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An audience for Mel Brooks's The Producers: the avant-garde of the masses.(Critical essay)

Publication: Journal of Popular Film and Television

Publication Date: 22-MAR-06

Author: Symons, Alex

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An audience for Mel Brooks's The Producers: the avant-garde of the masses.(Critical essay)

COPYRIGHT 2006 Heldref Publications

Abstract: Although American film comedy has been condemned by mass culture critics as indiscriminating and simplistic, the 1968 reception of Mel Brooks's controversial movie The Producers demonstrates otherwise. Through sociological investigation, the film's period readings display the sophistication of engagement and the unique audience disposition of an American avant-garde.

Key words: audience; Brooks, Mel; comedy; Producers; taste


At the time of its original theatrical release, Mel Brooks's first film, The Producers (1968), came under fierce criticism by the prestigious New York press and was a significant box office flop. Brooks watched his film in an all-but-empty New York cinema, assuming by the tepid response that he would never work again. However, the film was soon salvaged from its critical and box office failure by the appreciation of a cult audience. This following was joined by British actor Peter Sellers, who published an endorsement of the film in his own writing in the trade paper Variety. Sellers's recommendation contributed to the wider revival of the film. As such, The Producers received better coverage on its later British release. The film was subsequently celebrated as a successful Broadway musical in 2001 and was later imported, with equal acclaim, to London's West End. Today, The Producers is hailed as the eleventh-best film comedy of all time by the American Film Institute, as featured in the online listing "100 years.... 100 Laughs."

The unprecedented rise in popularity that followed the film's period condemnation can be understood when the reception of The Producers is considered in terms of its comic value. By assessment of the film's varied reviews in 1968, it can be illustrated that the comic reading of The Producers constitutes the deliberate appreciation of bad taste. This unique comic form demonstrates a model of participation and audience disposition that completely opposes the patterns of reception presently associated with popular cinema. Mass culture theorists such as Theodore W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their essay "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," dictate that popular film is nothing more than "rigidly invariable types" (8). This criticism suggests that in popular comedy, "gags, effects, and jokes are calculated like the settings in which they are placed. They are the responsibility of special experts and their narrow range makes it easy for them to be apportioned in the office" (8). Such cynical assessments of American film promote a notion of the comic audience that fails to distinguish any differing means of engagement other than that of mindless mass consumption. This reductionist premise equally decrees that film comedy should earn cultural legitimacy by deviation from such mainstream convention, alike to the formal aspirations of Adorno's acclaimed avant-garde cinema.

When considering the constitution of the comic audience supposed by the textual critiques of mass culture criticism, it is useful to employ the reception framework prepared by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his essay "The Aristocracy of Culture," Bourdieu suggests that "the closer one moves toward legitimate areas, which can be set in hierarchy according to their model degree of legitimacy,[...] the more the differences in educational capital are associated with major differences both in knowledge and in preference" (166). When applied to the mass culture criticism, Bourdieu's theory suggests that the popular audience would be excluded from non-mainstream comedy by an absence of educational capital. However, in the case of The Producers, the reverse is in effect. In the comic reading of bad taste, the possession of high educational capital is not the distinction of the appreciative audience. In contrast, the possession of cultural capital is paramount. Conversely, it is the possession of high cultural capital that excludes the legitimate American critic, and it is that cultural exclusion that generates comic appeal to the intended audience.

As the legitimate critic attempts to qualify his aesthetic or narrative judgments, these criticisms result in an opinion of social purpose. Nowhere is this reductionist tendency more apparent than in the moral criticisms of The Producers made by the prestigious New York press of 1968. This moral revulsion is most transparent in the criticisms made by Andrew Sarris in his...

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