This is the first entry in a new series I'm calling "The Unenthusiastic Critic," in which I enlist my highly reluctant girlfriend to join me in watching classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. Read on for a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide.
There are certain movies that I assume everyone has seen. They are not necessarily the greatest movies, or even my favorite movies, but they are the films that—for one reason or another—are woven so thoroughly through the synaptic pathways of my brain that they seem to have always been there. Their rhythms shape the basic grammar of my cultural life, and their dialogue constitutes—on any given day—30 to 50 percent of what comes out of the mouths of me and my deeply weird circle of friends. (My oldest friend and I can converse for hours at a time drawing solely on our common cinematic phrasebook, without ever feeling the need to compose a single original sentence between us. Apparently—or so I've been told—other people can find this shorthand baffling and strangely annoying.)
If you're enough of a pop culture addict to be reading this blog, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. There are probably movie lines you have been quoting so long, and so often, that you've almost forgotten their source. My brother and I once counted up just how many things we say on a daily basis actually come from Caddyshack. I wouldn't necessarily say Caddyshack is one of my favorite movies—I don't even own it—but, because of where it fell in my formative years, its lines have worked their way into my permanent lexicon, and have become my automatic, blowfish responses to certain situations.
(So I've got that going for me…which is nice.)
On the other hand, you may not know what I'm talking about. Over the years I have discovered—much to my continued surprise—that there are people whose brains do not work exactly the same way mine does. (Shocking, right?) There are people, it turns out, who do not go around communicating entirely in movie references, and instead have actual, non-plagiarized conversations with their friends. There are even people who have not seen all the movies I assume are cultural touchstones, for whatever reason. (Perhaps because they are more plugged into music than film, or perhaps because they are of a different generation, or perhaps because they just don't give a rat's ass about movies. These people exist. I have encountered them in my travels.)
And, six years ago, I even fell in love with one.
I am a 41-year-old white man from New England. My girlfriend—let's call her "N."—is a 29-year-old black woman from Las Vegas. She is a beautiful, brilliant, highly cultured woman, but—hard though this may be to believe—we do have slightly different backgrounds and tastes when it comes to popular culture. As teenagers in the '90s, she and her friends apparently didn't spend their weekends camped out, wired on Mountain Dew, watching 20 movies back-to-back on VHS, as my friends and I did for many years of the '80s. (God only knows what they were doing that seemed more important at the time.)
In practice, what this means is that—though we are very similar in other ways—I am constantly saying I can't believe you haven't seen X. I fully understand and respect our differences, but when we met I was faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of trying to have a civilized conversation with someone who had never seen Casablanca, All About Eve, Caddyshack, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harold and Maude, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or any of a hundred other movies that are, to me, indispensable weapons in my conversational armory. I mean, it made sense—all of those movies came out before she was born, and she never had any reason to seek them out—but Jesus, a couple needs to have a common tongue, right?
She has been a good sport, I'll give her that. Over the past six years, N. has watched all of the movies I mentioned above, and several others, at my behest. Many of them she's enjoyed, and she's even adopted a few quotes that have now been incorporated into our relationship. (Not only did she really like The Lion in Winter, for example, but she is now likely to say, "I'm vilifying you, for god's sake, pay attention!", which warms the cockles of my heart.)
Others, she has barely tolerated, or even openly scorned. Raiders of the Lost Ark bored her beyond all measurement, and elicited many instances of her favorite form of criticism: to glare at me in resentment during what she considers a particularly ludicrous moment of a movie and say "Really?" (As in Really? I'm supposed to buy that? or Really? I'm supposed to ignore that? or Really? You're making me watch this shit?)
Since I met her, I've been harassing N. to watch all the movies that I still consider unforgivable gaps in her cultural education. And, since launching The Unaffiliated Critic, I'd been looking for a way to get her more involved in it. (Though she has been unfailingly supportive, she has wisely and selfishly rejected my repeated suggestion that she write some of my reviews for me.)
I found the answer to both problems—as I find the answer to many of life's problems—in Doctor Who. Specifically, I found inspiration in the form of a wonderful blog by Neil Perryman, called "Adventures with the Wife in Space," in which he has enlisted his hilarious wife Sue to join him in watching every classic episode of Doctor Who, in order, starting in 1963 and going all the way through 1989. That's about 700 episodes, and Neil and Sue are watching two a day. Many people have undertaken the challenge to write about every episode, but what makes "Adventures with the Wife in Space" so much fun is that Sue is a casual fan at best: Doctor Who is not a sacred cow to her, and she often ends up deservedly shitting all over episodes that are held as unimpugnable by the rabid fan community.
(I would love to have done the same thing with Doctor Who, but for two problems: 1) Neil and Sue beat us to it; and 2) to get my girlfriend to watch classic Doctor Who I would have to strap her into the aversion-therapy chair from A Clockwork Orange and pry her goddamned eyelids open.)
However—to her credit, and my surprise—N. has agreed (with minimal arm-twisting) to watch some of these so-called "touchstone" movies with me as an experiment. These won't be "reviews," per se, or recaps, but just whatever comes of watching the films with her. I think her perspective will be interesting, because, as I said when I began, these are movies that are so deeply woven into my consciousness that I can't possibly be objective about them. How will someone who has never seen them react to these sacred cows?
Some of the films we're planning on watching are universally recognized masterpieces, but there will also be movies—like the one we're doing next week—that fall more in the category of "cultural phenomena" than "art." For someone who wasn't there, can such movies hold the same impact? (N. often says she feels like she missed the window on certain movies: I was an 11-year old boy, after all, when I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark; she was a 28-year-old woman.) Other choices, I'm sure, will be weird cult movies that I love for inexplicable reasons, and this experiment will, if nothing else, force me to articulate why they matter to me at all.
Plus—and most importantly—it should be fun, one way or another. It may end my relationship, but, until that day comes, it should keep the conversation lively.
What We Watched
Blazing Saddles (1974)—Directed by Mel Brooks; written by Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger.
Why I Chose It
Because it's Blazing Saddles, okay? It's an undisputed classic, which consistently ranks in top 10 lists of the greatest American comedies of all time. Mel Brooks has been a giant of American comedy for over 60 years, and has influenced every comedy—and every comedian—who followed him. His irreverent, throw-everything-at-the-wall comedy style has produced its fair share of stinkers over the years, but he has many excellent films and, for my money, two truly great ones. One of them is Blazing Saddles, a tasteless, juvenile, wickedly satirical send-up of westerns. (The other masterpiece is….well, you can probably guess, and we'll be giving it the full Ritz treatment here after a decent interval.)
Additionally, my girlfriend and I (as an interracial couple) do a lot of racial humor, and I needed her to get the jokes. No American movie before Blazing Saddles—and perhaps none since—has ever tackled the subject with such irreverence.
As I'm sure you know—unless you're the other person who's never seen it—Blazing Saddles is about Bart (Cleavon Little), a black man who is appointed the sheriff of the small western town of Rock Ridge, in an effort to drive the townsfolk away so greedy attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) can steal their land. (Basically it's the plot of every episode of Scooby Doo, with Bart unwillingly playing the ghost's role.) Sheriff Bart, in partnership with white sidekick (and "deputy spade") the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), must save the town from Lamarr's marauding thug Mongo (Alex Karras), and an army of rednecks led by Taggart (Slim Pickens) and Lyle (Burton Gilliam). Bart must also win over the racist townfolk—all named Johnson—and resist the seductive charms of cabaret singer Lily Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn).
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In
She knew about the infamous campfire scene, and the fact that everyone says the N-word a lot.
How It Went
Surprisingly well, actually. Almost disappointingly well, considering that I had hoped to provoke a rant or two from my girlfriend. I didn't expect her to love it—broad, slapstick humor is not really her thing—and she didn't. But she didn't hate it either.
We pop the DVD in, and, while Frankie Laine sings the surprisingly earnest theme song (He rode a blazing saddle, he wore a shining star…), I start the conversation off with some fascinating trivia. (I've done my homework.)
Me: So the original title for this movie was Tex X.
Me: Get it?
She: Yes, I get it. It's not really a subtle joke, there.
(At this point I begin to worry; apparently, they changed the title because Tex X was too esoteric. If N. is expecting subtle, we're already in a lot of trouble.)
I am a little tense through the opening scene, which will quickly determine whether my girlfriend will get offended and refuse to watch the film altogether. "Chink" is the first racial slur we hear (and as such elicits the first Really?), but from there on out the "niggers" come fast and frequent. However, as N. points out after the film, there's a big difference between making a racist joke and making a joke about racism, and Blazing Saddles is definitely doing the latter. She doesn't laugh, but she doesn't leave the room.
The opening scene also intentionally mocks the patronizing stereotypes of too many earlier (and later) American films: Lyle, the white railroad foreman (Burton Gilliam) asks the black railroad workers to sing "a good ol' nigger work song." In response, our hero Bart (Cleavon Little) leads his friends in a smooth a capella arrangement of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," and then watches in amusement as the white supervisors try to show them how it's done with a hokey, knee-slappin' rendition of "Camptown Ladies." It's a nice encapsulation of the way in which the film will stand back and let the racists make fun of themselves.
I don't feel qualified to speak comprehensively on how earlier American comedies portrayed African Americans, but I think it's safe to say that, in this regard, Blazing Saddles was groundbreaking, if not downright revolutionary. Bart is the star of the movie, and he's the smartest, funniest, most likable character in the film. Richard Pryor was originally supposed to play this role, but it's hard to imagine now, since Little is perfect: suave without being smug, hip and modern without being an urban stereotype, and decent and kind without being patronizingly noble or emasculated like so many black film characters of the era. He's not a caricature, he's a leading man, which is surely unusual for comedies at the time.
N. is disturbingly silent throughout the movie, however, with only occasional comments on the actors: when the wonderful Harvey Korman begins chewing scenery as Hedy- "that's Hedley" -Lamarr, she says, "What, Vincent Price wasn't available?" And she becomes weirdly focused on Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett), the Gabby Hayes-type prospector who mumbles "authentic frontier gibberish." (On his first appearance, she observes that "the Gorton's fisherman has fallen on hard times." Later, she calls him "a drunken Yosemite Sam.")
And then there's town leader Olson Johnson (David Huddleston):
She: Who is that guy? The "blow it out your ass" guy. He looks so familiar.
Until she says this, I hadn't made the connection either, but now that I look at him I place him immediately: The Big Lebowski is my girlfriend's favorite movie, and Huddleston played the Other Jeffrey Lebowski, the wheelchair-bound millionaire.
She: Oh my god, it is him. It's Mr. Lebowski!
Me: You probably didn't recognize him standing up. Does his presence make you better disposed towards this movie?
She also takes some issue with the historical authenticity. For example, during this scene where Korman meets with clueless Governor William J. Lepetomane (Brooks):
She: Had the paddle-ball game been invented in 1874?
Me: Cole Porter also hadn't written "I Get a Kick Out of You" in 1874. Realism is not on the table, here.
She: [Of Brooks's "secretary"] Her boobs are real enough.
When we arrive at the famous campfire scene, I brace in anticipation: she knows what's coming, but she's never seen this scene in its full, uncensored glory. To me, even if you know what's coming, it's still funny: this is a masterpiece of flatulent sound-editing, with a startling variety to the rhythm, volume, frequency, and duration of the various expulsions. (To put it simply, those farters have excellent comic timing.)
N., however, graces me with an accusatory glare throughout the entire scene, and for quite a while after.
She: So what?
Me: So what did you think of the famous fart scene?
She: It was ridiculous. And it went on forever. Really? We're still farting? Really? Farting and burping, burping and farting?
Me: But this was the first fart scene. It was groundbreaking.
She: So that was groundbreaking wind-breaking.
Me: Groundbreaking wind-breaking, exactly. Broke the wind-breaking barrier. That guy there [Burton Gilliam] is widely credited as the first man ever to fart in a major motion picture.
She: He must be so proud. Really. Seminal moment. Jesus. Twenty minutes of farting. Comedy genius.
Me: It was like 20 seconds.
She: It seemed much longer. Besides, I kept expecting the fire to explode. I think they missed an obvious joke there.
Blazing Saddles is a Warner Bros. picture, and much of the film plays like a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon, with Little cast as Bugs Bunny. Nowhere is this more obvious (and more intentional) than in the sequence where Bart outwits Mongo in an impressive display of trickster brains over thuggish brawn. ("No, no, don't do that," the Kid says when Bart is strapping on his guns. "If you shoot him you'll just make him mad.") Bart solves the Mongo problem with an exploding candy-gram, while the Loony Tunes theme song plays him out. Even in this anarchic cartoon of a sequence, however, Brooks finds room for a little racial humor. "That was nothing," Bart tells the Kid. "The bitch was inventing the candy-gram. And they probably won't give me credit for it."
My favorite example of the way the film mocks racism—both the overt and more subtle kinds—is the town's sweet little old lady, played by Jessamine Milner. Meeting him on the street, she responds to Bart's friendly overtures with "Up yours, nigger!" Later, after Bart saves the town from Mongo's rampage, she comes to "apologize:"
Elderly Woman: Good evening, Sheriff.
Bart: Good evening.
Elderly Woman: Sorry about the "up yours, nigger." I hope this apple pie will, in some small way, say thank you for your ingenuity and courage in defeating that terrible Mongo.
Bart: Thank you. Much obliged. Good night.
[The old woman leaves, then returns.]
Elderly Woman: Of course, you'll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you.
Bart: Of course.
Blazing Saddles is full of totally random sight gags (a man and his horse being simultaneously fitted for nooses), funny lines ("Mongo only pawn in game of life"), and even fabulous musical numbers (Madeline Kahn's Oscar-nominated performance as Lily Von Shtupp). But, while I suspect she hides a few earlier chuckles from me out of spite, I have to wait until an hour and twelve minutes into the picture before my girlfriend truly laughs out loud.
It comes when Bart and the Waco Kid are trying to steal the robes from some Ku Klux Klansmen so they can disguise themselves, and Bart gets their attention by shouting "Hey, where are the white women at?" But her next big laugh comes just a few moments later, after they've dressed in the white robes, when Bart's black hands give away their disguise. The Kid tries to pretend they're just dirty from cross-burning: he flips Bart's hands over, palms-up, and says, "See, it's coming off." I would have been horrified if she got through the entire running time of Blazing Saddles without a single laugh, so I cling to these two as justification for the entire experiment.
As if to remind everyone that it's just a movie, and that it is the movie version of history than Brooks is mocking, Blazing Saddles ends with a massive fight scene that spills over from the streets of Rock Ridge into a nearby film studio where Dom Deluise is directing a Busby Berkeley-style musical number, "The French Mistake," with several dozen effeminate men in top hats. ("Watch me, faggots!" Deluise yells, proving that Blazing Saddles is nothing if not an equal-opportunity offender.) "How very meta," N. says, of the (literal and figurative) collapsing walls between genres.
So after the movie is over, we discuss her overall impressions.
She: It was fine. I get why it was such a big deal at the time. Racial humor is very difficult to pull off; it's a very fine line to walk, and I thought this succeeded.
Me: So it didn't offend you?
She: No, it didn't offend me. I like racial humor. What does offend me is shit like Seinfeld and Friends, where a bunch of white people live in a magical New York City that has no black people in it. I'd much rather see comedy that at least attempts to deal with race.
Me: So what else did you like?
She: Ummm…[There is a long enough pause that I worry she's going to have trouble thinking of anything else she liked about it.] The chemistry between the two leads [Little and Wilder] was good; I liked it whenever they were on-screen.
Me: And what did you like least about it.
She: The fucking farting scene that went on for 20 minutes. I mean, Jesus.
Me: It was 20 seconds.
She: It was like half the movie.
Me: But overall you didn't hate the movie.
She: No, I didn't hate it. It was fine.
Me: So you'd watch it again?
She: Oh, hell no.
Up Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic: I gave N. two or three choices for our second viewing, and asked her which she would rather watch next. "I'm never really going to have any strong preferences here," she said. "It's always going to be a choice between shitty and shittier. If you're waiting for me to say that I want to watch something, you're going to be waiting a long time." It's a fair point, so we might as well bite the bullet and get Star Wars out of the way.