So far, Charles has evaded the sort of critical scrutiny that other directors receive as a matter of course -- he is, to borrow the title of one of his films, masked and anonymous. Virtually every major project he has been associated with has another figure attached to it who's more easily identified as its author: Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, even Bob Dylan. (I'm not sure how Masked & Anonymous fits into Charles' oeuvre, but it might be worth noting that Dylan, like Cohen, is Jewish -- and that the film includes a scene where he sings "Dixie.")
I enjoyed Borat, but I thought it was a victim of its hype: So many people claimed it exposed the bigotry allegedly beating beneath the skin of Middle America that its near-complete failure to deliver on those terms was bound to hurt it. If this were simply a matter of clueless critics writing nonsense, I wouldn't hold it against the film, but Cohen and his colleagues are guilty, at the very least, of misdirection. Why else make a point of setting the dinner-party scene on Secession Drive, or the shop-wrecking scene in a store that carries Confederate memorabilia, if not to hint that you're revealing some terrible truth about Red America?
That said, there's a lot more to this movie than what Philip Weiss calls "Red-State blackface." In a much-quoted essay for Slate, Christopher Hitchens pointed out that "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," failing repeatedly to rise to Cohen's bait. For Hitchens, this was a sign that "the joke...may well be on the prankster." But who's to say that wasn't the joke? Maybe Borat isn't a particularly political film after all. Maybe it's the world's crudest comedy of manners.
Maybe, in other words, it's a typical Larry Charles production. Charles cut his teeth writing for Seinfeld and directing Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV shows that find most of their humor in the absurdities of everyday social conventions. Curb, in particular, feels like an inverted Borat. Both are semi-improvised comedies about the adventures of a socially awkward jackass. It's just that in Curb, the jackass is laid back, cynical, easily embarrassed, and intently aware of the informal social rules that surround him. In Borat, the jackass is frenetic, naive, impossible to embarrass, and completely oblivious to every social more.
Borat is a movie in which a man at a formal dinner can hand his hostess a bag of feces and be greeted, not with a knee to the groin, but with a friendly lesson on the use of indoor plumbing. I could imagine the same thing happening on Curb Your Enthusiasm, except that there it would be Larry David who has to give the lesson -- and who then spends half an hour trying to arrange a set of circumstances that would let him give someone a sack of shit.
The full results, including my own votes and comments, are posted on the Cinematheque site. It occurs to me now that my excuse for leaving out Luis Bunuel -- that I was "discriminating against narrative films" -- might sound odd, given that Bunuel co-directed the clearly non-narrative Un chien andalou, which finished second in the poll. So I'll clarify here that, while I like that movie, it wasn't one of the Bunuel films that I was tempted to vote for.
ROBERT ALTMAN, RIP: The great filmmaker Robert Altman has died at age 81. I'd like to make some really counterintuitive claim about his legacy -- say, that he never matched the promise of his early industrial shorts, or that Popeye was the peak of his career -- but I'm on vacation so I'll cut the crap and make this brief. I can't praise too highly a body of work that includes That Cold Day in the Park, MASH (much better than the TV series), McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images (that rare film that actually managed to scare me as I watched it), The Long Goodbye (has there ever been a counterintuitive casting decision as brilliant as having Elliot Gould play Philip Marlowe?), Thieves Like Us (extra points for ending a bank-robbing movie with a Charles Coughlin broadcast), California Split (horrible fate averted: they almost gave that one to Spielberg), Nashville (how did he manage to capture the Perot campaign in a picture made in 1975?), 3 Women, Secret Honor, The Player, Short Cuts (my favorite of the bunch), and Gosford Park -- not to mention many lesser but still admirable movies (like, say, A Wedding) and, yes, the occasional piece of complete garbage (like, say, Beyond Therapy). Plus some above-average episodes of Bonanza and a season or so of Combat!
He was a Europhile -- he once famously threatened to move to France if George W. Bush was reelected -- but he was also, in his surreal '70s way, one of the most deeply American directors of the twentieth century, a man whose vision of this country was as rich and resonant as John Ford's or Frank Capra's. His sensibility was simultaneously cynical, merry, and grim, and his best movies deserve multiple viewings. May he rest in peace.
By the late 1940s social guidance filmmakers were in a quandary. The world they had created in their films was brimming with positive role models and happy endings, but real life was not so clean and simple. In dark alleys and less-desirable neighborhoods there existed a world of unspoken unpleasantness: substance abusers, sexual perverts, juvenile delinquents. Good kids had to be warned of the dangers; bad kids had to be shown the consequences of bad behavior.
Social guidance filmmakers wouldn't make films about such things. As social engineers they believed that kids would imitate what they were shown, hence films should show only uplifting images. As profit-minded businesspeople they feared that films about disagreeable subjects would upset prudish educators, hurting sales for the rest of their product line. It would fall to someone else, an outsider, to get to the grim task of making mental hygiene films about the nasty side of life.
That someone was Sid Davis.
Davis, who just died at age 90, got his start as a Hollywood extra; from 1941 to 1952, he was John Wayne's stand-in, and it was Wayne who lent him the money to start his own production company. His movies painted a nightmarish world of constant danger -- if your kid managed to escape the gay predators who might lurk in any playground or public restroom, they could still be killed in a car wreck or be led ineluctably from pot ("that's jive talk for marijuana") to heroin. Almost anything could be a threat: The key line in his L.A. Timesobit is its description of his 1951 film Live and Learn, in which a girl "cuts out paper dolls before she jumps up, trips and impales herself on scissors."
Davis occupies a gray area in mid-twentieth-century America. On the one hand, he was an independent filmmaker with his own vision, shooting ultra-low-budget pictures with few constraints. As Smith wrote, "Society's discomfort with Davis's dark world gave him the freedom to do pretty much what he wanted. No committee of educational advisors oversaw his work, no peer group condemned his excesses." But it was educators who bought his movies, and it was schoolchildren who watched them; his films were frequently narrated by government officials or other authority figures, and they weren't averse to speaking the psychiatric language of the time. Davis might not have been a part of the social-engineering community, but he certainly was part of the social-engineering complex. There's a complicated relationship between the supposedly scientific interventions of credentialed experts and the more nakedly paranoid world of grassroots moral panics. Sid Davis was a bridge from one to the other.
And the movies themselves? You can find a handful of them on YouTube and the Internet Archive. In Smith's words, Davis had "a trancelike style, stripped of anything even remotely approaching drama or human emotion," while his images offered "the visual dynamism of a pancake." That might be the real secret to his success: He managed to make delinquency look boring.
IF WISHES WERE HORSES THEN LIBERTARIANS WOULD VOTE: From Fox, here's yet another story on whether libertarian-leaning swing voters will decide today's election. I'm not going to count my chickens before they're fried -- and it's far from clear that all those voters are libertarians in even a loosely meaningful sense of the word -- but if the result of all this chatter is to send the next wave of candidates chasing our support rather than the Nascar Stepmoms or the Security Soccerballs or whoever, I suppose it's all to the good.
I don't have strong opinions about the races in my own backyard, but I'm watching several other states with interest. On the Blue side of the ledger, I'm cheering for Jim Webb and Jon Tester, who are better than the average Democrat, over George Allen and Conrad Burns, who are worse than the average Republican. (Give Burns points for honesty: Back in 2000, as the NAB's congressional lackies lined up against a plan to legalize low-power radio, he offered the most straightforward argument against the new stations: "I've had all the diversity I can stand.") I'm also cheering for Bob Casey, Jr., who is not better than the average Democrat, over Rick Santorum, who symbolizes one of the worst sorts of Republican. And I'm cheering for Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman, who used to symbolize one of the worst sorts of Democrat but now has split to form his own Connecticut For Lieberman party. Much as I despise Lieberman, there's a side of me that doesn't mind that he's likely to win, partly because I'm pleased whenever independents are elected and partly because I hope the newspapers will refer to him as Sen. Lieberman (CFL-Conn.).
On the Red side of the ledger, I'm hoping the handful of Republicans who have a genuine interest in limiting government power come out ahead. That mostly means Reps. Ron Paul and Jeff Flake, who are expected to be reelected easily today; if Butch Otter becomes the next governor of Idaho, that'll be fine with me too.
Outside the Red-Blue ledger altogether, there's Kinky Friedman. I doubt he'll be elected governor of Texas, but if he can poll a strong second I'll call it a moral victory.
Mostly I'm hoping for divided government. A Republican president with a Democratic Congress isn't as appealing a scenario as a Democratic president with a Republican Congress: Better to have Clinton and Gingrich at each other's throats than to see Bush Sr. and Tom Foley ratifying each other's worst ideas. But as our one-party government mows down our liberties and lurches toward a war with Iran, even a barely effective roadblock is better than nothing at all.
I just moved from Baltimore City to Baltimore County, and have not yet bothered to change my registration. Even if I had, though, I'm not familiar enough with my new neighborhood to have opinions in the local races, and local races are usually the only ones worth voting in.
I have a slight preference for the incumbent governor, the Kempish Republican Bob Ehrlich, over his challenger, a Clinton manque named Martin O'Malley, but I can't bring myself to vote for him -- I don't want to reward his cronyism, or his war on journalists willing to investigate the underside of his administration. Neither major candidate for the Senate impresses me much; if I voted, I suppose it would be for Kevin Zeese, an antiwar activist running on a Green-Libertarian-Populist fusion ticket.
I could have extended the Ehrlich-bashing for paragraphs, but the sad thing is that O'Malley really is worse. One good thing I'll say about Ehrlich: He's relatively sane on the drug issue, which is rare in Republicans and in politicians in general.
In other news, my Timothy Leary article is now online. And December's print edition of Reason just came out; it includes an interview Nick Gillespie and I did with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as well as a short piece I wrote about the Maine National Guard's infamous Flat Daddy/Flat Mommy program. It isn't on the Web yet, so get thee to a newsstand.