REVIEW: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

1 05 2017

Norman Lear is, to borrow a term used by the President to describe Frederick Douglass, being recognized more and more these days. But unlike the abolitionist hero, Lear is still alive! Luckily for us, his work and enormous contributions to shaping American society by revolutionizing the sitcom are receiving their proper due. Lear himself is not content to go gently into that good night, either; the nonagenarian just kicked off a podcast this month!

A few years ago, however, Lear penned a memoir, and documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady came along for the book tour. Their observations on the journey form the backbone of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” It’s definitely a puff piece, though the halo is dim enough that it falls short of hagiography. Their film lands somewhere in Sunday morning news magazine segment territory, just at a feature length, which is a fine place to reside.

Ewing and Grady assemble an impressive array of talking heads to interview, ranging from obvious contenders such as comedic peer Mel Brooks and famous showrunners like Lena Dunham and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) to some genuinely surprising faces like George Clooney. For those who want to understand Lear’s importance and don’t have the time to binge-watch “All in the Family,” this documentary will provide an important primer to his historical importance and continued relevance. Ewing and Grady aren’t pushing the documentary form like Lear stretched the TV sitcom, though that’s hardly an issue. B

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Classics Corner: “Blazing Saddles”

30 07 2011

In need of a Western without any pesky aliens?  Perhaps it’s time to revisit the good old faithful “Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’ 1974 sendup of the genre as well as the racism that they, whether blatantly or inadvertently, often promoted.  Comedy usually shares very little in common with wine – while the beverage gets better with age, the movies normally don’t – but here is one glorious exception.  The humor is very fresh, rooted in a very rich cinematic source rather than in shallow contemporary waters.

Brooks deconstructs the mythologized West by pointing out the stereotypes that we have assumed to be factual, when in reality, they may amount to little more than a representation to the attitudes of the filmmakers or the time.  He brings out hilarious, borderline self-aware, archetypes such as the down-and-out gunslinger (played here by Gene Wilder), the seductress (Madeline Kahn in a hysterical Oscar-nominated performance), and the power-crazy governor (Harvey Korman in all hilarity).  But Brooks turns the tables and makes another hallmark character from western films, the sheriff, an African-American (Cleavon Little), thus exposing the true attitudes of the town which looked so perfect and ideal.

The classic scene showing the revelation of this fact is funny not only because of Brooks’ clever wordplay but also because it rings true of the post-Civil Rights America.  While everything on the surface looked equal in 1974, there was still a ways to go, largely in terms of changing the racist attitudes that had been ingrained in people’s minds.  Through his tenure as sheriff, comedy ensues from all sorts of presumptions of race.

But if you want to just enjoy it as a surface level comedy, there are plenty of chances for you to do that as well.  Brooks’ unwillingness to subscribe to propriety or political correctness results in a ruckus of a movie which still produces belly laughs over 35 years later.  Be it through anachronisms, crafty inversions of genre expectations, toying with the limits of cinema, or good old-fashioned actor-driven humor, it could almost have a seal guaranteeing laughs on its poster.

I’d give anything to see Mel Brooks make another movie; it would be so refreshing amidst a sea of forgettable and immature comedies.  If only the sophomoric “Scary Movie” series hadn’t convinced everyone that genre spoofs have to be stupid, then the angels would herald his return.  But for now, I think every comedy writer would do well to watch “Blazing Saddles” again before they send off their script because, quite frankly, no one is coming close to this standard blazed by Brooks.