Sunday, September 6, 2009

America Needs to See "Life Stinks"

A montage of images depicting urban blight (in this case culled from downtown Los Angeles) greets the audience. In the background one can hear news reports discussing matters of great consequence to and about individuals of great consequence. The indigent shuffle about their daily lives, indifferent to the voices that are responsible for reporting the human story, as both they and we know full well that those voices are already indifferent to them. As if to punctuate this point, a limousine carrying an important man - the kind of human being about whom those voices do care - whisks past a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk curb, drenching him with water and mud.

Life Stinks! is my favorite Mel Brooks movie, and one of my all-time favorite films, because it insists on telling us what would happen if a man of consequence (the one in the limousine) had his story dovetail with the millions of human beings whose stories are often dismissed as being inconsequential. Goddard Bolt, a billionaire industrialist with a penthouse office in a Los Angeles skyscraper, wants to destroy a decaying neighborhood in his own city so that he what he builds on its site can become his legacy (the exact business plan he has in mind is far less important than his failure to recognize that the human lives he has destroyed, and not the heartless edifice he has erected in their place, would in fact be his legacy). Another corporate nabob, the deliciously unctuous Vance Crasswell (Brooks has a real knack for finding apropos names for his characters), also has his eyes on the real estate prize. Soon a wager is made - Bolt bets that he could survive for thirty days among society's most economically misfortunate while Crasswell places odds that he cannot. The winner gets to destroy the neighborhood.

The idea of forcing one of society's privileged to see what it's like on the other side is hardly original to Brooks' film; its literary origins can be traced as far back as Arthurian legend, and even its comic potential has been mined before, most famously in Mark Twain's 1881 classic The Prince and the Pauper. Yet Life Stinks! stands out as a particularly special entry within this genre for three reasons:

1) It has a compelling story and tells it well.
Movie critics, in their unending quest for the original and innovative, sometimes fail to appreciate that which is old-fashioned but, on the sheer strength of how it is told, manages to remain powerful, effective, and even fresh. Although Life Stinks! does tread on ideological and narrative terrain that has been visited before, it does so with vivid and fleshed out characters, a story that is impressively believable in its execution (especially considering its somewhat far-fetched premise), and the ability to seamlessly transition in tone between the comic and the dramatic, without at any time allowing one to cheapen the other. The fact that it is very funny, considering that Mel Brooks is its auteur, isn't particularly noteworthy (and although consistently amusing throughout its running time, Life Stinks fails to reach the greatness of Brooks' earlier work, such as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein). On the other hand, the fact that the movie's story is so powerful, on the other hand, is quite surprising; while Brooks was never a slouch when it came to the art of telling a tale, none of his other movies have ever reached the level of Life Stinks! either in socio-political prescience or sheer dramatic poignance.

2) The comedy is an endearing blend of fundamentally innocent vaudevillian hijinks and biting satire.
The slapstick, stomach churning gags, and nyuk nyuk inducing misunderstandings that one would expect from a man who cut his comic teeth working as a writer for The Sid Caesar Show is all here, and perfectly unapologetic about the fact that it is a throwback to an era when comedy didn't rely on shock value and chic in order to receive approval. Yet the more important throwback is the way in which Brooks satirizes his subjects. At a time when filmmakers believe that the only way to make a movie socially relevant is to become as savvy and sophisticated as possible, it is refreshing to watch Life Stinks! express the confidence to make its point through the tried-and-true technique of creating comedy simply by showing that which is already absurd in life, rather than attempting to show off its own self-proclaimed sophistication by piling layers upon layers of irony or taking that which is already ridiculous and exaggerating it until it bears little resemblance to its original target. Take, for example, the scene when the now destitute and desperate Goddard Bolt pleads for food and shelter outside a church, only to be turned away by a nun (voiced to perfection by the late Bea Arthur) whose refusal to open the door denies him not only Christian charity, but even the most basic dignity of being able to talk to a human face:

BOLT knocks on the door. NUN's voice can be heard from inside.
Nun: Kindly. Who is it?
Bolt: Desperate but maintaining a semblance of composure. Please let me in. I need shelter.
Nun: Regretfully. I'm sorry. We're closed... my son.
Bolt: Slightly more agitated. But I haven't eaten all day. I need food!
Nun: Regretfully. We'll be open in the morning... my son.
Bolt: Hysterical. You don't understand! I don't have a place to sleep. I'm tired, very tired, very... Please! Please let me in! Please let me in!
Nun: Shouting. Now listen! You're wakin' everybody up! You get out of here or I'm callin' the police! Waits a beat. My son.

3) The movie has the courage to buck the prevailing socioeconomic, political, and cultural assumptions of its time.
Although Life Stinks! takes aim at many targets in its survey of poverty in America - the prevalance of drug use in slums, the degree to which facilities available to the indigent can be exploited at the whims of the powerful, the inhumane ineptitude and neglect that marks the health care received by those without money or insurance, the ways in which our society dismisses its suffering citizens as mere nuisances, and even small touches such as how the ashes of the cremated rich are placed in urns while the poor have to settle for shoeboxes - its greatest value lies in the comic eloquence with which it dispenses one of the central ideological convictions of its time. It is important to bear in mind, when Life Stinks! was released in 1991, the era of Ronald Reagan (at that time presided over by President George H. W. Bush) was in full swing. Despite the growing disparity in the quality of life between the rich and the poor, as well as the ever-shrinking middle-class, entertainment as well as news media insisted on reflecting the popular notion that times were good, opportunity for socioeconomic advancement was available to all, and most important of all, that those who were in distress only had themselves to blame. I wish I could say that these beliefs have since then received the widespread contempt they richly deserve (if not for moral reasons than because more and more Americans everyday are joining the ranks of the economically disadvantaged), but in the course of less than a week, I have personally encountered met five (count 'em, five) people who have told me (two of them by screaming and shouting me down, two of them with smug condescension, and the last matter-of-factly) that the growing number of Americans who are either unemployed or can't make ends meet with the jobs they already have are "lazy" and overall have only themselves to blame. To these monsters, Life Stinks! has a powerful rebuttal. As Roger Ebert noted at the time:

It's easy to sit inside an air-conditioned car and feel scorn for some poor wretch who is trying to earn a quarter for wiping a rag across the windshield. But if we were out there on the streets without a home or money, what bright ideas would we come up with? Donald Trump can make millions selling condos to other millionaires, but could he make 10 bucks in a day if he had to start from scratch? The conventional wisdom in these situations is that the poor and homeless should get a grip on themselves, should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But if they have no boots, what then? Wasn't it Anatole France who said that the Law, in its magnificent equality, prohibits the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges and begging in the streets?

Unfortunately, Life Stinks! marks an unfortunate nadir in Mel Brooks' career - this socially conscious satire became the first Brooks movie to ever bomb both among critics and at the box office. That said, it has in many ways aged better than any of his other films. At a time when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to "solve" his homeless problem by buying them one-way tickets out of town, when popular pundits like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh can denounce tax increases on those who make more than a quarter-million dollars as "punishing our most productive citizens", when the de-regulation and laissez-faire philosophy of Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes can be directly traced to the economic crisis of 2007-2008, when the growing gap between rich and poor has made it so that the rich (much to their befuddlement) can't sell their goods and services to the poor (who lack the income to afford them), and when despite all of this, the ideological right (and the big businesses that control them) have convinced the intellectually deficient, paranoid, and hateful all across the land that they should shout down and bully liberal congressmen and labor unions (to say nothing of pudgy Jewish intellectuals) who want to increase taxes on the wealthy, use taxpayer dollars to create more jobs and raise wages, and provide high quality healthcare for all ... at a time like this, Life Stinks rings as true as ever.

PS: In a special feature "Making of the Movie" documentary on the Life Stinks! DVD, the question is posed to Rudy DeLuca, one of the writers, "Does life actually stink?" His response makes for a fitting close to this article:
"You have to weigh what stinks and what doesn't. You know, when you're out of work, life stinks. When your girlfriend or your wife gives you a hard time, life stinks. When you have a bad meal, life stinks. When you're out of money, life stinks. When you're in traffic, life stinks. When you're in heavier traffic, it REALLY stinks. And when you don't get along and have fights with your friends, it REALLY STINKS! And other times, there are times... when you just can't stand it."
Actually, as an incorrigible optimist, I much prefer the answer given by Mel Brooks:
"We should just enjoy whatever life we have, and pop around and jump around and eat spaghetti and dance as much as we can. If we're capable of dancing, we should dance."

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