The Redeeming Power of Nostalgia

It all started when the New York Times dissed a treasured memory from my past.

IT’S easy to knock the New York street pretzel — tasteless as “Jersey Shore,” dry as a vacant lot in August, tough as a water bug.

Listen, there are things we loved when we were younger that just don’t stand the test of time. For instance, when I was kid I thought Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles was, hands down, the funniest movie ever made. And yet, after having not seen the film for nearly 20 years, I watched it recently with my 12-year old son (inconveniently forgetting how much profanity it contained), and found it to be, on the whole, terrible.

Still, I pretty much had a smile on my face the whole time and I did laugh out loud quite a bit, but when I thought about why I had those reactions I discovered something that will eventually bring this tangent back around to the humble New York City pushcart pretzel.

You see, my smiles and laughter had little to do with whether or not the scenes were funny, and they had everything to do with the fact that my friends and I recited those lines from memory, hundreds and hundreds of times, over many years. As I laughed, I could see my friend Keith acting out Slim Pickens’ nearly reprehensible “Number Six” bit.

Keith absolutely killed that one!

I’m sure that if I had a pretzel from a New York City pushcart today I’d probably find the pretzel itself as disappointing as Blazing Saddles. After all, I’ve become somewhat of a food snob over the years. But then, I have no doubt that the overall experience would be incredibly positive, the experience of going to New York, my favorite city, of walking down, let’s say, 5th Avenue, stopping at some hole-in-the-wall tavern for a few beers, then, back in the crosscurrent of people rushing to a million different places, of coming across a pushcart, of ordering one of those enormous pretzels, of taking the plastic mustard bottle and squeezing the mustard out in a continuous line, tracing the continuous dough tied in that iconic knot, of eating away at that pretzel as I continue on my way, towards Central Park, finishing my low-brow snack in time to take in some high-brow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To me, a New York street pretzel is all those things, not just some tasteless dough covered with salt and mustard.


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4 thoughts on “The Redeeming Power of Nostalgia

  1. Sigh. If you don’t think “Blazing Saddles” is funny (and “the Number Six” is, hands down, one of my favorite parts of the movie), I weep for you. I still maintain that it is the sharpest social satire written in the past fifty years.

    1. Well, Mr. Knuckles, I had a suspicion that someone would call me on this. And, to tell you the truth, I’m sure that my friends whom I used to recite the lines with would agree with you 100%.

      You know, it’s hard for me to explain why I didn’t care much for the movie. Maybe Mel Brooks, in general, is hit and miss for me. I saw “Young Frankenstein” last summer at the outdoor cinema and absolutely LOVED it. I’m tempted to watch “High Anxiety”, “Silent Movie”, and “History of the Word, Part I”, all of which I loved when I was younger, to see how they hold up for me.

      One thing I can guarantee, though, is that I will NEVER watch “Spaceballs” and “Robin Hood: Men In Tights” again.

      Finally, I just read the Wikipedia page for “Blazing Saddles” and came across this quote from critic Vincent Canby that kinda gets at what I didn’t like about the movie:

      Blazing Saddles has no dominant personality, and it looks as if it includes every gag thought up in every story conference. Whether good, bad, or mild, nothing was thrown out. Mr. [Woody] Allen’s comedy, though very much a product of our Age of Analysis, recalls the wonder and discipline of people like Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Mr. Brooks’s sights are lower. His brashness is rare, but his use of anachronism and anarchy recalls not the great film comedies of the past, but the middling ones like the Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures. With his talent he should do much better than that.

  2. I strenuously disagree. I think Brooks very effectively takes the racial and social prejudices of America and filters them through slapstick comedy to great effect.

    As an aside: My favorite scene in the movie actually takes place at the beginning, when Slim Pickens wants Cleavon Little and the rest of his crew to sing a “negro spiritual”, and they all break out into “I Get a Kick Out of You”.

    1. Mr. Knuckles, I don’t suppose I could interest you in a pretzel?

      I’ll even throw in a beer.

      Seriously, I thought the scene you reference was great, I agree that that scene was brilliant satire, I LOVED the chemistry between Cleavon Little (the dazzling urbanite) and Gene Wilder (the Waco Kid), and I can think of a handful of other scenes that I loved.

      But, there were many more gags that I felt lacked the sophistication of the “I Get a Kick out of You” bit, a boat load of cheesy throw away one liners and sight gags that lead to the overall effect that Canby writes about.

      The most obvious example I can think of: I HATE the pie fight. The scene was funny enough with the brawl from the western spilling into the sound stage where the musical was being filmed, but because they crammed every gag they could think of into the movie, the tired cliché of the pie fight spoils the scene, in my opinion.

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