The Grand Budapest Hotel
As much as "The Grand Budapest Hotel" takes on the aspect of a cinematic confection, it does so to grapple with the very raw and,…
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
Scout Tafoya's "The Unloved," an appreciation of fascinating movies that were critically reviled on first release, continues with a look at 1994's "The Hudsucker Proxy."
Part two of our countdown of twelve great scenes set around Christmas: #8–#5.
Marie writes: Now this is really neat. It made TIME's top 25 best blogs for 2012 and with good reason. Behold artist and photographer Gustaf Mantel's Tumblr blog "If we don't, remember me" - a collection of animated GIFs based on classic films. Only part of the image moves and in a single loop; they're sometimes called cinemagraphs. The results can be surprisingly moving. They also can't be embedded so you have to watch them on his blog. I already picked my favorite. :-)
OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.
I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.
It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.
The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.
I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?
"Our slogan's 'Country First.' Lieberman and Pawlenty are 'Country First' choices. Sarah Palin will be perceived as a self-serving political maneuver. You may not only lose this election, John, you just might lose your reputation right along with it." -- prescient warning by McCain advisor Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) in "Game Change"
First, there's this: Austin Pendleton as Joe Lieberman. I just want to mention that casting masterstroke up-front because, even though he only gets about two minutes of screen time (and most of it is in the background) it's one of those little touches that shows the people who made "Game Change" have an eye for the telling detail. I had so much fun watching this movie. The funny thing is, it isn't exactly satire, maybe because that's already inherent in the real-life material. It's a comedy (I think), but the humor is fairly mild, certainly not as funny as Sarah Palin's public appearances actually were. I guess we're just used to her now.
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed "Game Change," which goes out of its way to demonstrate understanding and sympathy for Palin, and absolves John McCain of all responsibility for his unconscionable campaign in 2008. (Spoiler alert: It was his advisers who screwed up!) Honestly, McCain and Palin should drop down on their knees and thank everybody involved in this picture for their kindness and discretion: director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers," "Recount") and writer Danny Strong ("Recount"), who adapted the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, and a top-notch cast, headed by Woody Harrelson as McCain advisor Steve Schmidt (who is really the main character), Julianne Moore as Palin and Ed Harris as McCain. It's just a shame Harris doesn't have a bigger part to play in the proceedings.
"Game Change" is patterned on redemptive Frank Capra and Preston Sturges archetypes (a dash of "Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington" and maybe quite a lot of "Hail, the Conquering Heroine" -- minus the hero's moral torment over misrepresenting himself), even if the screwball energy is missing. Although, things get fairly dark (as they often do in Capra and Sturges) when Palin shuts down and goes catatonic, overwhelmed by the advisers who are trying to make her into someone and something she is not (neither a conventional politician, nor a credible candidate for Vice President of the United States), she finally snaps out of it, drawing strength from her love of family and state and country, and "goes rogue" in the third act, rediscovering her unique voice and her true spirit. That's a generous assessment of her character, but it's left up to you to decide whether the Real Sarah Palin is someone who oughtta be in politics.Above: The Real Thing
Marie writes: While writer Brian Selznick was doing research for his book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret", he discovered the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia had a very old automaton in their collection. And although it wasn't one of machines owned by Georges Melies, it was remarkably similar and with a history akin to the one he'd created for the automaton in The Invention of Hugo Cabret...
Marie writes: I have no words. Beyond the obvious, that is. And while I'm okay looking at photos, the video.... that was another story. I actually found myself turning away at times, the suspense too much to bear - despite knowing in advance that he's alive and well and there was nothing to worry about. The bottom of my stomach still fell out...
(click images to enlarge)
Whenever research confirms something we feel we already knew intuitively, or from our own experience, there are always people who'll scoff and say, "Well, I could have told you that!" And maybe they could have, but that's not the point. Science is a discipline involving systematic observation and empirical evidence, not unverified hunches. Movies, of course, are optical illusions -- photographic, electronic and/or mechanical phenomena that exploit the peculiarities of our eyes and brains... and elicit all manner of feelings. They are science and they are sometimes art, and the methods of studying one or the other can be complementary.
Take one of my favorite David Bordwell posts ("Hands (and faces) across the table"), which has recently been revived (resurrected! It's alive!) through the eyes of science, thanks to DB's guest-blogger, Tim Smith ("Watching you watch 'There Will Be Blood'"), of Continuity Boy, the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck College, University of London, and The DIEM (Dynamic Images and Eye Movements) Project.
In 2008, DB wrote about the map scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," in which the camera remained fixed during a long take while the looks and gestures of the actors "directed" the viewer's gaze. He wrote:
Marie writes: I love cinematography and worship at its altar; a great shot akin to a picture worth a thousand words. The best filmmakers know how to marry words and images. And as the industry gears up for the Golden Globes and then the Oscars, and the publicity machine starts to roll in earnest, covering the Earth with a daily blanket of freshly pressed hype, I find myself reaching past it and backwards to those who set the bar, and showed us what can be accomplished and achieved with light and a camera...
Cinematography by Robert Krasker - The Third Man (1949) (click to enlarge images)
The Self-Styled Siren (aka Farran Smith Nehme) makes no apologies for her passion for pre-1960s movies. In a particularly lovely piece called "Intimacy at the Movies" she examines the mysterious forces behind her "old-movie habit." You see, the New York Film Festival was in October, and the Siren devoted herself to catching some of the big cinephiliac treasures of the fall, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cannes-winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," Raoul Ruiz's "Mysteries of Lisbon"... and she loved them, but...
Sometime around the two-week mark the withdrawal became too much and I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I was going to dig up a pre-1960 movie and watch it to the last frame. Maybe some followers thought I was being cute about how much I needed to do this. I was as serious as "All Quiet on the Western Front."
And I watched "Ivy" [Sam Wood, 1947; starring Joan Fontaine and Herbert Marshall]. And it was good. So good I started to wonder if this was simple addiction. It did feel uncomfortably like I was one of those people who went to sleep in Shreveport and woke up in Abilene. "Come on, Oscar nominee from 1934, let's you and me get drunk." But surely nobody ever wound up in rehab because they couldn't stop quoting Bette Davis movies. I can, in fact, stop anytime I like. Don't look at me like that. I have a Netflix copy of "Zodiac" right there on my dressing table, you just can't see it because it's under the eyeshadow palette. I've had it three weeks and haven't watched it yet, but I'm telling you I could watch it right now if I felt like it and if my daughter weren't already downstairs watching the 1940 "Blue Bird." I just don't want to. I'll watch "Zodiac" this weekend. Right now I need to keep watching old movies, I have too much else going on to quit something that isn't harming me anyway. Hey, did anybody else notice some benevolent soul has posted "Hold Back the Dawn" on Youtube?
The Grand Poobah's report from the Michigan woods: I'm still out here flashing back for my memoirs. We drove to nearby Sawyer to load up on groceries for one of my recipes for The Pot; we're having the neighbors in for dinner. It is impossible to visit Sawyer without my assistant, Carol Iwata, visiting the soda fountain at Schlipp's Pharmacy. Here she's just finished slurping up a chocolate milk shake made with chocolate ice cream. If you look hard you can see the pharmacist in the mirror.
(click to enlarge)
We tend to remember long takes that call attention to themselves as such: the opening shots of "Touch of Evil" or "The Player"; the entrance to the Copacabana in "GoodFellas"; all those shots in Romanian movies, and pictures directed by Bela Tarr and Jia Zhangke... And then there are the ones you barely notice because your eyes have been guided so effortlessly around the frame, or you've been given the freedom to explore it on your own, or you've simply gotten so involved in the rhythms of the scene, the interplay between the characters, that you didn't notice how long the shot had been going on.
For this compilation, "Deep Focus," I've chosen eight shots I treasure (the last two I regard as among the finest in all of cinema). They're not all strictly "deep focus" shots, but they do emphasize three-dimensionality in their compositions. I've presented them with only minimal identifications so you can simply watch them and see what happens without distraction or interruption. Instead, I've decided to write about them below. Feel free to watch the clips and then re-watch (freeze-frame, rewind, replay) the clips to see what you can see. To say they repay re-viewing is an understatement.
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975) is one of the great movies of the '70s. As a detective picture about a private eye with flawed vision -- in this case, a small-time independent dick and former football player named Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), who'd like to think he's Sam Spade -- it would make a great double bill with "Chinatown," released the previous year. Yesterday, when the news came of French director Eric Rohmer's death, a lot of people who apparently hadn't even seen "Night Moves" (or, perhaps, a Rohmer movie) were freely quoting Moseby's famous wisecrack in pieces about Rohmer without providing any context for it:
"I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry."
It wasn't long before it even became a Twitter meme: #nightmoves. (See examples below, after jump.)
What some (not all) of the quoters didn't seem to realize or remember is that Harry's remark, as scripted by Alan Sharp, is a brittle homophobic jab at a gay friend of his wife's. (Watch the clip above.) Ellen (Susan Clark) invites Harry to join her and Charles (Ben Archibek -- that's him at the end of the clip) for a movie: Eric Rohmer's classic "My Night at Maud's" (1970), about an engaged man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends a long, memorable night in conversation with a divorcee (Françoise Fabian). Moseby is asserting his macho credentials, and ends the scene by teasing Charles about going bowling again sometime. "You seem to get some weird kind of satisfaction from this sort of thing, don't you?" Charles replies. Later that night, Harry drives by the theater as the movie is letting out and sees something indicating that his wife may be having an affair.
Dirt! The Movie" for practical and personally rewarding solutions
Couric and Palin, on piano. This is an ear-opening way to hear spoken words. As notes.
I can think of so many movies in which the images play the orchestra (or band, depending on the kind of music the movie suggests) and the actors are the soloists. Dialog by Billy Wilder, or Preston Sturges, or the Coen Bros. often strikes me as fundamentally musical. But I didn't hear this one coming.
NEW! Version 1.1. Now with easier-to-read captions!
Everything I know about economics I learned from the movies. (Collected knowledge after the jump.) So when times get tough, I consult Preston Sturges. Here, I have condensed the financial wisdom of a lifetime into less than five minutes -- all of it distilled from 1937's "Easy Living," written by Sturges, directed by Mitchell Leisen, and starring Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Mary Nash, Franklin Pangborn, Luis Alberni and Andrew Tombes, among many others.
Sturges himself puts in an appearance to explain the key principle behind all successful investment strategies.
And in his movie, there's a happy ending.
Q. What do you think about the "red band" trailers, which are now used in theaters and on the Internet to advertise R-rated films?
View image Movement, music & lyrics: Fred Astaire with George & Ira Gershwin.
Over a wet, grey Seattle weekend, I immersed myself in Wilfred Sheed's delightful book about the architects of the American popular song, "The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty." (This is one of the big reasons I love Seattle: There's nothing better on such a day, when the leaves are just starting to pop yellow orange and red against those dark slate skies, than kicking back with such a book and the Sunday New York Times, and spending the day quietly and cozily soaking it all in.)
Sheed's memoir/survey is an idiosyncratic/anecdotal appreciation of the greats -- Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, Carmichael, Ellington, Kern, Porter, Rodgers, and others who are included in his canon only if, by his estimation, they have published more than fifty standards "by which I mean in this case more than fifty tunes that are still popular enough over fifty years later for most cocktail lounge pianists to have a rough idea of them, and for their copyrights still to be worth fighting for." Or, perhaps, if he happens to have met them.
To me, film is just music set to light. Yes, once "talkies" became the technological standard, the "lyrics" increased in importance, but the dialogue and the stories it help to tell were never so much about the words. They were about the music -- of motion and stasis, shadows and light, gestures and expressions....
Sheed describes his view of music and lyrics this way, and I see parallels to the relationship between movie and script: There's musical genius and then there's verbal genius. To match the explosion of melody [in the early 1920s] came a river of light verse that turned up everywhere, from the largest magazines to the smallest local papers, and it seeped into the most minor songs, guaranteeing some wonderfully literate and accomplished lyrics.
But -- and here some readers and I may split -- the tunes were still the big news. "Didn't they write great lyrics back then?" is a common question I've heard, to which I have two Yes, but... answers, one being Yes, but it's my impression that they still do. [...]
My second answer is Yes, they wrote some great lyrics but they also wrote some lousy ones. The standards didn't care. There have seldom been dumber words to anything than those of the young Ira Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" and "The Man I Love," while the Ellington-Strayhorn gem "Take the 'A' Train" barely has a lyric, only an address you wish would change from time to time.
On the other hand, there has never been a standard without a great tune -- not even a great funny standard. Surf the Cole Porter songbook and you will undoubtedly find some great comic poems still waiting for the right tune to drive them off and make them rich and famous. But although Cole could have dashed off another two hundred choruses of "You're the Top," he couldn't have written a second tune to save his life. And without those magic tunes, his light verse was as unsalable as most poetry.
This doesn't mean the right lyric can't make all the difference. A lyricist is a musician too, one who arranges tunes for the human voice so that you can "hear" them for the first time. But once the lyrics have done that, and made you laugh or cry two or three times at most, they fade in importance. Again and again, people will request a favorite song while knowing only its tune. I don't think anyone would dispute that it's possible to make a good movie from a pretty bad script, or that it's possible to make a lousy movie from a really good script -- but a good script greatly improves one's chances of making a good movie. It's just as hard to make a bad movie as it is to make a good one, yet the odds decisively favor the former over the latter.
Are some movies terrific primarily because of the script? Probably. Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder come to mind. But the script wouldn't work unless it had been acted and directed well. I've heard recorded arrangements of "Night and Day" that made me cringe. Likewise, I've seen actors and directors (and editors and composers) butcher a scene or a sequence that could have been great if they knew how to play it. (Remember, however, that if a scene doesn't work, it's probably least likely to be the actor's fault. Choosing the wrong takes and/or assembling them poorly can make the greatest actor in the world look like a grade school thespian.)
Quotable dialog -- epigrams, witticisms, punchlines -- can be fun, but they don't make a good movie any more than they make a good song. "Here's looking at you, kid" is an immortal line, but it could have been a howler. You wouldn't remember it without the music of Bogart's voice and the look in his eyes. I will never quite understand how "You can't handle the truth!" entered the public domain (however briefly it may remain there) because, although Nicholson sells the hell out of it in "A Few Good Men," it's not a particularly memorable moment. Although both these lines are often used jokingly, acknowledged as clichés when used in casual conversation, one affectionately acknowledges a classic while the other includes an element of sarcasm or satire of the movie itself (almost like "No wire hangers!").
When the words and music seem inseparable, as if one could not exist without the other, that makes for greatness. And in song, and in film, it's a matter of composition -- but also performance and orchestration, whether it's Sinatra singing "So make it one for my baby/And one more for the road," or Walsh (Joe Mantell) intoning those famous last words, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."
"You're certainly a funny girl for anybody to meet who's just been up the Amazon for a year."
If you are in Chicago the next few weeks, and you feel like taking in a weekend matinee, then you are fortunate indeed because the Music Box Theatre is presenting a centennial celebration of the toughest, sexiest, smartest, snappiest dame ever to sashay across a cinema screen. By that, of course, I mean none other than Sugarpuss O'Shea, Phyllis Dietrichson, Lily Powers, Lora Hart, Stella Dallas, Jean Harrington, Jessica Drummond, Leona Stevenson, Sierra Nevada Jones, Martha Ivers, Thelma Jordan, Norma Miller Vale, Mae Doyle D'Amato... in other words, Barbara Stanwyck.
View image Sugarpuss presents the ball of her foot in "Ball of Fire."
Stanwyck is my favorite movie actress. Ever. I built a virtual shrine to her in 1998 (complete with a gallery of rare images and Babs' Foot Fetish Page), in which I wrote: Stanwyck could make you believe she was part of the everyday world we all live in, not just a fantasy on the silver screen. She could easily be the woman down the aisle in the supermarket, driving that car in the next lane, or working in the office down the hall. While other stars went for the "larger than life" roles, Stanwyck -- as an all-American working girl or a cunning seductress -- generally kept her feet planted firmly on the ground. In fact, she enters "Double Indemnity" feet-first, sauntering down the staircase wearing an anklet that snags Walter Neff (MacMurray) by the libido. (The anklet may be the hook, but she's the bait.) Stanwyck used that foot to lure Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda, among others. It's a peculiar erotic pattern in her work (see Babs' Foot Fetish Page for more details and images), but men who stooped to take her foot in hand found themselves on their knees before a passionate woman, not an unapproachable goddess -- and they fell, instantly and irrevocably, under her spell. (Fonda almost faints when she gets him to slip a pump over her tootsies!)
View image Will this plan provide full coverage?
In both "The Lady Eve" and "Ball of Fire" -- two of her most dazzling and endearing comic performances, from the same year! -- Stanwyck acts as a leveling life-force, puncturing all pretensions and knocking her co-stars' bumbling intellectual noggins out of the hazy cerebral clouds. What she achieves is not unlike what a much ditzier, flakier, upper-crust screwball heroine, Katharine Hepburn, does for/to bespectacled paleontologist Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby." But Stanwyck brings salvation from the streets rather than the penthouse. Jean Arthur in "Easy Living" (1937) -- written by Sturges -- is a delightful working gal, but Stanwyck is far more streetwise. Tough, strong, and smart, but no less feminine than some of her screwball sisters, she has learned to survive in a cut-throat world, living by her wits. She's at her best when she's in control, and she usually is. In many of her most famous movies the unspoken truth of any given scene is that she knows exactly what she's doing -- until, perhaps, her emotions sneak up on her and overthrow her instincts, by unexpectedly allowing her to fall head-over-heels for her (relatively) naive and helpless male prey.
Stanwyck slices right through class conventions and social formalities, immediately addressing Gary Cooper's Professor Bertram Potts by the more casual nickname of "Potsy." Likewise, Fonda's Charles Pike, heir to the Pike's Ale fortune, becomes "Hopsie" (after a key ingredient in the family brew). The very notion of someone with such a direct, spontaneous, and unrefined disposition masquerading as a blueblood is, as Preston Sturges realized, a terrific premise for comedy.
There is none so blind as he who will not see. It's true. Ray Stevens sang it in the hit single "Everything is Beautiful (In Its Own Way)." I have no idea why I just mentioned that.
MSN Movies has published its main movie contributors' lists of the year's best films (and, yeah, we cheated freely -- our lists don't all contain ten titles). Here you'll find lists from me and (in alphabetical order) some other names you may recognize: Sean Axmaker, Gregory Ellwood, David Fear, Richard T. Jameson, MSN Movies chieftan Dave McCoy, Kim Morgan and Kathleen Murphy. As is my custom, I don't make what I see as artificial and qualitatively meaningless distinctions between categories (documentary, "foreign language") because, the way I see it, a feature film is a feature film, and a doc or a movie from somewhere else in the world is every bit as much a product of conscious and unconscious artistic decision-making, skill, planning, determination and luck as any other kind of picture with a running time of around an hour or more. (That, arguably, is a meaningless distinction, too. Heck, "Simon of the Desert" and "Wavelength" are only 45 minutes long, "Sherlock, Jr." is 44, " and "Un Chien Andalou" is only sweet 16!)
I'm cooking up a different sort of list I want to do for Scanners and RogerEbert.com, but if you want to see my faves (as of my deadline last week -- and nothing I've seen since then would change my rankings), use the link above and/or check after the jump. Please see my post about listmaking in general, below... and please, as always, feel free to post your own lists and responses in the comments section!
Here is Borat ridiculing people who are not in on the joke so that you can feel socially superior, according to Christopher Hitchens and David Brooks.
British crank Christopher Hitchens has been writing about Borat's Kazakhstan for years, only he calls it "Iraq." Still, it's an imaginary place in Hitchens' brain, like Kazakhstan in Borat's or Nicole Kidman in David Thomson's.
I do not read Hitchens much at all anymore because he's stuck in 2002 and can't get out. But Hitchens has a perspective on "Borat" that's worth mentioning. First, he quotes a dim-witted passage from a review in "London's leftist weekly," the New Statesman, in which the writer professes that "it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople."
To which Hitchens replies: Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of s__t upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances....
Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for p___y magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won't sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is "compliance"? I have to say, I didn't like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. I'll stop there for now. Hitchens' point is that "Borat" is something of a comedy of manners, and that what many are seeing as "shocking compliance" is simply politeness and an aversion to confrontation (particularly when there's a camera staring at you). On this isolated point, I think Hitchens is generally correct and the heinous, America-hating leftist is generally wrong. But I wonder if Hitchens (or the other guy) can see that one accurate observation does not make all others invalid. Hitchens' mistake -- a fallacy he indulges endlessly in his writing -- is in thinking the one thing he deigns to mention is all that's going on.
The cast of the Oscar-favorite film, "Home for Purim."
"For Your Consideration" -- Christopher Guest is blessed with the finest comedic stock company since the heyday of Preston Sturges. Guest, Catherine O'Hara (Goddess of Funny), Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Hitchcock, Paul Dooley, Jim Piddock, Larry Miller... I get a thrill just seeing them share screen space in various combinations (and this time they've added Ricky Gervais and Sandra Oh to the mix). Every few years when they get together (the last time they were together was "A Mighty Wind" in 2003), it's like seeing old friends for whom you will always harbor a deep and abiding affection. Here's hoping they keep reuniting for many movies to come.
In "FYC," the subject isn't so much the movie industry (Guest already made the best American dissection of the contemporary film business back in 1989 with "The Big Picture") as the awards and publicity industry. We join a film in production -- a kind of kosher Tennessee Williams melodrama about a Jewish family in the South during the war, called "Home for Purim." Somebody on the web (or the "World Wide Internet" as the typically clueless HollyLuddites call it) claims the lead actress (played by O'Hara), an '80s sitcom star who's been virtually forgotten by the public and the industry, may be giving an "Oscar-worthy" performance, and a rumor is born that (as in "The Big Picture") takes on a life of its own.
EXCERPT FROM INTRO: This isn't like Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series. It's not my idea of The Best Movies Ever Made (that would be a different list, though there's some overlap here), or limited to my personal favorites or my estimation of the most important or influential films. These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat "movie-literate." I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share.