Thursday, December 28, 2006

Riding a Blazing Saddle to Fargo

Two of my favorite films in cinema history landed on this year's list of 25 inductees to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. By virtue of selection, these films are deemed national treasures, guaranteed to be preserved in perpetuity for future generations to appreciate.

Blazing Saddles is a long overdue choice, especially given that two other Mel Brooks films, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, are already in the Registry. For my money, Blazing Saddles is both the funniest comedy in film history (it's Number Six on the American Film Institute's list of great American comedies) and the cinema's most incisive satire on the subject of race. Originally, Richard Pryor — who cowrote the script — was supposed to star, but he was serendipitously replaced at the last moment by the brilliant Cleavon Little. When I was a kid, if I couldn't grow up to be Spider-Man, I wanted to be Sheriff Bart.

Fargo is an unusual film, in that it can be viewed either as a comedy punctuated by gruesome violence (it's #93 on AFI's list of funniest comedies), or as a neo-noir thriller with inescapable comedic overtones. However you choose to classify it, Fargo is terrific moviemaking by the Coen Brothers (whose films I don't always enjoy). The lead performances by Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota (no, the film doesn't take place in Fargo, except for the first few minutes), and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman whose get-rich-quick scheme launches the story, have to be regarded as two of the most memorable of all time.

Other interesting picks among this year's Registry selections:
  • Red Dust, starring the all-but-forgotten sex goddess Jean Harlow. Harlow, who died of kidney failure at the tender age of 26 just as her career was taking off, was Marilyn Monroe before Marilyn even hit puberty. To see Harlow on screen is to fall in... well... desire with her. She was truly one of a kind.

  • Halloween, John Carpenter's horror classic that launched a thousand slasher flicks. Halloween isn't Carpenter's best film — Starman is — nor his most entertaining — that's a tie between Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China — but it's certainly his most iconic work. Is there a good reason why Rob Zombie is remaking it?

  • Groundhog Day. Not a favorite of mine, frankly, but a film that has pervaded popular culture in much the same way that Halloween has.

  • sex, lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh's breakout film, is another peculiar if perfectly reasonable selection. In my estimation, Soderbergh is one of the four or five best directors working today, and this film illustrates most of the reasons why. A stellar performance by James Spader — a highly underrated actor — makes this odd material come together.

  • Notorious. One of Hitchcock's best — I was actually surprised to learn that it hadn't been chosen previously. You put Hitchcock together with his favorite leading man, Cary Grant; a sublime leading lady, Ingrid Bergman; one of cinema's great character actors, Claude Rains (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor); a slinky script by a legendary writer, Ben Hecht — how could it not be wonderful?

  • Rocky. Two words: "Yo, Adrian!"

  • The T.A.M.I. Show, which — by an ironic and altogether appropriate twist of timing — showcases a sensational performance by the recently departed Godfather of Soul, James Brown, among other music icons.

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