: Nation film critic Stuart Klawans has won the 2007 National Magazine Award for his reviews of works from the vulgar to the magisterial. Here’s a sampling of his award-winning work.
To start by oversimplifying–and why not, in an election year?–movie culture has forever been split between Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. From Griffith we get the aspiration to grand scale and elevated tone, massed armies and multiple story lines, with the director’s visual power integrating personal narratives into historical simulation. The Chaplin tradition also has its artistic ambitions, despite being raffish and outwardly improvisational; but it focuses less on the creation of a cinematic world than on the realization of a star performance that never fully abandons the joy of a swift kick in the pants. For the moment, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is the most notable descendant of the Griffith line. The Chaplin line–as carried on by another English comedian sporting curly hair and a funny mustache–is currently represented by Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
The public has now chosen between these traditions, as it does from time to time; and for this round it has decided the question by an epoch-defining majority. In one weekend, Borat grossed a reported $26.4 million: as much as Flags of Our Fathers took in during its first seventeen days in release. I am not such a fool as to think that immediate ticket sales determine a film’s worth; nor would I judge a movie’s social impact by its usefulness to op-ed commentators (who for the moment cannot live without Borat). That said, I can recognize a cultural turning point when it smacks me in the kisser. Griffith has been trounced. Chaplin rules.
And Borat is the movie of the year, the picture that makes all other films irrelevant. Do I like it? In my office as cinematic guinea pig of the American left, do I approve? Yes, but so what? I look upon Borat in awe, as I would gape at the sublimity of a tidal wave sweeping everything before it. Public solemnity? Obliterated. Displays of craftsmanship? Drowned. Respect for any authority, any institution, any individual (other than an impecunious Alabama call girl)? You’ve got to be joking.
Mere anarchy is loosed, and its name (bless him!) is Borat.
For those readers who have been studiously ignoring the world around them, I should explain that the title character, Borat Sagdiyev, is not so much a persona as an imposture, foisted on unsuspecting people by his creator, Sacha Baron Cohen. Supposedly, Borat is a broadcast journalist from Kazakhstan, which is here depicted in prologue as a life-affirming rural shantytown, vibrant with rape, incest, arms-dealing, neighborly ill will and festivals of Jew-hatred. (Is the depraved, mostly toothless populace meant to be Muslim, by any chance? “No,” says Borat. “We follow the Hawk.”) This nation, though glorious, knows that it might yet have room to make benefit; and so Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Culture, or something, has sent Borat to the United States to shoot an informative documentary about life in a different part of the world.