Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Recently I read an article about the most offensive movies ever made. I always read these with a grain of salt because what we’re really talking about is somebody’s opinion, and often it is somebody young who lacks the background to understand the movies being critiqued. It’s not unlike the article I read about the absolute worst chain restaurants that “boomers” love. Ignoring the offensive and combative title of the article, it truly glorified the point I am making about not understanding the background. For example, one of the restaurants mentioned was a very popular (and delicious) Italian restaurant that no doubt you’ve heard of and probably eaten at. The author felt the need to pan this one because it served the absolute worst cheeseburger he ever had. When I was a child, I would order hamburgers and hot dogs at seafood restaurants, but as I’ve grown and matured both my palette and mind I’ve come to realize that you just don’t order hamburgers at an Italian restaurant. I can’t help but wonder just how old the child was who wrote that particular review. And, yes, I am saying this from the experienced wisdom of a boomer.
This past year, while working at a Drive-In Theater, I watched the new release of an animated film about a martial arts dog in a city of cats. Curiously, the movie itself was just a retelling of the classic movie (which I will mention by name although I usually try to avoid doing so) Blazing Saddles. Anybody with a good familiarity of the movie will recognize the story line, the jokes, and even some of the scenes in this retelling. In the end, I believe they even had Mel Brooks voice the wise master.
Blazing Saddles is one of those movies deemed too offensive for today’s audiences. Gratuitous use of the “n” word (that I cannot even bring myself to type), racially based humor and jokes and even violence towards women makes the movie very excessively offensive by today’s standards.
By today’s standards.
That’s the first of two major points I really want to bring up. There are a plethora of hilarious movies out there that are very offensive simply because of the standards of the day they were made. I kind of wonder how movies today will hold up in twenty or thirty years. Will a new set of ethical standards render them unwatchable?
And don’t get me wrong. Recently I watched a comedian doing a routine that I recall laughing at when I first saw it, but on re-watching it, the offensive nature of this stand-up comedian kind of slapped me in the face. It was just too over the top for me to even find funny on review and shined a very bright light on how I have evolved over the years. To have found something so funny thirty or forty years ago that I discovered to be unwatchable today is a tribute to my own personal growth. As ashamed as I was to have realized that I laughed at it so many years ago, the reality is that I am no longer that person, and I’m happy to know that.
But there is another point, specifically about movies like Blazing Saddles. Yes, the movie is over the top offensive by today’s standards, and yes, the standards were much lower than than today, but even back then it was overly offensive. If you’ve never seen it (and, yes, it’s juvenile humor), I recommend watching it, but watch it keeping in mind the social status of the time. The overt racism was very prevalent in society when it was made, and largely considered as acceptable. When Blazing Saddles was made, I believe those that made the movie made it intentionally offensive. As I watch it, even when I first saw it, it seemed as if the movie was “calling out” the racism of our society, the bigoted opinions that were so prevalent, and highlighting the absurdity of these social issues.
As you watch it, you might notice that most of the humor was not directed at minorities, but rather at those who were racist. Surrounded by white people, the black sheriff is the only one that carries with him a sense of class, humor, and heroism. His white sidekick was the town drunk when the two main characters met, written off by the entire town, but with a glorious past that nobody seemed to know or remember, much as we tend to write off people with chemical addictions today.
As we watch these offensive classics of yesteryears, it’s not enough just to think about how it holds up to today’s standards. It’s also important to remember the societal context of the time, and what the movie is trying to accomplish. Perhaps it’s the offensive movies like Blazing Saddles that have guided us to become a much more responsible and tolerant society today.