I’m going to keep doing this, but stop pretending that it’s a weekly. To recap: I’m taking two films that you might not think would go together, and juxtaposing them for what I hope is a fruitful cinematic dialogue. Earlier editions of the double feature feature are: (1) “The Philadelphia Story” and “Blue Valentine”; (2) “Richard III” and “The King’s Speech”; (3) “The Tree of Life” and “A Serious Man”.
The last entry in this series was considerably longer than I generally intend these things to be. This one will, I hope, be a bit more normal in length.
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“Blazing Saddles” is one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s also a tricky one to watch these days. You see, there’s this . . . word. That character after character says. Which you can’t say anymore. (For good reason.)
I’ll give you a hint: it begins with an “n.”
When I rented the movie recently to watch with my nine-year-old son, I gave him a little talk beforehand, basically to the effect of: this movie is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen; I believe it’s a great movie; and I’m not ashamed of the movie in any way. But: if you quote some of these scenes to your friends, and somebody overhears you, and they don’t know you’re quoting this movie, you are going to get in a huge amount of trouble.
It’s not just the “n-word.” Think about some of the quotes from this film:
“Excuse me while I whip this out.”
“Where the white women at?”
“Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben.”
The film is positively gleeful as it revels in a particular racial-sexual stereotype. Which is thrilling – but there’s a reason the film is able to get away with doing this, and it’s not just that this was the 1970s. Bart needs to walk a fine line for a mostly white audience to experience the frisson of identifying with his potency (sexual and otherwise) without being threatened by it. And Cleavon Little is perfect cast for the part, endowing this trickster character with just the right mix of charm and swagger.
This is a feature of the “have it both ways” type of humor that appears to be the sweet spot for humor that trades on stereotypes. Straight out ethnic humor, practiced by a member of the relevant ethnicity, is “inside” humor; outsiders are rarely fully welcome. Practiced by an outsider, such humor frequently and understandably offends. But humor that simply refutes stereotype is generally, well, humorless. The sweet spot both participates and undermines at the same time. This is what the Marx Brothers did with their immigrant protagonists and their WASP antagonists; and this is what Mel Brooks does at his best, as he did here.
The second layer of this reveling, of course, is that this is a Mel Brooks movie; this is Jewish humor. That comes out obviously in scenes like the yiddish-speaking Indians, but it’s also very much implicated in the racial-sexual stuff. A Jewish male fantasy of being hung with, shall we say, a schwartze schnitzengruben, is not very far from the surface.
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What’s interesting to see is how this fantasy has evolved in the generation between “Blazing Saddles” and the other half of my double-feature, “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.”
Two scenes in particular seem apropos. Scene one: Harold goes across the hall to see if the two Jewish guys want to go to White Castle with them:
Goldstein: Sorry, kids. We ain’t goin’ nowhere. We’re watching The Gift. Supposedly Katie Holmes shows her titties in this movie.
Harold: Is that all you Jews ever think about? Tits?
Rosenberg: Katie Holmes is a nice, respectable, wholesome girl… and I’m gonna see her boobs.
And two, later on, Harold and Kumar, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, have found themselves in jail, with Tarik, an obviously highly intelligent African American man:
Tarik: I kept saying, “I understand I’m under arrest. Now please stop beating me.”
Harold: I don’t understand how you can be so calm about all this.
Tarik: Look at me. I’m fat, black, can’t dance, and I have two gay fathers. People have been messing with me my whole life. I learned a long time ago there’s no sense getting all riled up every time a bunch of idiots give you a hard time. In the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should. Plus I have a really large penis. That keeps me happy.
The breast-obsessed Jewish guys down the hall are stand-ins for the Jewish creators of “H&KGTWC.” The scene lets us know that, on another level, Harold and Kumar themselves are surrogates; as Asian-Americans, they are “new Jews” and this movie is their baptism in certain conventions of Jewish-American humor. (And Goldstein and Rosenberg should also serve as a warning: Brooks’s metaphorical grandchildren have gotten wise to their own erotic obsessions; perhaps as a consequence, those obsessions, and those grandchildren, seem far less vital than were the men who ogled Lilli Von Shtupp.)
And Tarik? Tarik is so over-the-top as a counter-stereotype precisely as a way of telegraphing that the creators are wise to what they themselves are doing. Tarik is a parody of the talismanic Negro. But he’s also playing out a vestige of the old fantasy. After all, he conforms to stereotype in one very important way – the same way that Bart did. And it keeps him happy.
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“H&KGTWC” is a fun ride, and worth seeing. But what struck me in placing the two movies next to each other is the suburban smallness of the newer movie’s canvas. For all that it was hailed at the time for its freedom from the confines of political correctness, “H&KGTWC” is a very firmly hedged-in movie. Its humor comes substantially from its acute consciousness of where those hedges are – it knows all the rules of political correctness, and breaks them conscientiously, not anarchically. One misses the openness of the old frontier.
UPDATE: More than one commenter has pointed out the substantial contribution Richard Pryor made to the script for “Blazing Saddles.” So what we’re looking at isn’t entirely a decline from Brooks’s era of American Jewish humor, but the effect of losing that crucial collaboration with one of the greatest black humorists of all time. My apologies to Pryor and all devoted Pryor fans for my omission.