(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)
Mutual Appreciation mostly justifies the excitement about Andrew Bujalski, an emerging ultra-low-budget wonder director. It’s an extremely modest examination of young people just trying to put it all together, shot in black and white, with an awesome grasp of tone and dialogue and an attitude that’s both quirky and meticulous. The comparisons to John Cassavetes don’t make much sense except superficially, but Bujalski is plainly his own man, and suggests an ability to carve out his own, very major thematic territory.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, arrived on a wave of hype bolstered by surprisingly strong critical enthusiasm. I just don’t get it. As you know, the movie follows a fake documentary format, built around dumbass Kazakhstan TV reporter Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) working his way through some of America’s crasser by ways, and has enough carefree insults and smears to offend anyone. Cohen’s work here is certainly rigorous and sustained, although I have to admit the character seems to me largely opportunistic, with his intelligence level varying from scene to scene depending on what suits the demands of the particular set-up (whatever the limitations of the fictionalized Kazakhstan, it’s just not plausible, for instance, that Borat doesn’t even know how a toilet works), and those set-ups, with real life people brushing against the incomprehensible interloper, generally aren’t qualitatively different in their basic impact from the gotcha outside broadcasts on late night talk shows.
As for the Jewish Cohen’s approach to anti-Semitism and racism, a character that firmly believes Jews can transform themselves into rats isn’t much of a prism for exploring the real nature of those phenomena. The movie is often funny of course, but the craft is mired at such a basic level that you quickly get tired of looking at it, and (for me anyway) the most spontaneous laughs come from such devices as mistaking a “retired” person for a “retard,” which doesn’t leave you with much to mull over afterwards. True, the portrayal of American idiocies (such as an evangelical get-together where Cohen’s parody of participation is largely indistinguishable from sincere immersion in it) is often intriguing, but if you’ve been paying attention, you knew the truth about all that years ago.
I think the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing also suffers from a lack of true revelation. The three-woman ensemble got into trouble in London in 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines spontaneously announced to a cheering crowd that they were ashamed of George W. Bush’s Texas roots. Once this filtered back home, they found themselves dumped from country radio play lists, subject to demonstrations and public CD burning and at least one death threat. We know all this already, and the movie isn’t interested in exploring the sizeable subculture (confined to news footage) that spawned this irrational reaction. It focuses instead on how the Chicks regrouped their career, recorded a new album (which went to Number One regardless) and galvanized their image in other ways; they don’t seem insincere when they say the controversy was ultimately the best thing that could have happened to them. Along with not very interesting family footage, it’s all somewhat reminiscent of the approach taken for Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, but is much more reserved and bland. I did like the music more than I expected to though.
Babel is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s showstopping new film, very much in the style of his previous Amores Perros and 21 Grams. “If you want to be understood,” says the tagline, “listen,” and the film weaves together four fraught situations, all marked, as someone once put it, by a failure to communicate. The movie’s commercial credentials stand on the segment with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, as a troubled couple whose coach tour through Morocco descends into hell when she’s shot by a stray bullet. Other segments follow their children, whose nanny whisks them on an illicit (and of course ill-fated – there’s barely any other kind of fate in Inarritu’s films) trip to Mexico; the poor Moroccan family responsible for the accident; and a deaf Japanese girl going through her own personal hell (whose link to the other three stories is quite a bit more tenuous). The film is completely enthralling, a marvellously orchestrated, thrillingly bleak, spatial and temporal and emotional whirl; in 21 Grams the fractured chronology sometimes had a more than arbitrary air, but Babel is much more assured.
But it ultimately has the same problem: I’m not sure what one can take away from it. I wasn’t as bothered as some critics by the excesses in the plotting – the film is about people placed out at the edge, where rationality breaks down – but the worldview that emerges from all this is merely trite. Put simply, global dysfunction isn’t merely a function of not listening, or not communicating – poverty and ecological breakdown and religious fanaticism are about much more than that. The film’s protagonists, caught in a cosmic daisy chain of cause and effect, can’t stand at all for any broader worldwide reality. I do note that it turns out much better, relatively, for the affluent American and Japanese characters than for the others, so Babel is at least realistic about where the odds lie in such dice games, but we all knew that already. Hardly anyone can match Inarritu for getting to the guts of individual scenes, and he cracks the whip as if the UN were his personal stock company, but in the end you’re just gawking at a collection of blindly dancing fools.
Stranger Than Fiction
Stranger Than Fiction, directed by Marc Forster, has Will Ferrell as a recessive IRS agent, with a life so unchanging he might as well be in Groundhog Day, whose celestial wires somehow get crossed with neurotic author Emma Thompson: his life is being governed by what she types into the manuscript of her new novel, and if she sticks with the game plan of killing off her main character, then Ferrell will be snuffed out too. This unusual contemporary dilemma has the effect of charging his batteries, allowing him to move in on desirable baker Maggie Gyllenhaal, under the tutelage of eccentric literature professor Dustin Hoffman. It’s a wondrous cast, and succeeds in adding a fair bit of resonance to a strangely (but not unappealingly) stark, almost clinical film. The movie is pretty straight-faced about the premise, mostly choosing to proceed deadpan with its implications, which lead to a showdown between the demands of life vs. art (as I sometimes like to say, place your bets now for which comes out on top). To really make an impact, Forster would probably have had to have cranked up the intellectual temperature quite a bit (Thompson’s novel, for instance, sounds mostly fussy and superficial, and couldn’t possibly attract the praise lauded on it by the supposedly discerning Hoffman), and Ferrell’s blank centre, although not unappealing, is nowhere near as effective as an actual actor might have been. Still, as such gimmicky creations go, this isn’t at all bad.