Can quality filmmaking survive in today's Hollywood?
History of the World Part I is the slimiest movie to crawl out of Hollywood in ages. Yet attention must be paid -- partly because of Mel Brooks and his enormous popularity, and partly because this clammy comedy is just the latest effort in a commercially inspired campaign to strangle out of the movies that little intelligence they had left.
The film requires little description. It begins in the Stone Age, whizzes through the Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition (staged as a musical production number), and winds up with the French Revolution. Brooks plays a major character in each episode, joined by such funnypersons as Don DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, and Sid Caesar.
The humor is deliberately low. It isn't just the insistent vulgarity of "History" that's offensive, though. It's the patronizing attitude Brooks takes toward his audience -- the thudding obviousness of the jokes, the broad delivery of the dialogue, the condescending close-ups that shove each gag in our faces like so many custard pies. In such areas, "History" is a throwback to ponderous farces like "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," with their flashes of brilliance smothered by wretched filmmaking. Vanished are the comparative inventiveness and sincerity of "Silent Movie" and "High Anxiety."
Even more disturbing are the implications of "History" for today's Hollywood. More and more, the filmmaking process is governed by calculation rather than inspiration -- and sure enough, the movies are being flattened into a "vast wasteland" like most commercial television. Gone are the days when showmen ran the studios, using commercial instincts, yet gambling occasionally on sheer quality. Today's film establishment is overrun by conglomerates. The bottom line has replaced the chorus line, and even a zany like Mel Brooks has more dollar signs that guffaws zipping through his head.
Consider some depressing remarks made by Brooks in a recent Newsday interview. "Very few people over 35 are in a movie house today at any time for any reason," he says. "My audience is 15-to-22- year-olds. . . . They are the ones it is my pleasure and duty to please."
In a limited way, Brooks has a point. According to the Bureau of the Census, the average age of Americans is going up. Yet according to Hollywood studies, the average moviegoing age has become quite low -- prompted by the availability of ready cash, the reluctance of some older people to seek entertainment outside their homes, and youthful enjoyment of the social and communal aspects of moviegoing.
What's chilling is Brook's cheerful abduction of the grown-up world, his glib dismissal of all spectators except that eight- year spread. Along with Woody Allen, he is our leading movie clown, and now he announces that he's playing only to kids these days -- including plenty who are supposedly "restricted" from R-rated pictures like "History" in the first place.
Obviously, he would welcome any spectator with the price of a ticket. But just as obviously, he is transfixed by the idea of adolescent hordes, their pockets crammed with spending loot, eager to howl at the first pointless four-letter word or bathroom reference he fires from the screen. Oldsters over 22 can go dodder in front of someone else's movie.
It's easy to understand Brook's attitude. Young people do like comedies, and those who are not yet mature may be more easily seduced by the floating sleaziness that occupies a large chunk of the Brooks mentality.
But there's no future in Brook's cynical approach. Bright young people, like bright older people, must soon tire of his monotonous stabs at sex and scatology -- not to mention the racist undercurrent of many jokes, which are supposed to be "all right" because he attacks his own Jewish culture as often as he spars with blacks. His brand of humor contains the seeds of its own decline, revealing its vapidity not only in its clumsiness, but in the foolishness of many of its targets, ranging from game shows to girlie magazines.
So for the moment, young crowd-followers may flock to the box office, where Brooks will deliver a product that's gamier than anything on the networks. In the end, though, he's liable to find himself saddled with a small and mean-minded audience, quite opposite from the brash and enthusiastic gang he seeks.
The big question is: Will all Hollywood follow the demographic charts and join Brooks in his shortsighted wooing of a narrow audience that's as impressionable as it is affluent? Or will good-quality filmmaking somehow survive, to win the battle against TV, cable, or home-video machines through clever and mature entertainment -- not the smarmy self-indulgence of " History of the World"?