Dé Céadaoin, Eanáir 07, 2009

Blazing Saddles

I saw it for the first time in a few years last night. Blazing Saddles is funny as ever, and as I grow older I become more and more impressed by how technically perfect it is. In later Mel Brooks films the vulgar laughs grew a bit too loud to blend well with the clever, while the "clever" gags were also too loud; overly winking and overt in their cleverness. In "Blazing Saddles" the low-brow and the, well, middle brow, blend seamlessly.

It's been said that a movie like "Blazing Saddles" could never get made today, and I suppose that's true. The most common reason given for why this would be the case is the old politically correct bogeyman that supposedly drains us of our joie de vivre, but this is a gross oversimplification on several levels. "Saddles" was a movie of its time, coming at the tail end of mass produced and increasingly awful westerns featuring the same virtuous pioneers, menacing Indians, swarthy mincing villains, and heroes as perfect prototypes of masculine order. These tail-end westerns, with names like "Town Tamer" and "Captain Apache" were still being run on TNT or AMC until just recently, and I suppose you could check Netflix or Youtube if you wanted to see just how terrible they are today. At any rate the American Western was a completely different animal from what we see today in the post "Unforgiven" environment; one or two high-budget, introspective pieces of Oscar bait per year. Why would any major studio make a western parody today? With or without the baker's dozen of "niggers"?

Another point to consider is that "Blazing Saddles is deliberately transgressive in the vein of South Park or Troma, and more importantly it is successfully transgressive. This is not the sort of insulting laugh-track "comedy" of Family Guy or Dane Cook. Rather it is the sort of transgression that exposes defensive social pieties as total nonsense without ever directly challenging these pieties to a fight.
"The Sheriff is 'BONG'" "Scuse me While I whip this Out" the Yiddish speaking Indian chief, "Where the white women at" the parade of cliche movie villains; all of it is brilliant, so effortlessly brilliant that it's impossible to tell if it's by design or accident. Roger Ebert said of Mel Brooks that "There are some people who can literally get away with anything -- say anything, do anything -- and people will let them." and this is undoubtedly true. While I myself hate to delve into ethnic stereotyping, and American antisemitism has been anything but nonexistent, the American Jew has generally been seen not so much as a reviled savage that must be stamped down then as a mysterious thing outside and apart from our own social power struggles. The American Jew is disliked and distrusted by many for this sense of apartness, but here is not one of the places where he knows the horrors of the absolute bottom. Surely the great Jewish-American comedic tradition has something to do with this. And while Woody Allan found a diamond mine in playing to the stereotype
of Jew as SuperYankee too smart for his own good, the true heart of Jewish comedy is as bawdy as the uncle who harasses your girlfriend when you make the mistake of bringing her home for Christmas. Mel Brooks was forged in the same Borsht Belt comedy circuit as Milton Berle and Don Rickles. It was only a matter of time before the standard Borsht fare of single-entendre standup would produce the perfect American Fool; the outsider relieving tension by uttering truths that those with a stake in the power structure dare not.

In the end though, there is a kernel of truth to the charge that the current age is too "PC" to make a movie like Blazing Saddles today, some truth to the charge that liberal squeamishness keeps legitimately transgressive comedy out of the major major studios. It is not however a squeamishness that is inherently liberal in nature, nor
would those who excuse their own boorishness as rebellion be wise to embrace "Blazing Saddles" to the full.

Insomuch that there is any such thing as a "liberal agenda" in Hollywood it was forged in the downfall of the studio system, the revolt against the DeMills, the Meyers, and the Fords. It is not at all a stretch to put "Blazing Saddles" in the same league as "The Graduate", "The French Connection", and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." films that were highly stylized but not idealized; stark and perfectly honest in their portrayals of sex and coercive power structures. "Blazing Saddles" is openly scornful of everything the straightforward Western holds dear. A town full of dim incestuous Johnsons ("The common clay of the new west; you know, morons.") must trust their safety to a sheriff who isn't just black, but antithetical to the traditional cowboy hero in every other way. Instead of being simple, emotionless, and chaste, Black Bart is verbally sharp, urbane, fashionable, and twuly well endowed. Mel Brooks' Yiddish Chief and Hedley Lamar's parade of stock villains reveals one of the most important points of "The Other" concept; that everybody else is everybody else. This is a sentiment that oozes out of everything John Wayne and Randolph Scott ever did, and was expressed in "Saddles" just a few years after more contemporary Johnsons were railing against "Jewish Communists" for agitating the civil rights movements of the sixties.

I am one of many people who consider the early seventies to be the best period for American film, and "Blazing Saddles" is one of the first examples I would cite when asked why. There are some who still try to downplay the greatness of "The Godfather" or "Easy Rider", understandably skeptical towards the idea that there was ever a time when the artists were in charge of Hollywood, but indeed it was so. All of these films really are as great as the gray ponytailed jackass sitting on the barstool next to you says they are. You need only see.

But this happy state of affairs would of course not last. Major studios were able to reestablish control, not through the old "studio system" but via the mental light calorie blockbuster, that endless parade of science fiction and superheroes that fill us with indescribable joy when we are young, and that when we are older fill us with the same sort of feeling one gets when looking at a Polaroid of one's childhood self embracing a long dead puppy; warm, but also a good deal embarrassed. There is also the well-worn story of the social malaise of the seventies killing the spirit of reform and possibility and leading to a conservatism that would grow bolder and meaner until American vitality was almost completely strangled.

Comedic films became infantile. Even satirical films would become increasingly slapstick without any of the snappyness that gave smart people permission to laugh at slapstick in "Blazing Saddles." Those films that took it upon themselves to critique society tended to be quite self-consciously serious. Deadly serious, mendacious, cloying, dull, and finally unbearable. Think of Kevin Spacey's career arc from "American Beauty" to "K-Pax". Self-styled auteur would counter blockbuster mass-marketing with mass-marketing, and so began the age of Oscar bait dominance, the zenith of Steel Magnolias and John Grisham. Jeffersonian fire replaced by Clintonian therapy.

I freely confess to generalizing and overdramatizing, there was plenty of absolute garbage produced by Hollywood in the seventies, while Martin Scorsese has been an unstoppable force for genius through all eras. I sought only to give my explanation for what is a generally agreed upon truth; that the transgressive artistic genius of "Blazing Saddles" has never been matched, and is unlikely to be any time soon given the current state of American film. (Team America; World Police is probably as close as any big-studio movie has come, and given the flatness of that movie's reverse-PC equal offense approach, it really didn't come close at all.) And so for now transgression is left to the cult DVD set, the purposely tawdry and stupid, and that's perfectly fine for awhile. But "Blazing Saddles" grows old, and sooner or later someone will need to produce another perfect star for American cinematic comedy to orbit around.

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