Sunday, October 25, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Subtext and Divided Identity in “Blazing Saddles”

Last time, we talked about how Bart in Blazing Saddles is a supremely self-confident trickster, seemingly untroubled by any physical or emotional danger. And indeed he shows no anxiety, even when he really ought to. As Hedly tries to convince the governor to appoint Bart sheriff, Bart sits in the governor’s chair, kicks his feet up on the desk, lights a cigar, and heckles their conversation.

Shortly thereafter, as Bart rides into the town where he will surely be killed, he rides high, having the time of his life. Even when the locals all predictably pull their guns on him, he only cocks one eyebrow in surprise, and then shuts them down with an absurd trick, pretending to take himself hostage.

Bart sees that the townspeople are unwilling to accept him as their armed lawman, so he decides to adopt not one but two roles they can accept: cruel criminal and simpering victim. When one half threatens to kill the other, the townspeople find that their hearts are unexpectedly moved: “He’s just crazy enough to do it!” “Isn’t anybody going to help that poor man?” “Hush, Harriet, that’s a sure way to get him killed!” After Bart has dragooned himself into the sheriff’s office, he turns toward the camera and exults: “Oh, baby, you are so talented. And they are so dumb!”

So we have another example of Bart walking through the raindrops, easily outsmarting his enemies and blithely escaping certain death. At least in the surface text. But the subtext is rich. Bart rarely displays any anxiety about his situation and doesn’t consciously reveal a hidden inner self, but this scene says volumes. Was there ever a scene that offers a better example of this famous quote from W.E.B. DuBois?
  • It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
From the first scene, Bart refuses be what they want him to be, but he can’t exactly be himself either: He answers a request for “Camptown Ladies” with a rendition of the supremely white “I Get No Kick from Champagne” …but after that he seems to get “Camptown Ladies” stuck in his head, singing it to himself two times later on.

Who is Bart? To find out, he has to answer three questions: What do white people want him to be? What do his fellow black people want him to be? Who does he want to be? It’s hard for him to know. At the end, he gives a speech about how he’s needed elsewhere, “wherever people call out for justice,” but the townspeople all call out “Bullshit!” and he laughs in agreement. But he leaves anyway, headed “nowhere special.” He has united black and white to form a stronger town, but he cannot himself be at peace.

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