A Year in Shorts Day 201: "The Critic"
The tragic story behind Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Micromanaged to death by the studio, only for them to turn around and leave them out to dry in favor of Barb Wire, it’s no wonder that the cinematic adventures of Mike and the Bots were completely ignored by the Academy. I’m sure that in any other case, the Oscars would have gone nuts for a movie about a snarky Midwestern comedian making fun of an old movie with the help of two robots. It’s classic Oscar Bait! Don’t believe me? Then explain why they awarded Best Animated Short to the proto-MST3K, 1963’s The Critic.
The Critic is, strictly speaking, an Ernest Pintoff film. He directed the short, he produced the short, he oversaw the animation done by Bob Heath, and he won the Oscar for it. But at its heart, The Critic is a Mel Brooks film. The film was his idea, and after the animation was completed, he improvised the dialogue which makes the short what it is. And what is that, exactly? Well, it's pretty simple; The Critic tells the story of an elderly Jewish man going to the movies and complaining about the abstract animated short that plays before the feature. It's a very simple, very silly premise, and isn't that just classic Mel Brooks?
Once again, The Critic is one of those shorts that's fairly difficult for me to analyze, but I'll try my best. While it can be tricky to talk about comedy shorts without risking explaining the joke, I think it's important to look a little deeper here. As you are no doubt aware, abstract animation (and abstract film in general) was pretty much the name of the game in the 60s. And while abstract films can be fun to watch, fun to analyze and especially fun to confuse people with, there can be a frustrating element to them as well. The Critic playfully lampoons these films in a way that vents these frustrations without coming across as mean-spirited or ignorant. While the joke is on experimental cinema, it's equally on the old man who doesn't get it. Mel Brooks often said that parody is best when it comes from a place of love, and I think that applies here.
Still, despite being the clear "author" of this short, Mel Brooks wasn't nominated for it, and, as a result, didn't win. (By today's rules, he probably would have been eligible to take the second nominee slot.) But don't feel too bad for Brooks; he'd win his own Oscar five years later for writing The Producers; besides, Mel Brooks' legacy is bigger than any trophy anyway. And so too is the legacy of The Critic. While everybody loves to riff bad films nowadays, The Critic was one of the earliest examples of someone filming themselves doing it. So any fans of MST3K out there probably owe a thanks to Mel Brooks and Ernest Pintoff.
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