The Movie Club

The Morality of Borat
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 2 2007 4:23 PM

The Movie Club

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear Dana, Carina, and Wesley,

Hi, everyone, and thanks for having me. I'll confess to being a bit intimidated as well, having read this feature for years and watched as some of my favorite critics partook. I'm not sure how I ended up here, but I'm happy for the chance to hash out 2006 with all of you. As for reprising it in person: The week's young, I'm in the centrally located city of Chicago, and I'm still swimming in booze left over from our annual New Year's party. How about a wrap party at my place on Thursday night? (Oh wait, I'm supposed to go to a screening of Smokin' Aces that night. Some other time, then.)

Advertisement

For the sake of convenience, here's another link to my top-10 list, although, after agonizing over placement and exclusions for quite a while, I'm much more eager to dig in to some of the topics Dana raised. Regarding Borat, I was happy to see it turn up on some year-end lists, but it didn't make mine for some of the same reasons Dana suggested and for the simple fact that it's just too shaggy a piece of filmmaking to make my cut. That said, it made me laugh harder than anything I'd seen in a long time, even if it didn't make me think all that hard. Maybe it's just that I was familiar with Borat from Da Ali GShow,so it lacked the shock of the new, but I was a little baffled by the outrage and lawsuits that greeted it in some quarters. As for the latter, if there's one thing this Girls Gone Wild/YouTube/Saddam-execution-captured-on-camera-phone moment has proven, it's that there's always a camera on and nothing ever goes away. And for the former, while I'm not sure if Cohen set out to probe the dark heart of America anyway, I'm more inclined to agree with my Arkansas-based colleague Noel Murray's comment that it mostly proves "southerners are unfailingly polite, and will put up with a lot more boorishness than they should, even if it makes them look guilty by association." (The Yankee liberal in me did get a little giddy when Borat/Cohen trashed the antique store selling all the if-the-South-would-have-won-we-would-have-had-it-made merchandise, however.)

As to war films, I think part of what made Letters From Iwo Jima so powerful (and, with a bit of finessing and some smart trims, would have made Flags of Our Fathers just as powerful) was its attempts to skirt the formula Dana described. With Letters, it's clear from the start that there's no chance of a victory, Pyrrhic or otherwise, so we're left watching how these men deal with their final days knowing the end is near and everything they've fought for will come to nothing. The flashbacks to life-before-wartime are as sparing as they are heartbreaking. But I think there's some value to the formula itself, if only because war movies bear a cautionary responsibility that other genres don't. Not to get too off the topic of 2006, but part of what made Troy such a disgusting venture a couple of years ago was the way it shirked its responsibility at a time when the question of what it means to commit to war couldn't be any more vital. Here's the first war story, the story of a decade-long, civilization-destroying battle, and it's treated as an extended spring break from which a couple of unlucky youngsters don't make it back. Seeing Giovanni Ribisi's guts may not stop any wars, but I'll take every acknowledgment of war's cost I can get these days.

Wow. Now I wish we were still talking about Borat. So in order not to get too heavy, let me briefly say that United 93 tangled me up more than any film I can think of in recent years. I came in with great skepticism, then wrote a review that cautiously endorsed it. But at the end of the year, few films had stuck with me more and it made my 10-best list. I think seeing Oliver Stone's World Trade Center made the difference. It's as conventional and flag-waving a film as could possibly have been made about that day. In fact, with a few tweaks, it could have just been an inspirational movie about men trapped in a mineshaft as a film about 9/11.

Maybe it was just that, at the end of the year, so much left me unmoved that the stuff that made an impact looked even better. I saw a pattern of settling into acceptable mediocrity in 2006, and it worries me. Dana, I was thrilled that you dubbed Children Of Men the movie of the millennium. I'm not quite sure why others weren't as bold in their praise for a film that technically, dramatically, and thematically risked so much and made those risks pay off. So much else out there—whether art house- or multiplex-bound—simply got the job done and called it a day without taking any real chances. Babelfrustrated because I kept wanting the Tokyo-set Rinko Kikuchi/Kôji Yakusho segment to spin off into its own movie. It was genuinely about the ostensible theme of communication breakdown, where the rest of the film was just about people in need of a phrase book. Little Miss Sunshine had performances too good for the quirk-bound material. I'm an unreconstructed comic-book geek with a whole shelf of books reprinting Superman comics and expected either to love or hate Superman Returns instead of thinking it just OK. I vaguely remember spending two hours watching something called Dreamgirls last week. That's the one with all the singing in it, right? I'll take loony, heartfelt efforts like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain or Michel Gondry's The Science Of Sleep (which, admittedly, turns into a minor form of torture by its final scene) over yet another plunge into the dark heart of suburbia like Little Children any day.

Wesley, am I wrong, or was much of the year a battle between greatness and complacency?

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.