Counterculture: irreverence to the status quo. Patti Smith raging nonstop at a god and belief system she professes not to believe. Monty Python’s lampooning the mythological birth of Britain. Mel Brooks satirizing the equally myth-laden rugged individualism of the American West: steeped in the Westward Movement, civilization, progress, prejudice, and establishing a nation. Counterculture: outlet for the rebellion – wanted or needed – by the disenchanted, disillusioned, socio-political outcasts, and rebels (with or without a cause) to revolt against the man, the powers that be, the establishment.
Blazing Saddles was originally penned in 1971 under the title Black Bart by Andrew Bergman. The original script was optioned by Warner Brothers. The premise was simply to play 1874 as if it was 1974, with a black sheriff. Warner Brothers green-lighted the production of the film, and chose Alan Arkin to direct, and James Earl Jones to handle the lead character. Unfortunately, for Arkin and Jones, but fortunately for movie-goers, the Hollywood stars were cosmically unaligned and the original production disappeared into the black hole of disappointed dreams.
Mel Brooks was given the directorial nod, along with carte blanch; and he and four other writers (including Bergman) rewrote the script with the intent of retaining the original concept, while creating a parody of every western they could recall. And, as if on cue, Brooks and his producers continually fielded a slew of suggestions by the studio brass and their legal beagles. Brooks wanted Richard Pryor (who was part of the writing team) to play the sheriff. But Pryor’s well-known unreliability made the studio heads rotate like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. The studio suggested Flip Wilson and Brooks suggested where they could go. And on-and-on it continued throughout the entire production schedule. There were fights over language, inappropriate words, blatant sexual overtones, prejudicial intonations, and even conflict over how loud the bean eating cowboys should fart.
What happened to carte blanch? It appeared to be rescinded when the powers that be discovered how irreverent the picture was to the powers that be. The picture does, in fact, target a variety of stereotypes through its (intentionally) offensive humor and sight gags. However, the predominant goal was to target prejudice. In a special features interview, Harvey Korman claimed the script dealt with “the whole absurdities of what prejudices are all about.” And in the same feature Brooks states the following:
The engine that drove Blazing Saddles was hatred of the Black.
It was race prejudice. Without that the movie would not have
had nearly the significance to force the dynamism, and the
stakes that were contained in the film.
And similar prejudicial absurdities were targeted with the absurd humor in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The British ensemble utilized the disparity and conflict evident in a monarchy confronted with a more parliamentary or democratic view. And, similarly to Blazing Saddles, which parodied the westward movement that expanded America, Monty Python selected medieval times and the mythological foundation of Britain through King Arthur’s Camelot. Then add a generous supply of irreverent religious humor as the third driving force to move the story forward at the blistering speed of a human trot and the film is encapsulated.
I did find it odd that they only blasted Catholicism (a favorite of the Irish). There were no blatant attacks on the Church of England; after all, it was a counterculture inspired production. I would like to know if they met with a multitude of studio suggestions like Brooks had to deal with.
Patti Smith, on the other hand, though a counterculture icon, is found wanting in my opinion. Yes, she used her forked-tongue to poke holes in various establishment mainstays over the years, but the same tongue betrays her. Her ranting and raving at the establishment, and especially toward faith, was merely an outlet for her rebellious nature. She nurtured her personal demons born out of anger, and carried on her personal war because she loved it; not for any altruistic intention to help others by changing the status quo. Her addictive personality appeared to crave the endorphin rush of rebellion, just as much as her confessed addictive need for sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.
Lack of space hinders going into all the anger issues, but let’s deal with one of her predominant themes, God and faith. It is a theme seen in well-over half her material. And we’re given a glimpse into the origin of this anger in several poems; but predominantly in “Grant.”
but for my father the irrevocable alien, there is nowhere to go,
unaccepted by the real world and betrayed by the divine, he has
plunged into a state of atrophy. a trophy a stationary prize. it is
the junky becoming the junk the dreamer the dream. it is the
masterpiece himself. a / trophy. (p.86-89)
The above poem and others show Smith’s hallowed love for her father: daddy’s little girl. She proclaims her father, in the arms of God, is “the golden one” (p.88), and “truly” believes that “there is no one closer to god then my father” (p.89), and she needs “no other source but the word of my guardian” (p.87). And when he hurts she hurts. His betrayers are her betrayers.
Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll tore away Smith’s inhibitions. She found her voice, a voice she can use to vent her anger at the “divine” that betrayed the father she professes to be god-like. And the anger filled the void of lost faith. But the god of anger, similar to her other addiction gods, is never satisfied. She must howl like Ginsberg in an effort to appease, like we see in “Oath” (p.7):
Jesus died for somebody’s sins
but not mine
I’m giving you the good-bye
firing you tonight
I can make my own light shine
And Smith claims to want responsibility for herself.
my sins my own
Adam placed no hex on me
I embrace Eve
and take full responsibility
for every pocket I have picked
But simple common sense sees through the mask. Killing off the god of her father (whom she compared him to) while equally venting against the rest of the establishment (in other works); including society’s laws, is a self-professed act to be “free.” And freedom defined by the counterculture icon includes freedom from morality. In other words, if there is no god, no laws, and no morality they are freeing themselves from responsibility. They are not embracing responsibility, and neither is Smith. There is no personal responsibility in anti-heroism. In The Denial of Death, psychologist Ernest Becker states the following:
We are living a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect
of our social life: the dropouts of university heroism, of business
and career heroism, of political-action heroism; the rise of anti-
heroes, those who would be heroic each in his own way or like
Charles Manson with his special “family,” those whose tormented
heroics lash out at the system that itself has ceased represent a
greed heroism” (p.6-7).
The heroism spoken of in the above passage is the heroics relating to self in each individual mind. It is the reason individuals like Manson see themselves in a positive light, no matter how the rest of the world views them. And it is no different for those of the counterculture who revel in the rebellion and anger, seeking personal freedom (without God, laws, or morality), with no personal responsibility.
The counterculture seen in Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are simple acts of spotlighting deficiencies in the status quo that need to be addressed and changed. Neither film advocates the extreme counterculture view angrily expressed throughout Smith’s work. It is a major difference that cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Countercultural activism for change, like the films or marching to the White House, is commendable. Counterculture that thrives on rebellion, revolt, anarchy, or in Smith’s case, accepts and proudly claims freedom of responsibility for various criminal acts against others is pure unadulterated bullshit. And I wave my hat at it like Slim Pickens in the cowboy campfire scene, only to realize that this stink is solid and it is here to stay.