How Blazing Saddles Satirizes Gender

So since my lovely girlfriend Ali and I are adora-gays, we enjoy looking at media with a queer filter. I recently got her to watch Mel Brooks’ 1974 masterpiece Blazing Saddles, a satirical take on not only the Western genre, but also racism. If you know anything about Mel Brooks, it’s that he loves pushing the envelope on political correctness and utilizing satire to battle social prejudice, particularly in Blazing Saddles and The Producers.

But enough has been written about how Mel Brooks portrays racism and anti-Semitism. I ain’t here to talk about that. Today I wanna talk about Blazing Saddles‘s portrayal of gender…and maybe sexuality too.

About halfway through the movie, Ali turned to me and said, “I ship them.”–“them” being Bart and Jim, Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder’s characters, respectively. As I knew she would. And it’s not an unfounded interpretation. Bart and Jim’s friendship is really sweet. Jim legitimately worries for Bart’s well being, he’s always willing to jump to his defense, and he seems to be the only person in Rock Ridge who isn’t a racist dick. Plus Bart sort of tries to life coach Jim out of his alcoholism and wants him to take better care of himself. It’s not the kind of male/male friendship you see all the time in movies or television. It’s really nice.

And it got me to thinking about how this movie is actually pretty subversive when it comes to portrayals of gender. Yes, there is only really one female character in the movie, who’s really just there to be a sex object–even her last name basically means “of fuck”. But I think there’s more than meets the eye even to the seemingly one dimensional Lily Von Shtupp. But I’ll get to her.

Let’s first look at the film’s hero, Bart. It’s clear that Blazing Saddles is mainly inspired by old, classic spaghetti westerns. The most archetypal star of these films is John Wayne. Wayne used conventional hypermasculinity–violence, mainly–to portray his characters as the big strapping hero in his movies. But Bart is not John Wayne. He solves conflict using his brain and his sense of humor. The one time he uses violence to solve a problem is when he loses his temper at Taggart in the beginning of the movie and wallomps him on the head with a shovel–a mistake that nearly gets him hanged. He uses his wits to get out of the townsfolk of Rock Ridge nearly lynching him by holding himself hostage, he defeats Mongo in a Bugs Bunny-esque trick with a bomb in a candy box, and he defeats Hedley Lamarr’s hoard of criminals by building a fake town and a fake tollbooth. He rarely uses a gun, except when shooting Lamarr right in the very symbol of masculinity–his dong. Race aside, he is not a conventional Western hero.

Now let’s look at Jim, aka “The Waco Kid”. (By the by, I used to actually live in Waco, Texas.) He is the “washed up gunslinger” stereotype. A lot of Westerns have them, but the most significant example I can think of is “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”, a season 1 episode of The Twilight Zone (the original). Jim is soft spoken, as Gene Wilder characters tend to be, he enjoys the gentlemanly sport of chess, and he’s not overtly violent either. Also…he’s coded a bit gay. He takes on a Southern Belle accent when he calls out to the KKK members, and a Minnie Mouse like voice when he takes a puff from Bart’s…was it weed? I feel like it was weed. Plus he and Bart have a date together at the movies and literally ride off into the sunset together–first on horseback, then in a car. He even pats Bart on the cheek apologetically after accidentally punching him during the big fight scene. It’s…it’s just the cutest thing.

Ironically, the part of Jim was initially offered to none other than John Wayne himself. Thank god Wayne turned the part down and Mel Brooks had the good sense to hire Gene Wilder. That right there is the stars of heaven aligning perfectly.

The bottom line is, Bart and Jim’s friendship is one of supportiveness and understanding. As I said before, it’s very healthy, and sweet. In fact, most of the male friendships in the movie–like the one between Bart and his friend from the railroad work crew, Charlie–are healthy and supportive. Even Mongo, who is set up to be a hulking brute, turns out to be a sweetie pie who loves Bart like a puppy. It’s adorable.

Really, the only toxically masculine figures in the movie are the villains: Hedley Lamarr, Taggart, Lyle, and the governor. They are mean-spirited, violent, misogynistic, and openly selfish. Fittingly, Lamarr and Taggart’s dynamic is not one of friendship. In fact it’s identical to that of Pinky and the Brain. And in a piece about gender, it’s also worthy to note that Hedley Lamarr’s name is similar to that of actress Hedy Lamarr, which is a running joke in the movie.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the Busby Berkeley number that gives one of Supernatural‘s most famous episodes its name: “The French Mistake”, which is full of effeminate men in tuxes being directed by an incredibly flamboyant Dom Deluise. Not only do the “pansies” eagerly jump into the fourth wall breaking (okay, actually third wall) brawl, one of them seems to actually hook up with one of the grungy cowboys, and another cries in the arms of a surprisingly sympathetic and gentle desperado.

…also the song “The French Mistake” is all about butt sex. As if Supernatural couldn’t get any gayer.

And then…there was Lily. Lily, Lily, Lily, legs, Lily. Lily von Shtupp was originally based on Marlene Dietrich. You know…that famously feminine and heterosexual actress. It’s fitting then that we see Lily dressed in a snappy pinstripe suit toward the end of the film. She is the archetypal false ingenue. She’s bawdy, she’s worldly wise, and she is anything but innocent. In fact, Lily’s song in the saloon is about how she’s fed up with sex and romance. Nevertheless, when she seduces Bart, she ends up falling for him. We get the sense that it’s not just because he’s good in the sack (in an outtake, after Lily asks whether or not the stereotype that black men have larger penises is true and then excitedly screams that is, Bart tells her politely that she is actually sucking on his arm), but because he is kind, considerate, and worldly wise himself. Bart knows German almost as well as she does, and he brings her a flower she actually likes. We later see Lily in the big brawl, subduing the Nazi recruits with a song in German. Lily never actually loses any of her femininity–I would argue that she becomes more feminine over the course of the movie after meeting Bart. It’s telling that upon meeting him, she changes from black lingerie to pink. And through this transformation, she actually becomes a stronger character, rather than a passive, disillusioned sex object. Now that she’s on Bart’s side, she has a cause to believe in.

So what does this all have to say about gender and sexuality? I don’t know that Mel Brooks had it in his mind to say anything about it, per se. It could just be me reading a little too deeply into a satirical Western comedy. But I think it’s fitting that John Wayne turned down the chance to be in this film–there’s no room for a symbol for old world toxic masculinity like him in a movie like Blazing Saddles. The fact is, you don’t have to be a certain kind of man or woman. There are different valid ways to define your masculinity or femininity, as long as you’re defining them by your own rules, and not the ones made up by society. And as we all know, challenging societal norms is what Mel Brooks does best. ~TRL

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The Middle Of The World: How Barry Jenkins Makes A Movie

Moonlight was the winner of the 2016 Academy Award winner for Best Motion Picture (we all remember the memes). I always remember it as a simple yet masterfully executed example of direction on Barry Jenkins’s part. Let me show you what I mean.

Toward the beginning, in the first third of the film, there is a scene where Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches young Chiron to swim, or rather, how to float on his back in the water. Juan describes the feeling of floating in the water as “being in the middle of the world”. Which is why I find this particular shot so poignant.

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Juan is in the exact center of the frame, and the depth of field around him is incredibly shallow. He and the tree in the foreground are really the only things in focus; the trees and picnic tables in the background are blurred. Even Chiron is slightly out of focus. It’s impossible for the viewer’s eye to be drawn to anything but Ali.

This is more or less Baby’s First Lesson On Cinematic Framing–have the most important element in your shot be the main point of interest by focusing on it. That’s kind of a no brainer. But it raises the question: why isn’t the main character–Chiron–also in focus?

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We switch from a stationary shot on the beach to a handheld camera in the water, making the scene feel much more personal (as if the viewer is in the water with Juan and Chiron) and illustrating the intimacy of the scene. It was difficult for me to get a screengrab that was in focus because of the movement of the camera, but when you watch the scene, Juan is the only thing that is stable in the take, a stanch contrast to the waves dipping in and out of the frame, all while cradling Chiron and keeping him from sinking. This is very obviously a metaphor for Juan being the only stable support in Chiron’s life. It’s also reminiscent of a baptism, pushing the motif of Juan being Chiron’s savior. Juan’s name is even a Spanish variant of the name John–as in, John The Baptist.

For those of you who haven’t seen Moonlight, it’s a key development in Chiron’s character that he idolizes Juan. Juan is not his father or any relation, but he’s more of a parent to him than Chiron’s own mother is. More than that, he is Chiron’s mentor, his role model–and (like I said) in a way, his savior. The only other character who arguably is as important in Chiron’s life is Kevin, his best friend and later love interest. But for the younger years of Chiron’s life–the years that shape him as a man–Juan is the middle of the world.

More Like The…GAY Gatsby

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Two bros, sittin’ in a yellow car, five feet apart ’cause they’re not gay!

Pretty much every American high school graduate has read The Great Gatsby…or least seen the film adaptation starring Leo DiCaprio. It’s a really short novel, only nine chapters, and it’s one of my favorite books ever. Mainly because…it’s really gay.

Damn, Catie, at it again with the seeing gay subtext everywhere. How could a novel written in 1925 focusing on a heterosexual romance possibly be gay, you ask me as you roll your eyes in disdain. Well, my close-minded friend, as a queer writer who has aced nearly every English class she’s ever taken, let me educate you.

First of all, the author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, may or may not have been queer himself. His close writer friends were Gertrude Stein, a raging lesbian, and Ernest Hemingway, who several historians suggest might have been bisexual, and also F. Scott allegedly once showed his penis to him? Also his wife suspected they might be having an affair, but then again, she was mentally ill, so it might have just been paranoia.

I’m not claiming that any of this is solid proof that F. Scott was less than heterosexual, but he did have at least one queer friend, and queer people do tend to flock together. Plus F. Scott was notably prim in his appearance and femininely beautiful, and was admittedly the “woman” in his marriage to Zelda Fitzgerald–not that straight men can’t also dress impeccably and have soft features and be submissive to their female partners. But you know, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and hangs out with other ducks…there’s a good chance it’s a duck.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that Truman Capote wanted to adapt the novel into a movie—in Capote’s version, Nick Carraway, the main character, was supposed to be homosexual and Jordan Baker was a lesbian. For some reason, his screenplay was canned.

But now, onto the book itself. First of all, I propose that Nick Carraway, even though he did have a girlfriend briefly, is gay and infatuated with Gatsby. On the very second page of the book, Carraway describes Gatsby as gorgeous (although he’s actually applying that to his spirit rather than his actual physical appearance, but it still counts in my book). Then at the end of the second chapter of the book, a photographer named Mr. McKee invites a somewhat drunk Carraway out for lunch sometime and takes him back to his apartment to look at some photos he’d taken. And for some reason, it’s in McKee’s bedroom, while McKee is sitting in bed in his underwear.

“…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.”

I’m not saying they hooked up…but they hooked up.

When Carraway finally meets Gatsby face to face, Gatsby invites him out for a ride in his hydroplane. Jordan Baker then asks Carraway if he’s “having a gay time now”. That is actually the words she uses. And Nick replies, “Much better.” I know she means gay as in “fun”, but it’s still sniggle-worthy.

Then, when Carraway finally realizes that he’s actually talking to Gatsby, this is how he chooses to describe him:

“He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

TL;DR, Gatsby’s smile makes Carraway feel like the only girl in the world.

After that, Carraway immediately starts grilling Jordan for details about Gatsby, like a twitterpated teenager trying to get the lowdown on their crush. It’s adorable.

When the party is winding down for the evening, Gatsby and Carraway say goodbye to each other like, six times. No, you hang up. No, you hang up! No, you! You!

In the following weeks, Gatsby takes Carraway out on dates outings and seems really eager for Carraway to like him. “Look here, old sport,” he asks him one day, “what’s your opinion of me, anyway?” Then he shows off his medals of honor he earned in the army. What sucks is that in truth, Gatsby is really trying to get in Carraway’s good graces because he’s trying to use him as an in with Daisy Buchanan, Carraway’s cousin and Gatsby’s old flame. But if you think about it, does Gatsby really need Carraway to win Daisy back? He’s already conspiring with Jordan, who is Daisy’s bestie. He doesn’t really need Carraway to have an excuse to see her again. I think he just really likes hanging out with Nick, to be totally honest.

Also, a funny thing happens later on: Gatsby invites Carraway out for lunch and Carraway meets Gatsby’s business associate, Meyer Wolfsheim. Gatsby leaves momentarily and Wolfsheim says to Carraway that when he first met Gatsby, he “said to [himself]: ‘There’s the kind of man you’d like to take home and introduce to your mother and your sister.'”

Are you trying to set them up together or something, Wolfie?

One day, while Nick is wandering around Gatsby’s mansion, he spots of a photo of a man who Gatsby says is Dan Cody, an older man who was once his “best friend”. Later on, it’s revealed that Dan Cody met Gatsby and was impressed by him, so he took him under his wing and brought along on a sailing expedition, grooming him in the ways of the upper class and buying him a fancy wardrobe. He even left Gatsby twenty five grand when he died (although Cody’s mistress ended up usurping it from him).

That’s right–Jay Gatsby had a sugar daddy.

Anyway, blah blah blah, stuff happens, kiss kiss, bang bang. Then comes the last time Carraway sees Gatsby alive. He’s reluctant to leave him alone because Gatsby’s heartbroken about Daisy, but he has to go to work. But before he leaves, Carraway calls to him, “They’re a rotten crowd–you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

See, because that’s the thing about Carraway: he idealizes Gatsby in the same way that Gatsby idealizes Daisy. Gatsby disowned his parents because he was ashamed of them because they were poor, ran an illegal alcohol business, and tried to seduce a married woman–and he was willing to manipulate Nick to do it. But Carraway never cared about any of that. Until the very bitter end, Carraway still believed in Gatsby and adored him. And when Gatsby was killed, Nick was the only one who stayed with him. He tried to salvage Gatsby’s reputation because he knew that Gatsby was not a killer and that he never slept with Myrtle Wilson. He tried to arrange a funeral for him when no one else would. He was the only one who cared. “Me and Gatsby, against them all.

Oh God, now I’m sad again. ~TRL

A Really Great Show With A Really WEIRD Premise

Don’t worry, they’re the nice kind of Nazis!

Imagine you walk into a studio executive’s office today and said, “Hey. I’ve got a great idea for a television show. It’s a sitcom…set in a prisoner-of-war camp in Nazi Germany.” They’d probably tell you to get out of their office. Well, in 1965, you might have had a better chance of someone taking your pitch seriously.

Hogan’s Heroes ran on CBS from September of 1965 to March of 1971, for six seasons and 168 episodes. Let me put that into perspective: that’s more episodes than Game Of Thrones (67, currently), the original series of Star Trek (79), LOST (121), and the same amount of episodes as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That’s a LOT of f**king episodes!

(Let me clarify something quickly: when soldiers are captured in war, sometimes instead of being killed, they’re put into these prisoner-of-war camps. It’s like jail. It’s not the same as a concentration camp or a death camp. Honestly, Hogan’s Heroes doesn’t even really have to do with the Holocaust. So it’s not making light of genocide or anything. Don’t get mad.)

What it does make light of, however, is the Nazis themselves. Pretty much every German soldier in the story suffers from such incapacitating stupidity that it makes you wonder how the Allies didn’t win the war a lot sooner.

Related image “Gentlemen, the war effort is depending on this group of lovable rag-tag idiots.”

The heroes of the story (ha ha), are five prisoners of war who are imprisoned at German POW camp Stalag 13. Their leader is American Colonel Robert Hogan, played by Bob Crane. Hogan is basically the love child of Captain Kirk and Tony Stark–he’s dashing, quippy, ingenious, sneaky, and quite the ladies’ man.

His cohorts are Sergeant Andrew Carter, Corporal Louis LeBeau, Corporal Peter Newkirk, and Sergeant James Kinchloe. Carter is the Chekov of the group (because he’s the baby). His character can basically be described as “dumb blonde explosives expert bordering on mad scientist”. (He’s a little too eager to blow stuff up, you know?) He’s also scary good at impersonating Hitler, so much so that it’s a running gag in the show, and he actually dresses up and poses as Hitler in an episode–and the Germans fall for it! They really believe he’s Hitler! I told you–the Nazis are f**king idiots in this show.

Image result for hogan's heroes What? You thought I was kidding?

Then, there’s LeBeau, who is the token French character: he wears a beret, he’s the group chef, he’s short, he’s scrappy, he’s a snob about food and wine and art, and he turns into Pepe le Pew when he’s around women. But, he’s adorable. Newkirk is English and is played by the immortal Richard Dawson, and he’s a magician, safecracker, and pickpocket. And finally, Kinchloe is the radio technician and expert in other communications and electronics. It’s understated in the show, but he’s also second-in-command, which is kind of a big deal, since this show is from the 1960s and Kinch is a black man. So, yay, racial progressiveness! (Seriously, between Kinch and Star Trek, the CBS is on fire in the ’60s with positive race representation.)

Okay, why is this show so damn funny? Well, the premise of the show is that despite the fact that they’re imprisoned, these five men are secretly running an Underground Railroad out of their camp to help other prisoners of war escape Germany, and just aid the war effort in general. And it’s right under the Nazis’ noses–they don’t suspect a thing.

I’m the biggest threat on this show. No, seriously. Me. The captain of The Love Boat.

The two main German characters in the show are the man who runs Stalag 13, Commandant Wilhelm Klink, and the ranking German staff officer, Sergeant Hans Schultz, and both are complete idiots. Colonel Klink is such an overconfident, neurotic loon that he proudly believes that no one has ever escaped from his camp. It’s part of why it’s so easy for Hogan and the boys to carry on their business. The Heroes have a series of intricate tunnels underneath the camp, where they have a ham radio station, a mint for printing up counterfeit German marks, a tailor shop where they make German uniforms and civvies to help the escapees disguise themselves…even a barbershop.

…like I said, it’s a really ridiculous show!

“Where the f**k are my pecan pinwheels?!”

Sergeant Schultz is a big coward. He more or less knows everything that’s going on, but he’s so afraid of being shipped off to the Russian front fighting lines, that he just turns a blind eye to everything Hogan and his team are doing. His catchphrase is, “I see/hear/know nothing, nothing!” So if you’ve ever heard anyone say that…that’s where it’s from.

I think the reason this show worked so well in the ’60s is because the war was long over, and even though its effect shook the lives of many individuals, it must have been a comfort to some to watch a show about five funny, inventive guys just taking the piss out of the Nazis. It may seem insensitive to make light of such a horrible event in history, but like M*A*S*H*, Hogan’s Heroes maybe gives WWII a more positive outlook. It’s by no means a deep show, but when I think of Hogan’s Heroes, I take away this message: even when you’re in an impossible situation, you’re not helpless. And people who hate are stupid, and inevitably, good will win out over evil. And when things look dark, you can still find things to laugh about, because laughter is our biggest weapon against despair. That’s what Hogan’s Heroes means to me.

So if you ever get the chance, go watch the show; it’s on some of those classic TV channels (TV Land, MeTV, etc.). The characters are endearing, the antics are hysterical–it’s worth the time, I promise. ~TRL