Sunday, December 9, 2012
Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #17 - Jerry Zucker
Death is easy. Comedy is hard.
This anecdote points to how much more difficult it is to film truly tickle the funny bone than it is to pull the heartstrings.
But Jerry Zucker has successfully done both.
Let's start with the comedies. I can't imagine anyone can argue with the genius of Airplane! I just re-watched it and it holds up as if it came out yesterday. Part of the brilliance of the movie is its absolute shotgun approach to comedy. It hits you with a hundred different gags of various natures all at once. It is impossible for anyone to absorb all of the jokes in one sitting. While someone is telling a witty joke, there is insanity going on in the background while they are re-enacting a famous movie scene and the music pushes the laughs over the top. Some jokes hit you right away ("Don't call me Shirley), but there are some that I didn't get for years ("It's an entirely different kind of flying, all together.").
But that is only the method. Throwing anything up on the screen and hoping it sticks is not what makes this movie work. The screwball comedy is actually a lot more difficult than you would imagine. It has to play by its own insane rules, while at the same time having a straightforward plot that the audience can follow. Airplane! is about a washed-up pilot who must make an emergency landing to save dying passengers. But that is thin thread is the catalyst for all of the humor. To understand how difficult this approach is, notice how often it fails, and fails miserably (I'm looking at you Scary Movie 1 and 2).
The follow up attempt to riff on spy movies, Top Secret, is also a wonderful send up of classic espionage. And it hits on all cylinders like Airplane! The jokes are rapid and silly (like the rubber stamp "Find him and kill him.") but also carry some true directorial creativity. The scene with the Swedish bookkeeper is as complicated to film as it is hysterical. Everything is filmed backwards and is presented as forwards, but they also play with this new dimension by doing backwards things forward (like sucking dust onto a book cover). I cannot imagine how difficult that sequence was to choreograph and film, all for 30 seconds of jokes.
But that is part of Zucker's genius. He will go to any length to make you laugh. No degree of difficulty is too much. And he was smart enough not to make his comedies too much a product of their time. How often does a really funny movie date itself too quickly because of all its current pop culture references. There are plenty to be sure in his comedies, but he favors the universal over the contemporary each time. That is something that makes his comedies last. Think about the music in Top Secret. He could have used contemporary 80's music for his musician Nick Rivers. Instead, made him a hybrid Beach Boy/Elvis-type artist. Their music had stood the test of time, and so too does Top Secret.
But Jerry Zucker surprised pretty much everyone with his follow up to Ruthless People: Ghost. To this day people remember that movie fondly for its tragically romantic story. He got across so strongly the need for the most basic sign of affection: touch. Even that potter scene carries with it such an iconic status because it was a wordless expression of how human contact. To me, the part that stays with me the most are the scary parts. The shadow demons, with their shapeless bodies and inscrutable groanings, filled me with such terror that I am near certain that they will be greeting me should I eventually be condemned to damnation. Ghost is about touching something insubstantial. But really, isn't that what all movies are about: coming into contact with something that is beyond the material world?
Zucker proved that he can hit all sides of the emotional spectrum. And for that, he has earned this place in the best directors of all time.