Coming to America!
By being shameful and shameless in a single gesture, which is carried out with almost unprecedented exuberance, Borat sets loose raging torrents of laughter--reason enough for its popularity. But if you want to account for people's excitement about this movie--their sense that Borat is doing something in the world--you might look instead to the directness of Cohen's attack, and the deceptive simplicity of his method. These are Chaplin qualities. Everyone knows they're abundant in Borat; but they cannot be found in Flags of Our Fathers.
This is no fault of Eastwood's film. Flags of Our Fathers happens to be very good: intelligent, compelling, lovingly made and strikingly appropriate to our present moment in history. As you will have heard by now, the movie dramatizes the experiences of three of the men who were photographed raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. It follows their brief public careers as heroes (sent on a cross-country tour to sell war bonds) and contrasts them with the agony of the battle they had just survived. So this is a war picture about the power of pictures in wartime: about the conversion of bloody chaos into meaning, and the transformation of fallible, suffering men into figures of virtue. For Eastwood, who has long brooded over the folklore and the reality of violence, this theme feels entirely natural. (So, too, does his empathy with one of the protagonists, a Pima Indian named Ira Hayes. Having mourned over racism in many previous films, Eastwood makes it a central topic of this picture.) If the screenplay is short on dramatic tension--with writers William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis following dutifully in the footsteps of established fact--there is more than enough physical conflict to keep the picture moving. Maybe the narrative doesn't crackle quite enough; but how would prospective audiences know?
People do understand, though, just by looking at the newspaper ads, that Flags of Our Fathers will be weighty, impressive, instructive, magisterial. These are the strengths of Griffith's tradition--and they are fatally ill-timed, now that Cohen's hit-and-run vehicle is careening into theaters. Moviegoers have clearly elected to go with the swift, the mobile, the riotously vulgar; and it doesn't surprise me that they made this choice just days before the general population voted (far less decisively) for change.
Borat is a triumph for truly pissed-off Americans: younger ones especially, who feel the time has passed for polite exposition and patient analysis. They just want to laugh their heads off, as the whole existing order is mowed down. How many such citizens are there? I have no idea. But I know that cultural change doesn't require a majority, only an invigorated critical mass; and that's what Borat is creating.
Not since Dylan went electric...
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Short Takes: Like Christopher Guest's other mock documentaries (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind), For Your Consideration is an ensemble piece about the hopes, cruelties and absurdities of a particular form of show business. The milieu this time is independent film production; and leadership of the Guest stock company has shifted to the utterly brilliant Catherine O'Hara. She takes the role of a midcareer actress--hardworking, uncelebrated, justifiably worried that her jobs are disappearing as the wrinkles settle in--who becomes the subject of an anonymous Internet rumor. Someone writes that she is "Oscar-worthy" in her new picture; and though the movie is a cheap and crumbly piece of halvah titled Home for Purim, she is needy enough to believe she might be nominated for an award. Harry Shearer and Parker Posey co-star as her fellow actors, who also get caught up in Oscar madness. Eugene Levy, who wrote the script with Guest, appears as the world's most useless agent. Jennifer Coolidge plays a producer with a yawning abyss for a brain. The goings-on in For Your Consideration are as uproariously funny as in any of Guest's films to date; and thanks to O'Hara's genius, they're a little heartbreaking, too.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread is a science-fiction film of sorts--the 2001: A Space Odyssey of modern food production. It is wordless, stately, disquieting, disorienting. Also, it's a documentary. Shot in direct-cinema style, the film takes you into a series of European industrial plants, where gleaming steel tubes spray out baby chicks, robotic hoses cruise through aisles of vegetation, giant wheels rotate with cows strapped to their arms. Every so often you see a human being tending the equipment in mechanistic silence. A worthy selection of the 2006 New York Film Festival, Our Daily Bread is now beginning a well-deserved theatrical run, starting in New York at Anthology Film Archives.
About Fur, an "imaginary portrait" of Diane Arbus, all you need to know is that it is "not a historical biographical movie" (in its own words) but rather seeks to "reach beyond reality." It reaches so far that Nicole Kidman might as well be playing Alice in Wonderland, with Robert Downey Jr. co-starring as Jean Cocteau's Beast, while Arbus figures only as a famous name signifying high-art solemnity. Steven Shainberg directed; Erin Cressida Wilson wrote the script. Mark their names. They have made the biggest, whitest elephant in many years.