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November 23, 2006

Welcome to My World

Dear Friends,

In the immortal words of James Thurber, "My World--and Welcome to It." Or, in the somewhat less immortal words of Alice Cooper, "Welcome to My Nightmare." Although, unlike Mr. Cooper, I can't really guarantee that you're going to like it. But you may find some amusement value herein, intentional or not.

November 24, 2006

Cultural Scribblings for Make Benefit Glorious Blog of Miles

Like everyone else in the world, I have been bombarded with Borat-mania for the past several weeks, and yesterday I finally saw the film. Let me say at the outset that I consider Sacha Baron Cohen to be one of the most brilliant, and certainly the most audacious, improvisational comedians I have ever seen--a four-way cross between Peter Sellers, Andy Kaufman, Johnny Knoxville, and Rabelais. Borat, a Slavic-accented barnyard Candide, is an astounding creation, and certain sequences in "Borat" left me breathless with laughter. I never thought anyone could exceed Mel Brooks' cinematic evisceration of anti-Semitism in "Springtime for Hitler," but darned if Baron Cohen didn't do it with "The Running of the Jew!"

And yet, at this time at least, I don't think I will ever want to see this movie again.

I have read the articles by David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer blasting "Borat," and I think they are completely off-base. Many of Baron Cohen's satirical targets may be conservative Southerners and Middle Westerners, but by no means all; he certainly makes the panel of feminists that Borat interviews look like humorless, single-minded cliches. And I need only point to "The Running of the Jew" to counter Krauthammer's charge that Baron Cohen ignores the existence of anti-Semitism in the Old World.

My complaint about the film is more fundamental: that too much of it consists of ambushing well-meaning people who are just trying to be nice to a foreigner asking their help in understanding American social customs. "Borat" made me cringe in much the same way that Richard Pryor's concert films made me cringe with the unpleasant, often obscene truth of life in America. But whereas Pryor spoke of American life and race relations as he observed them, Baron Cohen attempts to demonstrate how real Americans behave in unguarded moments. (Do I even need to cite the Heisenberg Principle here? Even Baron Cohen's most ardent admirers have to admit that Borat is an agent provocateur of grotesque proportions.) Some of the people Borat interviews, I must admit, are fairly and adroitly hoist by their own petards--the homophobic rodeo manager is an excellent case in point, as are the various surly New Yorkers Borat encounters. (Personal confession: I probably would have run away from Borat, just as the one guy did.) But was it really necessary at the formal dinner in Atlanta for Borat to regale the other guests with a bag of (putatively) his own feces, or pictures documenting his naked adolescent son's penile development? And while I hate being in the position of defending drunken frat boys, these particular frat boys were trying to be kind to Borat, offering him a lift and sharing their beer. And we all know that a drunken frat boy (or a drunken anybody else) will say things in private that will never, ever, translate to his behavior while sober and in the outside world.

In interviews, Baron Cohen has said that with Borat he tried to reveal not only behavior, but the hidden, bigoted attitudes most people carry with them. Fair enough, and for Baron Cohen/Borat to reveal such things is valuable when dealing with elected officials, political pundits, fundamentalist ministers and other self-styled "spokespersons" for American society. But to do that with unsuspecting private citizens, whom no one would have ever heard of were it not for Borat, is sabotage.

So I have the highest respect for the genius--and I do not think "genius" is too strong a word--of Sacha Baron Cohen. But, at least at this moment, I hope I never meet him. And I do NOT want to marvel at pictures of his son's penis.

November 27, 2006

A Short Course in Filmmaking

If you haven't purchased the new, two-disc Universal DVD of Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," I hope you will do so soon, or ask someone on your Christmas gift exchange list to get it for you. The restoration is excellent--you can see the dust motes floating in Barbara Stanwyck's cigar-choked living room--and worlds better than the bare-bones DVD release of several years ago. A Turner Classic Movies documentary on Disc One tells how Wilder rose to the challenge of developing James M. Cain's salacious story for the screen, over the strenuous opposition of the Hays Office and the terror of any actors he approached that playing the poisonous Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson would ruin their careers. In any case, Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson ended up giving Wilder three of the greatest performances ever recorded on film. (The Academy nominated Stanwyck for Best Actress, but denied her the Oscar, which was stupid; it completely passed over MacMurray and Robinson, which was idiotic.) The most hilarious part of the documentary details the abject mutual loathing that existed between Wilder and co-scenarist Raymond Chandler; though they could only bear to spend a few minutes at a time in each other's presence, Wilder and Chandler ended up creating some of the most sparkling dialogue in the history of the cinema, such as the famous exchange between Stanwyck and MacMurray:

"There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff--forty-five miles an hour."

"How fast was I going, Officer?"

"I'd say around ninety."

"Suppose you climb down from your motorcycle and give me a ticket?'

"Suppose I let you off with a warning?"

"Suppose it doesn't take?"

"Suppose I rap you over the knuckles?"

"Suppose I burst out crying and lay my head on your shoulder?"

"Suppose you try laying it on my husband's shoulder?"

To watch "Double Indemnity" is to receive a short lesson in the best of film directing, acting and writing. But as if to drive the point home, Universal and TCM generously include a second disc containing a superb lesson of how NOT to make a movie: the 1973 TV remake of "Double Indemnity," written by Steven Bochco and starring Richard Crenna, Semantha Eggar and Lee J. Cobb. After it first aired, the documentary tells us, Wilder and Stanwyck spent hours on the phone together talking about how horrible it was; after seeing it yourself, you will understand why. To see the remake is to understand Oscar Wilde's remark that if you see a beautiful tulip with four petals, it's all right to grow a tulip with five petals, but not one with three. Wherever Bochco changes the Wilder-Chandler original, he diminishes it; fortunately, he had learned a great deal more about screenwriting by the time "Hill Street Blues" premiered. Crenna and Eggar sleepwalk through the MacMurray and Stanwyck roles, while the formerly reputable Lee J. Cobb brings to mind some famous names--Armour, Plumrose, Smithfield, Hormel...In any case, the 1973 "Double Indemnity" is an instructive hoot to watch--ONCE. The 1944 original is a film to watch over and over and over.

About November 2006

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in November 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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