Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks' legendary western parody, was made in the mid-seventies, when political correctness was not yet an issue. It offers farting cowboys, Yiddish speaking Indians, raunchy jokes about men and women, and racist jokes about most people living on the face of this planet. They don’t make ‘m any more like this, neither the film nor the  jokes.

# A sheriff, a gunslinger and a titwillow

The story goes (more or less) as follows: The route of the Railroad had to be changed because it ran into quicksand, and will now go through a frontier town called Rock Ridge, where all inhabitants are called “Johnson” (Don’t ask me why). Legal advisor Hedley Lamarr (Hedley, not Hedy) plans to drive the Johnsons out of their homes with the help of a bunch of ruffians, led by the clumsy Taggart (played by a particularly funny Slim Pickens). When the townspeople ask the governor to appoint a new sheriff, Lamarr tells him to pick a convicted black railroad worker for the job. He reckons the townspeople will be so offended that they will abandon their houses, or sell them for a few bucks.

Of course things go not as planned. The new sheriff is a clever guy who outsmarts Lamarr's secret weapons, such as Mongo, an incredible muscle man who, when addressed by a man on a horse, knocks out the horse, and the seductive singer Lily von Shtüpp (the Teutonic Titwillow!), who falls for him, because she has heard rumors about black men being really well-shaped in certain areas. With the help of an embittered gunslinger, formerly known as The Waco Kid, he manages to scare off the rest of Lamarr’s men. Desperate, Lamarr assembles an army consisting of the biggest scum anyone can find on the face of this earth, that is (in Lamarr’s words): 

“rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half-wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists”.

The final battle for Rock Ridge will be a fierce one!

# Genre, language & signs

Blazing Saddles is more a series of burlesque vignettes than a movie; it's a true fusillade of jokes, some funny, others not so funny. When watched for the first time, it may seem rather incoherent: instead of making a selection of the best jokes, Brooks keeps throwing in them - by the dozens, or even hundreds. Critical reactions were mixed, but the film was a smash hit: upon its release it was the second highest grossing movie of the year, and its enduring success has turned it into one of the top-grossing westerns of all time (*1).

And yes, it is a western. It's about a railroad, a land grabber trying to frighten decent people of their land, a hero helping the defenseless against the wicked, and a alcoholic gunslinger seeking redemption. That's all classic western stuff, and in the hands of Brooks and his screenwriters (one of them was Richard Pryor), they're turned into a festival of the best in bad taste.

Basically genre movies work on a subconscious level: our 'instinctive' understanding of a genre is built on acquired knowledge of the 'language' of a genre. This is what linguistic philosophers like Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco have called semiotics: a symbolic language, codified by cultural agreement: guns, railroads, sheriffs, gunslingers coming to the aid of defenseless townspeople - these are all signs with a specific meaning within a western movie context (*2). A spoof plays with these genre characteristics, turning them inside-out, but this is only possible as long as people are able to 'read the signs': The best comedy westerns were therefore produced when the genre was still alive and kicking, or moribund (that is: a distant memory in people's heads). This is probably the reason why Brooks succeeded, while many directors after him failed.

# Evaluation

Some of the anachronistic jokes and post-modern tricks (actors breaking the so-called fourth wall by talking to the audience for example), thought to be very hip in the seventies, feel dated today. Gene Wilder is fun as the Waco Kid, a gunman even faster than Lucky Luke, the cowboy known to shoot faster than his own shadow. Madeline Kahn’s Marlène Dietrich parody, for which she received an Oscar Nomination (as best actress in a supporting role), is also quite funny (and sexy), but some of her scenes feel needlessly drawn-out. It took Brooks one more parody, Young Frankenstein to discover that less can be more.

But that's splitting hairs. Some of the jokes, like the farting cowboys and the sheriff's arrival in Rock Ridge (the new sheriff is a Ni *BOING!) have become part of the collective memory of mankind. The end is particularly fine, with the movie literally breaking through the walls of the studio, debouching into a another movie, a musical (directed by Dom Deluise!): the final battle between the townspeople and Lamarr’s army continues as if nothing happened, and is gradually ‘corrupted’ into a Laurel & Hardy kind of pie fight.

It’s often said that Blazing Saddles was a favorite of John Wayne. When he was offered a role in it, he refused because of image problems, but he said he would be one of the first to buy a ticket. I don’t know if this is true, but I sure do like the story.

Director: Mel Brooks – Cast: Cleavon Little (Bart), Gene Wilder (Jim, the Waco Kid), Madeline Kahn (Lili), Mel Brooks (Gov. Le Petomane/Indian Chief), Harvey Korman (Lamarr), Slim Pickens (Taggart), Dom DeLuise (Buddy), Alex Karras (Mongo)


* (1) Many lists offer a distorted view of reality because they are based on box-office results that have not been adjusted for inflation. On most adjusted lists Blazing Saddles comes in second after George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Comparing several lists, this seems to be the picture: 
1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2. Blazing Saddles, 3. Duel in the Sun, 4. Dances with Wolves, 5.  Shane . 
Django Unchained, not yet released or still in cinemas when most lists were made up, has not been taken into consideration, it'll most probably join the list.

* (2) John White, Westerns and Semiotic analysis, in: Routledge Film Guidebooks: Westerns, p. 49-55

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Left Handed Gun (1958)

One of the many movies about the life and times of William H. Bonney, generally referred to as Billy the Kid, and one of the most controversial. It marks the feature film debut of former TV-director Arthur Penn, who would become one of the most distinguished directors of his generation. The title refers to the popular belief - widespread throughout much of the 20th Century - that the Kid was left-handed, a false conclusion drawn from the iconic ferrotype photograph which turned out to be a reverse. 

The screenplay by Leslie Stevens (based on a teleplay by Gore Vidal) portrays the Kid as an angry young man, the archetypical rebel of the decade, the fifties: misunderstood, head-strong and resentful, a young man who believes the stories written about him by the so-called yellow press. He's a rebel without a cause who finds a cause after his substitute father - the British immigrant John Tunstall - is killed by a corrupt sheriff and his deputies. He befriends Pat Garrett, the new sheriff, a wise and sympathetic man who becomes a new substitute father to him and warns him not to take matters in his own hands, but the boy just won't listen ...

No serious attention is paid to the historical background of the Lincoln County war, and even though it tells Billy's story in terms of social alienation, the key conflict is defined (as more often in Penn's movies) in strictly personal terms (1); it's a psychological, not a political movie. Pat Garrett is a lawman, a representative of the authoritarian world Billy rejects, but he's a good lawman, one Billy respects as a person; the crucial moment - the point of no return for Billy - is an incident which takes place on Garrett's wedding day, when Billy shoots the last of the four persons responsible for the murder of John Tunstall, breaking his vow not to create any trouble on his friend's wedding party. Pat Garrett cannot accept this, not as a lawman, not as a father, not as a friend.

Historically this is all nonsense. Billy was not an orphan who came out of nowhere, as suggested in the opening minutes of the movie (2), and Pat Garrett had completely different (basically financial) reasons for chasing the Kid; he had accepted the job of sheriff because was a married man and needed the money. Garret and the Kid knew each other, but there's no real evidence that they had been close friends; over the years it has become customary to cast middle-aged actors as Garrett and Tunstall to suggest a father-son relationship, but in reality Garrett was only nine years older than the Kid while Tunstall was only 25 when he was shot in 1878. Freud has elbowed out reality in this aspect. 

Based on a teleplay, the movie cannot conceal its origins; dialogue and acting are often stagey, closer to Tennessee Williams than Ford or Hawks. This stagey style has a remarkable side effect: Newman's Billy almost looks like a Shakespearean anti-hero in some scenes. It's method acting all the way, but Newman successfully uses his boyish charm to bridge the age difference with the character (almost unbelievable that he was 33 at the time). John Dehner isn't bad, but compared to Newman he lacks screen presence and his sensible Garret offers not enough offset for Newman's impulsive, mentally unstable Billy.

The film was cut by the studio against Penn's wishes. According to Penn the cuts destroyed the film's rhythm; he also had differences with the crew over a couple of key scenes such as Billy painting a scheme on a steamy window, the image dissolving into the actual events. For the killing of Ollinger he wanted a shot of Ollinger looking into the sun, so that the bullet seemed to come from nowhere. But the director of photography refused to film directly into the sun, so Penn had to work out a compromise with him (3).

Penn's movie wasn't successful at home but it was praised up by French critics and still seems to be more popular in Europe than at home (4). It is flawed, but there's more than enough to admire in his interpretation of the legend, and the movie's assets surely outweigh its shortcomings. There are several terrific moments, the most memorable of them all this scene in which Ollinger is shot: there's a brief moment of slow motion, but the action is cut half-way and the second half of the scene is shown from a different angle, with the motion slightly sped-up, as if the body is slammed into the ground by the impact of the bullet; and then there is this little girl, running towards the body, pointing at Ollinger's boot, erect beside the dead body. It's a harrowing scene, grim and bizarre, almost surreal. It most certainly influenced Peckinpah.

* (1) Philip French, Westerns, p. 121. In his words: "(...) its basic structure is much the same as that of all his movies (...) two cultures confront each other - a settled, social world growing increasingly authoritarian, and a freewheeling, anarchic community becoming increasingly corrupt. between these two irreconcilable milieux a pair of contrasted (...) figures come and go (...)"

* (2) He was born out of Irish immigrants as William Henri McCarty Jr. (most probably in 1859), but William Bonney was the name he used at the height of his notoriety. Occasionally he was also called Henri Antrim; his mother remarried with William Antrim in 1873. He most probably changed his name on a couple of occasions because he had become a wanted man after killing Frank "Windy" Cahill in 1877. Many frontier persons went under different names; it was an easy way to 're-invent' oneself before the time of social security numbers or other identifiers (Special thanks to Tom Betts, Jim Trumbo and Antony O'Donnell)

* (3) I owe this information to Dirk Marburger, a member (Stanton) of the Spaghetti Western Database forum; the info comes from a German book by Lars-Olav Beier and Robert Müller and from an accompanying documentary film shown on TV about his work. An interview with Arthur Penn about his life and career was the starting point for both. Penn also talks about these problems on the commentary track of the DVD. 

* (4) Things can of course be looked at and judged from different angles; for a less positive comment, see Ron Scheer's take on this movie:

More Dead than Alive

More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr)  The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spag...