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by Bill Gibron

22 Nov 2006


In photos, he often appears as the wistful old uncle who shows up at reunions to regale the family with stories of wars he may never have fought in and meetings with people more imaginary than real. But that was the beauty of Robert Altman. He could be whimsical and mischievous one moment, dour and dark the next. At age 81, he remained one of cinema’s most accomplished artists, giving real credence to the use of the term auteur to define his filmmaking acumen. The past year had seen a resurgence in audience and industry interest. He took home an honorary Oscar (his one and amazingly ONLY Academy trophy) and saw his big screen adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion meet with an unusually warm reception. Unfortunately, here’s where the story must end. While in pre-production for a feature he was planning for a February 2007 start, Altman succumbed to an 18 month bout with cancer, and died.

His passing on 20 November is shocking for how sudden it seemed, but it really wasn’t unexpected. Altman surprised audiences during his acceptance speech at the 2006 ceremony by disclosing that, for the last ten years, he had been living with another human’s heart. In frail health during the ‘90s, the director had received a total transplant. The most amazing thing about the circumstance was not the surgery, but the fact that in a gossip hungry town like Hollywood, he managed to keep it a complete secret. Certainly there were rumors and rumblings – he was considered uninsurable for Prairie‘s shoot, and had to stipulate to having another director on set with him at all times. Luckily, he ended up with Altman aspirant Paul Thomas Anderson, responsible for similar styled efforts of his own like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

In truth, the lack of limelight over Altman’s physical well being says something significant and extraordinary about the man as it illustrates the main issue with his entire career – when he was hot, audience and media interest was also. When his artistic indulgences turned off ticket buyers, this formidable American genius was all but ignored. It’s been that way ever since he started out in the business. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925, the young Altman was Catholic school educated and Air Force trained. Hoping to combine his love of film with his fascination with sound, he headed off to Hollywood to seek his big break. There, he tried almost every facet of the industry before becoming disillusioned with his lack of success. Heading back to his hometown, he found acceptance in a local production company in charge of industrial and training films. It was here where Altman began to find, and fashion, his muse.

Thanks to the chance offer to direct a juvenile delinquency quickie (1957’s The Delinquents) Altman was again back in the movie business. This lead to work in the fledgling medium of television, and it was here where he really thrived. Over the next decade, he would contribute to almost every small screen genre imaginable, from live performances to war and western dramas. He was instrumental in steering the WWII-themed Combat through its initial phases, and guided audience favorite Bonanza through a few of its earliest paces.  But it wasn’t until 1968 and the space race saga Countdown, that Altman regained his filmmaker footing. In combination with the thriller That Cold Day in the Park, it gave the director enough of a profile to position him as a candidate for another military-based movie being considered by 20th Century Fox.

The making of M*A*S*H* has its own epic anecdotal history, a story worthy of, perhaps, an Altman-esque Hollywood satire? Originally positioned as the lesser of two combat comedies coming out that year (Mike Nichols 1970 version of Catch-22 was viewed as the preemptive favorite) Altman took his production under Fox’s fidgety radar, using the studios obsession over their own Patton and Tora!, Tora!, Tora! as cover for what he was creating. This didn’t mean the more avant-garde elements of his approach avoided scrutiny. Everyone, from Ring Lardner Jr. who penned the screenplay (most of which was discarded), to stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, questioned Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue, extensive improvisation and the unorthodox conceptual ideas. Though it was set in Korea, Altman had purposefully removed all references to the locale, making his link to the then divisive war in Vietnam that much more potent. The studio, of course, insisted on a title card to clear up the confusion.

It wouldn’t be the last time an executive interfered with Altman’s ideas. But at first, such meddling didn’t matter. The amazing success of M*A*S*H* allowed the filmmaker the freedom to make whatever movie he wanted, and the follow-up remains one of his most unusual – and controversial choices ever. One of those typical ‘70s headtrips involving a boy who wants to be a bird and fly around his home – which just so happens to be the Houston Superdome – Brewster McCloud exposed the capricious side of Altman’s aesthetic, a foundational need for his own flights of fancy. It was an ideal that would come to clarify, and occasionally mar, the rest of his cinematic output. Tossing out reams of dialogue, keeping only the barest bones of Doran William Cannon’s original script, Altman also began another peculiarity that came to define his overall career and creativity. Resolved to make only the movies he wanted without exception, it was this maverick’s mannerism that would guide him for the next three decades.

MGM hated Brewster, and buried it with little fanfare. Frustrated, Altman next revisited the Western, giving the genre a meticulously reproduced period naturalism that the John Wayne-worn category had never possessed before. The result, the masterful McCabe and Mrs. Miller, saw the director battle with lead actor Warren Beatty throughout the production, a stand off that threatened to undermine everything. Of course, when the film failed to catch on with audiences, the superstar’s stance was indirectly vindicated, and led to a further distancing between Altman and the industry. Follow-ups, including the psychological thriller Images, the gambling drama California Split, and the exceptional noir revamp of The Long Goodbye were critical triumphs. But without the benefit of companion box office receipts, Altman started looking like a one hit wonder.

All that changed – albeit briefly – with Nashville. An epic dissection of middling America locked within the complementary – and complicit – worlds of show business and politics, Altman formulated the film around his own interest in country music. Featuring a storyline that suggested the general malaise and unease in the nation, along with a collection of cast-created songs, he forged an entirely new style of filmmaking. Using multiple stories that at times seemed completely unrelated to each other, the director found himself free to indulge in all manner of subplots, personalities and eccentricities. What started out as a meditation on performance and public accolade turned into a dense, in-depth look at the disintegration of the American dream. Praised for its innovations and insight, Nashville went on to win Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. But just like M*A*S*H* before, Altman’s inability to deal with the people in power may have cost him the award. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dominated the Academy that year.

Again, popularity allowed Altman to do whatever he wanted. His response this time was a tone poem about the power of femininity drawn from one of this own dreams. Also touching on personality processing and the need for self-discovery, 3 Women arrived with little fanfare, and instantly became lost within an ill-prepared and indifferent populace. It is safe to say that, of his ‘70s period films, 3 Women is Altman’s best. Powerful without being intense, mysterious without being confusing, this seemingly simplistic story about a pair of spa workers on the outskirts of the California desert actually hid a multi-layered look at how we perceive ourselves. Featuring fabulous performances from Sissy Spacek and Altman discovery Shelley Duvall, the movie met with more myopic disinterest. It would be three more years before Altman’s name became associated with the mainstream again. And in typical style, it was mostly for bad, not good.

Altman had taken on the task of bringing E.C Segar’s comic strip sailor Popeye to the silver screen, mostly as a chance to experiment with something he called “fanciful realism”. His idea was easy enough to understand – take reality and tweak it just enough so that it suggests, not mimics, the world of animation. He built his own village on the Mediterranean island of Malta, approached Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks about providing the studio-mandated musical numbers, and then went out and hired non-singers like Duvall and star Robin Williams to fill the lead roles. Rumors of natural disasters and cast infighting found their way into the then fledgling tabloid media machine, and Altman felt the press was preparing to doom the project before it was eventually released. So far ahead of its time that today’s comic book movies still only scratch the surface of the conventions Altman created, Popeye was popular, but it wasn’t the mega-smash high concept entertainment Disney was looking for, and even though it made money, the entire project was viewed as an albatross sized failure.

By this point, Altman was fed up. He hated functioning within a dynamic that suggested art was only as valuable as the money it could make, and he distrusted almost everything about a business that bolstered you one moment, only to tear you down the next. Like all mythological heroes, he set off to wander the wilderness of his own insular aesthetic. When he got the chance, he directed for the stage, even filming some of his efforts as a sort of a reminder and record of his work. A few of these experiments – Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, Fool for Love - kept him just on the edges of fame. There really was no need, however. With his past constantly revisited and remembered, Altman was never completely gone. But a great many of his contributions were definitely being forgotten.

The Player changed it all - again. Michael Tolkin’s exposé of Tinsel Town’s cutthroat creative corruption was a red hot property when it came out in book form, and Altman appeared an odd choice for the project. Granted, his anti-studio stance was well documented, but the director had also found his greatest personal triumph while working within the confines of industry. Thanks to a stellar cast and a sharp, satiric script, Altman had at least a partial last laugh. There were more Oscar nods (though no wins) numerous accolades and awards from around the world (Best Director at Cannes) and – in the standard pendulum-like swing of his career – rekindled interest in what he wanted to do next.

This time up, however, Altman was prepared. As he would for the rest of his career, he used the incalculable clout of decades considered one of cinema’s main masters to fulfill the personal promise of only making the movies he truly wanted. The Player was followed by the phenomenal Short Cuts (a brilliant breakdown of ‘90s neurosis that found their foothold in the literary brilliance of Raymond Carver’s short stories) and several personal projects, including looks at his interest in fashion (Prêt-à-Porter), his love of jazz (Kansas City) and his deep seeded desire to stay connected to the current trends in filmmaking (The Gingerbread Man, a big screen adaptation of the John Grisham story). With Gosford Park again stirring Academy buzz, it seemed that Altman could really live out the rest of his life doing only the projects he felt passionate about.

It’s too bad then that such a strategy was cut short. No one looking at something like A Prairie Home Companion was arguing that Altman was back, but then again, it’s really hard to say if he every really left. Words like iconoclast, renegade, rebel and dissident were frequently used to describe the director, but the bigger question remains what, exactly, was he rebelling against? Lousy scripts overflowing with clichés and formulaic flaws? Movies lacking heart, passion, artistry and intelligence? A system that sticks by a baffling business plan that rewards financial success without ever taking any other element of a film’s achievement into consideration? That lack of instant approval for the enormous amount of work that goes into making a movie? A fickle fanbase that slams you one day, only to coronate your creations long after their possible impact could actually matter?

No, Altman was not an insurgent. He wasn’t out to change the industry or pout until the studios came around to his way of thinking. No, what this singular cinematic voice was avoiding was the brainwashed belief that you had to give into the sloppy and sub par elements of the game in order to be a viable member of its unconscionable cabal. He refused to acknowledge the fad-oriented facets of the medium, making his own statements about issues and incidents without the slightest concern for populism or pragmatism. He was forward thinking in a system that consistently looks back, and brave without wearing his considerable courage on his frequently slapped wrist. To say that he will be missed is an understatement. No one, not even his impressive impersonators will be able to replace Altman’s integrity and importance. So with his passing, perhaps it’s time to put the whole revolutionary idea to rest. He wasn’t a rebel. In fact, he had the right idea the whole time.

by Bill Gibron

19 Nov 2006


If we are to believe the non-professional pundits, as well as actual journalists invested in the entertainment industry, the race for Oscar 2006 is more or less over. At a selective advanced screening of Bill Condon’s December offering Dreamgirls, critics got their first chance to see the big screen adaptation of the famous Broadway spectacle – and apparently, it was pretty good. David Poland, of Movie City News and The Hot Button, practically anointed it the next Best Picture prizewinner (better than Chicago, he argues rather convincingly) while mentioning multiple times that Jennifer Hudson (in the role that made another like named performer – the fabulous Ms. Holliday – a certifiable diva) is guaranteed to win a statuette, no matter what category she ends up in.

Even Drew McWeeny – a.k.a. Moriarty over at Ain’t It Cool News – finds himself dumbstruck by Dreamgirls prize potential. Pointing to Poland and his “astute analysis”, he comments that, while he doesn’t “do” the whole pre-award season buzz thing, a film like this more or less mandates such a discussion. After arguing for Eddie Murphy as a potential Best Supporting Actor candidate, the rest of the review (or preview, as it were) is an unabashed love letter to Condon and everyone involved. And he is not alone. The Daily Mail recently put up a piece proclaiming Dreamgirls “brilliant” and figuring prominently in Britain’s own Bafta Awards, while The New York Times feels that the film has all the “hardware” locked up.

Now there is nothing wrong with such strong prognostications. After all, ever since the Oscars stopped being a self-congratulatory exercise by the controlling old school studio system, the race toward Academy Gold has always been a vicarious cinephile thrill. Who among us hasn’t cheered on a personal favorite (All That Jazz, Pulp Fiction) only to see a lesser effort (Kramer vs. Kramer, Forrest Gump) pick up the eventual trophy. We all back our long shots and pray that an overlooked acting or directing effort gets the recognition it so richly deserves. So picking favorites and laying odds is all part of the Oscar game. Heck, office pools and Las Vegas betting parlors enjoy the whole handicapping process, separating the winter awards season wheat from the also-ran chaff.

But in this new ghost-modern Internet driven experience, where information is instantly accessible 24 hours a day, endlessly streaming from keyboards to webpages worldwide, the desire to be first – and then, hopefully, right – is driving film scholarship right out of the year end debate. Granted, no amount of online criticism or complimenting can thwart the efforts of someone like Harvey Weinstein when he has a film he wants to win (the less than exceptional Shakespeare in Love), and there will always be instances where an obvious frontrunner (Saving Private Ryan) falls under the weight of a well-positioned publicity campaign (see above). Yet how fair is it to declare a winner before the race is even over? And better yet, haven’t the so-called experts learned their lesson from previous preemptive predictions.

Take 2005, for example. When Crash came out in May, no one was chatting up its Oscar potential. Oh sure, a few critics saw through its cloying racial realities to argue for its excellence as a social statement, but very few were featuring it as an Academy front runner. Then September arrived, and with it, the much beloved Brokeback Mountain. Instantly, the awards season race was over. The sobering story of gay cowboys in love was declared the preemptive favorite, and as the various ancillary organizations (The Golden Globes, various critics groups) bestowed it with numerous additional accolades, the competition was more or less over. Forget all the other films coming out between October and December – no one was going to eclipse Brokeback.

Except, it didn’t win. And it wasn’t even late season offerings like Good Night and Good Luck or Munich that unseated the supposed victor. Instead, that lamented long shot from the start of the Summer known as Crash claimed the top prize (much to the dismay of the celebrity audience, one might add). It was a shocking turn of events, a situation so unpredictable that it led to a series of lawsuits among the many producers, all of whom now wanted a taste of Oscar’s heady broth. It’s an aesthetic division that still stings, even eight months after the fact. Yet it appears that the critical community, so anxious to label a winner in advance, still hasn’t learned their gun-jumping lesson. 

While backlash is a harsh term – and no great piece of art deserves to be purposefully taken down because of its perceived or real popularity – there is something to be said for the concept of tripping the frontrunner. Declaring a preemptive favorite is just asking for a last act comeuppance. Granted, some years the pickings are so slim (1990, for example) that almost anything can win (as in the dismal Driving Miss Daisy). But in an era where independents challenge the major studios for artistic supremacy, each contest can be far too close to call. This year alone, films like The Departed, The Prestige and The Queen have garnered major award oriented buzz. But by giving the nod to Dreamgirls, said entries become non-entities in a race they’ve really yet to run.

Very few writers have the power of their convictions. When Gene Siskel stuck his neck out in 1996, declaring that he would not see a better film that year than March’s release of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, his end of the year assessment stayed the course. The difference of course is that the late, great Chicago Tribune critic wasn’t picking the potential Oscar winner. He was giving his opinion, and much to his credit, he held fast to his convictions. Today, a messageboard mentality tends to lead most online thinkers. They are swayed by the vocal outcries of groups unrecognized and geeks unsupervised. Granted, groundswell and grass roots support are much easier to achieve when you’ve got millions of potential minions reading your words, but there is always a possibility that such a connection can be abused. Declaring a winner this early smacks of such a soap box stance.

Dreamgirls may indeed deserve to be the favorite. Bill Condon is a talented professional (already an Oscar winner for his Gods and Monsters script) and if Ms. Hudson is half the performer of the original Effie, she’ll be dynamite. But having been anointed the de facto champions accomplishes two very destructive things – it sets everyone up for a potentially mighty fall, and displaces dozens of films and/or actors who haven’t had their moment in the limelight yet. Instead of a legitimate determination between like positioned pictures, what we end up with is a comparative exercise where a predetermined benchmark sets the tone for all others to meet, or miss.

In the case of Brokeback Mountain, the early declaration of its Oscar worthiness set up a scenario by which all that came afterward was compared. If it couldn’t hold up to Ang Lee’s wistful western, it was instantly placed behind such a so-called standard. In addition, a film like Crash found itself doubly dismissed. Since it had already been released, and failed to measure up to Brokeback‘s level of Best Picture praise, it was seen as a mere nominal unknown. Smart scribes took note that its eventual nomination was sending a signal to all those self-serving predictions. But its eventual win provided another, more troubling trend. By declaring a winner before all the votes were cast, the election was rendered more or less an afterthought. While it may work in politics, the players in motion pictures don’t appreciate it. And, obviously, they rebelled.

What this means overall is that Dreamgirls becomes a target, the unintentional king of the hill that all other films will be gunning to unseat. Campaigns will be built around the notion of playing catch-up to a critically called victor, and those who make their living undermining the positions of populists – i.e. bloggers – will plant the plentiful seeds of discontent. You can already see it starting. Quoting the Times article, Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel takes great pride in pointing out that two websites (Hollywood Elsewhere, The Envelope.com) have lowered the musical’s Oscar prospects post-preview, and he himself argues that the film, and its participants are more of “Golden Globes winner(s)” than Academy triumphs.

So while the rest of the year’s fine films jockey to reposition, and Condon and company put on their amiable armor for the coming barrage of backseat prognostication, such a situation begs the question – why make such early predictions? Wouldn’t it be more aesthetically apropos to wait until all the possibilities are presented before securing your selection? Dreamgirls probably deserves better than being the envisaged prom queen before all the attendees arrive. And if it doesn’t claim the award, what does that say for those who declared its victory months before? There is a big difference between “Oscar Worthy” and Oscar won. Apparently, in today’s hype-driven hubris, that lesson’s long been forgotten. 

by Bill Gibron

12 Nov 2006


PopMatters review of Borat by Cynthia Fuchs

Just how gullible are we? As Sacha Baron Cohen’s pig and pony show continues to rake in the disposable income of an indiscriminate North American demographic ($67 million and counting), the critical community is having a literal laudatory filled field day. Rarely has the supposed scholarship of the journalistic branch been so unified in its praise. Some point to Cohen as the new Peter Sellers or the next Monty Python, others push for the British comic as a clear Oscar front runner, while others suggest that his movie is a kind of comedy revolution, a Blair Witch/Pulp Fiction like genre bender that merges reality with the ridiculous to form a new kind of radical reinterpretation of filmmaking.

But what, exactly, has Cohen done? Where is the invention in showcasing the readily apparent racism buried right on the surface of the United States social structure? Why is his ambush style approach to interviews and interaction so celebrated? It is really nothing new within the media framework. Howard Stern used to manage various foils (Stuttering John, Gary the Retard, etc.) to take the piss out of pompous, self-important individuals and the recent Jackass phenomenon argued that senseless stunt work in the name of self-serving slapstick can be intensely popular. And yet Borat seems to suggest something more than this to the rabid members of the fanbase. For them, this movie is much more than a cobbled together mock documentary. It’s a striking cinematic call to arms.

But would it surprise you to learn that this new Eastern European emperor has no clothes (his infamous nude wrestling/fight scene in the film aside)? Would you be shocked to learn that many of the movies more infamous moments were scripted and staged for the cameras? Recently both MTV and the New York Post have ‘outed’ various aspects of the Borat production, from which characters are really actors (Borat’s prostitute date) to the reality behind the various threats, skirmishes and fights featured (there were arrests, and a few ugly confrontations). While not meant to undermine what is obviously a growing phenomenon, these reports bring into perspective the power of film, and the credulity of individuals desperate to find something new and unique in an otherwise routine motion picture industry. 

Primary amongst the revelations was Pamela Anderson’s willing participation in the project, including her full cooperation in the film’s infamous finale. For anyone not instantly jacked into the entire Borat experience, this last act confrontation between the buxom Baywatch beauty and the swarthy stalker-like reporter is a seemingly blatant buzzkill. What starts out as a standard photo op meet and greet with her fans turns into a full blown, storewide chase, ending with Cohen and his co-star grappling openly in a store parking lot. For many, it’s the prankster piece de resistance, a pristine melding of Borat’s naiveté with celebrity’s harsh realities to form an intellectualized version of a Kutcher punk.

Except, none of it is real. Not a single moment. Though she claims to be “sworn to secrecy” Anderson’s camp makes it clear that the actress has a long standing relationship with Cohen (they have worked together before) and reports indicate that the two conspired together to stage the assault in front of a pair of unknowing security guards. Even more intriguing are hints that scripted elements were used, along with professional camerawork, all in an effort to make sure the scene went off perfectly. Now, for a movie that is selling itself as an off the cuff altercation between acceptable social standards and human values, doesn’t having your target in on the ruse destroy the subtext? Is comedy by entrapment still funny once you learn the victim is as complicit as the attacker?

Even worse, there are troubling reports about the factual material in the movie as well. Members of the feminist group that Cohen interviews/insults argue that they were not fully informed about the purpose and point of their conversations with the actor, and when you think about it, they actually couldn’t have been. Had they been told that a UK comedian, playing a bigoted foreign journalist, was going to sit down and ask them questions that attack the very foundation of their group’s gender-based agenda and that, even better, this material was going to be used as part of the big screen comedy in which the whole point is to deflate those with a self-important (or shockingly misguided) approach to their beliefs, how many would have said yes?

This goes to the very heart of this surreal sub-genre, an entertainment category with its roots firmly in the success of nu-reality television. Unlike Survivor, where a competition supposedly separates the winner from the losers, or MTV’s The Real World which claims to capture authentic young people in the act of being buffoons, nu-reality walks a fine line between fact and fiction, making up material as part of, and in direct response to, how certain individuals and situations respond to their surroundings. Structured like an old fashioned suspense sequence in which certain people are in on the joke (the audience, members of the cast), and arguing that what you are seeing is an accurate reflection of the truth, the nu-reality experience pretends to play fair while relying on a foundation of falsehood to get its results.

It’s a lot like entertainment entrapment, especially since in Borat Cohen is coercing the indignation and indignity out of his unsuspecting victims. The law makes it clear that individuals cannot be held liable for crimes they were more or less forced or cajoled into committing and it’s the same with Borat’s comedy. It gets bigots to expose their hatred, idiots to emphasize their cluelessness and the psychotic to show their terrifying true colors through the humor equivalent of a well-rehearsed show business sting operation. But how clever is it really, and indeed, how successful overall? Is it funny to find out that a redneck country bumpkin thinks that Jews are evil? Does it make it more hilarious that Cohen’s character totally agrees, and even amplifies the anti-Semitism?

Some will argue that none of this matters. No matter how he got the audience reaction during his butchering of the National Anthem, or how ‘staged and scripted’ certain scenes are, the reactions are the reason behind the film’s import as a shocking, scatological satire. But doesn’t that argument beg the manner in which they were achieved – and more importantly, the truth behind said responses? Would the Anthem scene work if you knew that the jeers and boos were added in later during post-production, or that the collapsing horse was merely a happy accident, not the result of Cohen’s performance? Would you care that some of the targets appear in on the joke (the driving instructor, the antiques’ dealer) and would that, then affect your subjective viewpoint on the film’s success?

In many ways, Borat is the kind of experience that demands the support of subterfuge for as long as possible. Like the Blair Witch, which tried to get pre-screening audiences to believe that it was the real final footage of a doomed documentary crew, the success of this comedy rests solely on the level of believability you have in the prank. Had Cohen merely made a frazzled foreign farce about a Kazakhstan reporter leaving his hilarious hometown for the first time, the reaction would probably be minimal, not massive. In fact, it’s the same fate the comic’s first film based on one of his well known small screen characters faced. Ali G Indahouse went straight to DVD in America, its distributor sensing that, without the crazy confrontational antics that made the TV show a success, the film faced an uphill battle at the box office. And they were right.

Like learning the trick behind a magician’s mindblowing performance, or getting step by step instructions on how a certain sensational special effect was accomplished, discovering that Borat has as much manipulated as genuine material as part of its production acts as a buffer to much of the movies’ heralded genius. Even more distressing, recent reports suggest that the people of Glod, an impoverished Romanian village with no running water or sewage, were paid a mere ₤3 each to be portrayed as abortionists, rapists, and sexual deviants in the film’s opening sequence. Tricking people who should know better is one thing. Fooling folks who have nothing is the height of moral bankruptcy.

The true brilliance behind Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen is not the resulting film. It is merely a fresh, friendly experience marred by occasional gross outs and delusions of social commentary grandeur. It is not the funniest thing to ever hit cinema, nor is it the shape of things to come – one hopes. No, the real genius here is getting people to pay for the privilege of being part of the gag itself. In the end, Borat‘s biggest success is fooling the audience into thinking that the movie is more meaningful than it is. What started out as the second coming of comedy has ended up being an expertly controlled extended shock jock joke. When all is said and done, the only ones who’ll be left laughing are Cohen and his cohorts – and you can guarantee their giggles will resonate all the way to the nearest bank.

by Bill Gibron

5 Nov 2006


Ahh… politics. That creator of strange bedfellows. That seducer of the honest and the well intentioned. That corrupt bastion of bad policies, faulty execution, and spin doctored excuses for both. Every couple of years its seems the representative form of our government gets the grand idea that people actually believe that their vote counts, and so they set about pandering—sorry, CAMPAIGNING—to bring the citizenry to the issues that the lobbyists find most important. Outrage is amplified over insignificant social dicta while truth is tempered by ideological based perspective. It’s all in service of a sinister cabal in which power cannibalizes and feeds itself, a non-stop frenzy of false pride and implied dominance. In the end, the result is a malfeasant machine that manufactures its own magnitude and perpetually pleases only those who can provide its omnivorous fetid fuel.

But wait, you don’t believe that the entire electoral process is a lost cause? You think that a sincere and straightforward candidate can rise up out of the glad-handing quagmire that is the system and avoid the behind the scenes manipulation of his or her party’s protectorate to actually serve their constituency? Well, Mr. and Mrs. America, you need a quick lesson in the realities of the Republic, and there’s no better place to start than with the many movies made on the subject. Indeed, film has, over the decades, found many ways to highlight the hypocrisy and expose the evil boiling just below the surface of the scandal-plagued political process. No sour subject has avoided the cinematic vox populi, from nation altering atrocities like Watergate and the JFK assassination to the standard stratagem of dirty tricks and the always scandalizing subject of sex.

Perhaps the best example of such an anti-politico polemic is 1972’s Year of the Yahoo. What? What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this film? Perhaps you were expecting All the President’s Men? Primary Colors? The Manchurian Candidate? Well, if you took a smattering of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, mixed in a smidgen of standard exploitation, and sprinkled the entire enterprise with a heaping helping of hominy and hambone, you’d have Herschell Gordon Lewis’ long lost masterpiece of down home despotism and the media’s unpardonable ability to influence events. With a narrative fresh out of today’s headlines and a tone as cynical as a grad student’s weblog, Lewis lifts the lid off the muckraking ridiculousness that is our political process, and even provides a few toe-tapping musical PSAs along the way.

Our story begins when the incredibly liberal and virtually unbeatable Senator Burwell comes up for re-election. Angry over his left-leaning ideals, the sitting President of the United States wants Burwell defeated. He even handpicks his own rube for the job: strumming and grinning goober Hank Jackson, famous in both fields of music: country and western. Sending a triumvirate of trained pollsters and media men into the bumpkin’s backwoods barrio, the Corruptor in Chief hopes to help the honky-tonk hick win more than his fair share of the illiterate Appalachian vote. But the glad-handing Governor and his backside smooching sidekick think this corn pone crooner ain’t got a chance in Chattanooga of success. They fail to take his candidacy seriously, and spend most of their days giggling over the lopsided poll numbers.

It’s not long, however, before a sleazy, slick ad campaign and a constant play list of public pandering, philosophically fascist songs has Hank labeled a wholesome homeboy by the neo-conservative race baiters within his constituency. His TV appearances, complete with some finger snappin’, demographically accurate musical numbers, increase his image of earnestness and elect-ability. Indeed, it looks like Jackson will win the gerrymander, even when a rent strike divides his bluegrass bandwagon and unsettles his perfectly polished coalition. As Hank continues to tow the prejudiced party line, his hen pecker of a girlfriend sides with the agitators. It takes dozens of underhanded shenanigans, a sexual assault and a clear case of conscience—not to mention a lonesome ballad or two—to help Hank regain his integrity and to determine, once and for all, if it’s really The Year of the Yahoo.

Indeed, Yahoo is a real rarity amongst supposed skin and sin exploitation films, especially the one’s made by Mr. Blood Feast himself. Instead of some sleazy exposé in which naughtiness and nudity are the only salient selling points, what we have here is a really great movie with an incredibly well written script, a narrative that navigates the truths about government in a way most mainstream efforts would likely avoid. Existing outside the confines of an oppressive studio system, capable of saying anything and everything he wants, screenwriter Allen Kahn (which could just be a pen name for Lewis, by the way) creates an astute, perceptive dissection of the entire cynical candidacy process. It’s a plot that demonstrates how gaining elected office in the United States is not a matter of ethics or integrity but merely showmanship and selfless pandering to the public. Measuring up favorably against directorial heavyweights like Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, Lewis’ political potboiler about a podunk country singer candidate being mass marketed to his population of peons feels as new and astute now as when it was made.

Unfortunately, a hundred image consultants doing soundbite surgery at a suicidal rate would have a hard time getting the registered voter hyped about Claude King. Yes, he can carry a tune, but he can’t carry a movie. His “wish I was George Jones” persona filled with ‘golly-gees’ and hair cream just can’t seem to slink beyond the initial line reading level. He’s like any other non-actor trying to put on the performance. His halting, half-baked believability leeches every available drop of drama out of his dilemma.  Still, his “h-yuck yuck” yokelism works wonderfully within the movie. He comes across as a complete innocent made a meaningful man of the people. Actually, about the worst thing you can say about this production is that its low budget, non-professional cast aspects tend to show through more than usual. Funny how good writing will do that. Still, if you never thought that you’d experience high-class social consciousness and shrewd political satire in a surreal pseudo-grindhouse goof, then step right up and cast your ballot for The Year of the Yahoo. It’s no more ridiculous than the arrogant stumping that’s passing itself off as self-determination this midterm election cycle.

by Bill Gibron

31 Oct 2006


After nearly a month of horror highlights (and some significant lowlights) SE&L will be regaining its critical composure. As part of the post-terror healing process, we present five days of Forgotten Gems - films that have fallen through the cracks and that definitely deserve a second look. Beginning with the latest in Bollywood wonders, our retrospective will cover everything from Dogma ‘95 efforts to classic period pieces. But don’t worry, we’ll be back Monday, 6 November with a bunch of brand new features, including a Beginners’ Guide to Exploitation, a look at the best that Criterion has to offer, and that most maligned of motion picture presentations, the Misunderstood Masterpiece. Until then, enjoy.

The SE&L Staff

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