Thursday, October 19, 2017

Nobody Expects the Politically Correct Inquisition

(I should have written about this a week or two ago, but don't worry -- more of the same kind of material will circulate for as long as Trump is President.  P.S. And I was right: today one of my liberal friends liked a post about Putin defending Trump, which had the added remark: Putin's standing up for "his girlfriend.")

The above cartoon began to circulate after Mike Pence walked out of a football game to make known his displeasure to NFL players taking the knee during the national anthem.  Liberals made much of the fact that the action was planned in advance -- like the players' protests weren't -- and cost the taxpayers perhaps a quarter of a million dollars, which is chump change in the Federal budget.  The same complaint could be made about any president's official visits to disaster sites, or other symbolic gestures, but of course when it's Not Your President or Vice President who's doing it, it's completely different.  The Democratic outrage that ensued was a bit odd, considering how many of these people claim that they regard Pence as a lesser evil that they can deal with when Trump is impeached.  I regarded it all as yet another distraction from the actual purpose of the protests, by making them all about Trump.

But then several people I knew, liberals all, passed along the cartoon above.  It too is far from the worst thing in the world today, but it infuriated me anyway because of the people who thought it was funny.  As with Stephen Colbert's "cock holster" quip, it's not really funny; there's no wit about it, it's just a crude and juvenile homophobic taunt, which means it's not the sort of thing liberals should be spreading.  But evidently they thought it was so hilarious that they had to share it.

Ordinarily I respond to homophobic rhetoric on the Internet with sarcasm -- how nice of woke liberals to show their superiority to Rethuglicans by indulging in homophobic attacks, that sort of thing -- but not this time.  I was direct: it really pisses me off when liberals show how woke they are by indulging in homophobic or misogynist attempts at humor -- which generally fail, as this one does. If you spread crap like this around I don't want to hear any bullshit about how much you care for equality and everybody getting along together. You're not an ally.

A few weeks earlier, Mel Brooks complained in an interview with the BBC that "political correctness is 'the death of comedy'.  He said Blazing Saddles, his Western spoof about a black sheriff in a racist town, could never be made today."  This is bullshit.  Blazing Saddles couldn't have been made just a few years before Brooks made it, not because of "political correctness" but because of the Hollywood Production Code, which was the result of the movie industry appeasing religious (especially Roman Catholic) reactionaries.  (I imagine that it couldn't have been made before the Code was adopted either, because of its flamboyant profanity.)  And even after the Code was replaced with a rating system, Brooks encountered resistance to making and releasing the film.  As I recall from the commentary track on one of the DVD versions, some of the actors Brooks wanted refused to speak the naughty words, and others were understandably uncomfortable about spewing racial slurs on camera.  ("Understandably," because of the well-known tendency of audiences to confuse actors with the roles they play.)

Contrariwise, movies full of racial slurs and profanity are reasonably commonplace today, especially when black filmmakers produce them.  But has Brooks never seen, say, Pulp Fiction, which contains plenty of both?  The racist material in particular seems to be there more simply for the taboo-breaking frisson rather than any dramatic or, as in Blazing Saddles, satirical reason.  I don't believe that "political correctness" is preventing such movies from being made.

Brooks went on to declare piously:
But there is one subject he insists he would not parody.
Referring to World War Two, he said: "I personally would never touch gas chambers or the death of children or Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
"In no way is that at all useable or correct for comedy. It's just in truly bad taste."
However, he says that is the "only thing" he would avoid. "Everything else is OK."
This is passing strange, because one of the sources of Brooks's notoriety was Blazing Saddles' predecessor, The Producers, about a couple of sleazy Broadway impresarios who stage a musical, written by a diehard Nazi, celebrating Hitler.  It's just in truly bad taste.  I've never been able to get through the entire film myself, not because I'm offended but because it's not all that interesting: as in Pulp Fiction, the "humor" comes from the breaking of the taboo.  Brooks has never disowned The Producers, and indeed in his dotage made it into a very successful stage musical.  At any rate, he has his own personal "political correctness," the line he won't cross.

Even more obnoxiously, Brooks tried to exalt comedy, especially his kind of comedy, into a virtually spiritual vocation exempt from criticism.  "Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It's the lecherous little elf whispering in the king's ear, telling the truth about human behaviour."  Numerous critics pointed out that Brooks was wrong about the jester's traditional role here.  I certainly agree that comedy, like art in general, can and should take risks, even if it offends; but those who are offended can and should speak up.  Traditional racist, sexist, homophobic &c. comedy wasn't meant to take risks, quite the opposite: it afflicted the afflicted while comforting the comfortable.  It couldn't have been made if it had done otherwise.  Because of the ambiguity of art and entertainment, many of such comedy's targets turned it around and found some kind of affirmation in it.  But to pretend that Sambo shows, for example, were intended to "tell the truth about human behavior" is dishonest.

I liked Blazing Saddles because it turned its satire on white racists, but I suspect that many whites liked because they thought it gave them a license to say "nigger."  As, apparently, many white schoolkids do with Huckleberry Finn, or rap.  I'd hope that it couldn't be made today, though, at least in its original form, because it's too uneven.  (That is typical of Brooks's films, except for Young Frankenstein, which had fewer comic peaks and more valleys as time went on.)  I wasn't offended by the fag-joke soundstage number featuring Dom DeLuise later in the film, but I never found it funny either; it takes no chances, it's a reprise of the 30s-style Hollywood fag jokes itemized in Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet.  The closest it comes to edginess is having some of the rugged cowboys saunter off arm-in-arm with the queeny chorus boys, and that's not close enough.  (Heathers, and numerous other later comedies, came closer.  Colbert's "cock holster" line and the Pence/Trump blowjob cartoon fall even shorter.)  I think that Richard Pryor, who co-wrote it, probably deserves more credit for Blazing Saddles's virtues than Brooks does, if only because on his own Brooks never again reached those heights.

The proof of the comedy, and the satire, is in the laughter -- and people disagree on what to laugh at.  I think again of Ellen Willis's satirical definition of "humorless": it's what you are if you don't think rape, big breasts, or sex with little girls is funny -- but you're not humorless if you're not amused by castration, impotence, or vaginas with teeth.  And if an artist fails to produce the results he or she aimed for, he or she needs to be told.  Yes, comedy should take chances, but taking chances often fails, and while I sympathize with comedians who don't want to be told, they need to know when they fail.  I might watch a comedy about Nazis, the gas chambers, and all the other subjects Brooks rejects -- if it was really funny.  It's a question that can't be answered in advance.  Blazing Saddles only proved itself by being made.  As Joanna Russ wrote, "To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political."  Like comedy, it's hard to do, and not many bring it off.  Nothing is sacred, including comedy.