Thursday, October 22, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: The All-Powerful All-Confident Hero of “Blazing Saddles”

Bart in Blazing Saddles is a far more confident and powerful hero than we’re used to:
  • He shows no hesitation before happily strolling into this wildly dangerous situation.
  • We don’t find out a lot about his hopes/fears/questions.
  • He seems to be largely un-anxious and downright bemused by his extraordinary journey, except one brief moment of self-doubt at the exact midpoint, but even here, we can see on his face that he’s almost incapable of staying unhappy for more than five seconds.
  • He’s not especially vulnerable, physically or emotionally.
  • He experiences no gutpunch. No one ever confronts him about any flaws.
So why does it work? Bart is a type of hero we haven’t encountered yet: the trickster. The trickster has nearly omnipotent powers, and yet remains sympathetic because his struggles are not physical but social: he is destined to be an outcast.

As an almost-magical being with the confident ability to happily run circles around his haters, Bart’s most obvious literary antecedent is Bugs Bunny (He does an outright imitation at one point, complete with Bugs’s theme music.) * So why do we like Bugs? Because his opponents are trying to kill him for no reason. He’s an asshole, but all he wants is to be an asshole in peace, and they won’t let him. (By contrast, look at this early Bugs cartoon, in which he actually lures Elmer Fudd in, and we suddenly hate him.) Elmer and Yosemite Sam are rampaging gun-wielding killers (of the nervous and aggressive varieties), but they meet the one guy that can defeat them.

We identify with Bart despite his lack of external and internal weakness, simply because his enemies are so vile, his situation is so desperate (though he doesn’t show it), and his chances for ultimate acceptance is so non-existent.We cannot truly fear for him, but we can still pity him.

And then there’s another issue: he may not betray much anxiety, but it is there in the subtext. We’ll discuss that next time.

*But who was Bugs’s antecedent? Br’er rabbit of course. So now we have a Yoruba legend, transformed into a slave folk tale character, then mass-marketed by a white author writing in a black voice (Joel Chandler Harris), then transformed into a deracialized (but somewhat Jewishized) cartoon character (Bugs Bunny, as voiced by Mel Blank) then turned into a black western hero by a Jewish screenwriter (Andrew Bergman, author of the original screenplay), then transformed again by a black co-screenwriter (Richard Pryor) and black actor that had been brought in to restore some of the original trickster authenticity!


Jesse said...

By Porky you mean Elmer Fudd, right?

Other than that, I think you hit on something interesting here. There aren't enough good trickster heroes in modern fiction. At best, if characters fall under that umbrella, they tend to be sidekicks. Any thoughts on why that might be?

Matt Bird said...

Whoops, right! I'll fix that.

I think Tricksters are just really hard to write. We're all hardwired to write about underdogs.

Unknown said...

"We're all hardwired to write about underdogs."
Agreed, and I think it's a bit of a problem. We love underdog stories ... but we also know that, in most cases, the so-called underdog will almost certainly win. Which means we only THINK we like underdogs, when what we REALLY like are heroes pre-destined to win because of how much they embody some quality our society values. This makes the "trickster" concept even more interesting, because it might lead the audience to acknowledge, and think about, the fact that they WANT a hero with the deck stacked in his/her favor.

Would Dr. Who qualify as a trickster character, or a partial one at least?

Matt Bird said...

Yes, definitely. Of course the Doctor is an easier character to write because we aren't usually asked to identify with him, only his companion.