentarily makes us re-evaluate where we are, what we're seeing, and what we're assuming. Self-ref hints at the mysterious mathematics and physics of recursion--reflections within reflections, spirals that curve back on themselves. Young Frankenstein and its ilk destabilize things not at all. Quite the contrary: They make us feel extremely comfortable in our smug superiority. No level-shifting here, no challenges to any assumptions, no ambiguity. The only thing that gets undermined is another era's classics. Brooks convinces us that we know everything there is to know about the Frankenstein story specifically and old movies in general; and that we are so sophisticated that we can sit back and lob spitballs. Young Frankenstein is about the fun of being in-the-know, but this is a cheap high compared to the convoluted, uncomfortable, vertiginous thrills of real reflexivity, which reminds us not how on-top-of-things we are, but rather how caught-in-the-middle.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein