Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: If you Break a Rule, you Make a Rule

One last Blazing Saddles piece, then a poll tomorrow!
It doesn’t take long in Blazing Saddles to get our first blast of anachronistic absurdity, when Bart and his rail gang humiliate their overseers by crooning “I Get No Kick from Champagne.” So right there, the rules of reality are out the window, right? If he can do that, he can do anything. And indeed, Bart’s ability powers to casually bend space and time will be a consistent feature of the script …but he isn’t really breaking all the rules.

Looking closer, these anachronistic flights of fancy soon begin to make their own pattern: almost all of them refer to pop culture popular in the late 1920s-30s (Busby Berkeley musicals, Hedy Lamar, Cecil B. DeMille, Count Basie, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, etc.) This is a movie about roles: The Waco kid refuses to play the part assigned to him (until he has to), and Bart starts out refusing as well, until he’s given a new role and insists on playing that part, even though nobody actually wants him to. Meanwhile, Bart won’t let anybody else play their own assigned role, making Mongo and Lili re-write their own parts. Bart finally guns down Hedly as they stand in the concrete footprints of Hollywood stars.

So we have three eras: the 1870s, the 1920s-30s, when Hollywood tried to whitewash and mythologize that decade in an attempt to lock America into a mythical white-power fantasy, and 1970s, in which American activists, historians and fiction writers were beginning to undo that damage and restore a truer, richer, more colorful history of America. Bart’s anachronisms are, upon closer inspection, far from random, and instead provide a crucial context for the movie’s social critique.

Whenever you break a rule, you make a rule. Any cryptographer will tell that there’s no such thing as human randomness to any observer trained in pattern recognition. This movie has a few anachonisms that don’t match this pattern (“What in the Wide Wide World of Sports is going on here?”) but most of its absurdities are far more meaningful than they first appear.

It’s tempting as you write comedy to throw logic out the window and get totally zany, and it’s worthwhile to treat yourself to those moments of liberation, but remember that anytime you break a rule, you’ve simply made a new rule. Ultimately, the audience will try to make some sort of sense out of everything, so even your flights of fancy will, and should, have flight patterns of their own.

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