Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Deep Meaning of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat

Naturally it's tempting for critics to see Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as a satire against political correctness, as Peter Suderman has gamely attempted to do on National Review Online. When something gives us pleasure, we really want to believe that it is good. But that's simply not the way things work, and it is certainly not the way Borat works. Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian who wrote and stars in the film based on his HBO TV show, makes no attempt to tie the film's vulgar humor to American "political correctness" codes or any other political meaning.

On the contrary, the film is simply a string of jokes based on the grotesqely ignorant central character's lack of decorum regarding bodily functions, presumably as a result of his being brought up in a primitive, poverty-stricken country in southwest Asia.

What the movie really delivers is lots of jokes about sex, defecation, sex, religion, sex, mental deficiencies, sex, cruelty to all creatures less powerful than oneself, sex, ethnic prejudice, sex, and sex. Borat simply is not political, and there is in fact nothing useful that we can learn from it, despite critics' attempts to shoehorn some meaning into it.

On the contrary, Cohen's jokes about rape, for example, are funny and politically incorrect, but they manifest a lack of decorum, they don't stand back from it and make a point about manners and morals. What point, after all, could those particular jokes make? That some people don't take rape seriously enough? That is not a point worth making, and I don't believe for a moment that Cohen is attempting to do so. He's just being funny.

Still shot from Borat movie

And the film is very funny indeed. It's just a string of dirty jokes, and most of them work pretty well, if the audience with whom I saw the film is any indication.

Yes, we do see, in absentia, the value of manners, decorum, and the flush toilet, etc., but that's not really a lesson for most people, nor does it have anything to do with political correctness codes. It's just funny.

There is an interesting moment late in the film, an extended reference to the film comedy team Laurel and Hardy. I think that the comparison is apt. Although Borat bases its humor on subject matter that would not have been acceptable during the era when the great comedy pair made their movies (and is probably not exactly acceptable even today), it is clear that its makers had the exact same goal as the people behind the Laurel and Hardy movies: to make people laugh, and nothing more.

And there's nothing wrong with that. It's good to have a nice laugh once in a while. We shouldn't have to make excuses for that. And that's good, because there is no excuse for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. And I doubt that Cohen wants anybody making excuses for him. So I won't.

From Karnick on Culture.

The head's the thing . . .

. . . followed by the lede (opening sentence).  They sell stories.  So editors look to heads and ledes.  Advice to them: send your copy desk to word school.  Put them to reading verse, including blank verse such as this from Poetry for October:

Look! I bear into this room a platter piled high with the rage my mother felt toward my father!  . . . .  She — 

just kept her thoughts to herself.  She just —

followed him around the house, and every time he turned a light on, she turned it off.

Look.  If that’s not to your liking, have them read E.B. White or Joseph Addison.  Whatever you do, promote language, so that your front page does not have this for a head:

Economy's political sway shifts

followed by the (not) clipped and biting:

Seemingly positive numbers don't guarantee boost to party in power

Look, it’s not an ax murder, salable on its face.  It’s the economy, and I won’t, a la James Carville, add “stupid.”  Or is it?  Look to the lede:

With so much change sweeping America's workforce, the Republicans are discovering it is not necessarily easy to gain political traction from a generally favorable economy.

Is this what you call punching up the news?  Are discovering?  Not necessarily easy?  Political traction?  Reader, pay attention.  Your mind wanders.  It’s your daily Trib before you.  Wake up.  The second ‘graf, a logical enough follow-through:

The October jobs report showed unemployment fell from 4.6 percent to 4.4 percent, while employers added 92,000 non-farm jobs to their payrolls. Also, the government revised upward the number of jobs created in August and September.

Unemployment down, new jobs, more than we thought!  We’re getting somewhere now, except for punching down the news, which is not that the report showed something or government revised something, both subjects of their sentences when they should be add-ons: according to the report, the government said, etc.  Does the writer, William Neikirk, think the news is that a report showed or government revised?  If so, he’s been too long in Washington, whence this story comes.

Anyhow, we haven’t yet got to the good part, as apparently understood by the writer and contained in the third ‘graf:

But structural changes that have roiled the job market in recent years have changed the meaning of these numbers for many Americans, particularly less-skilled workers who are finding it more difficult to remain in the middle class.

Is this the lede he wishes he could have used, describing as it does the cloudy lining of the silver cloud?  It’s as if Neikirk couldn’t bring himself to blare forth this excellent pre-election news. 

Maybe that’s what makes his exposition weak and flabby.  He may be conflicted, poor fellow, desiring but not quite willing to announce to his readers that this excellent economic news doesn’t matter, because this year it’s not the economy (stupid), which it used to be when Democrat James Carville said it was.

"Broken Government"---CNN Slimes GOP (file under: Dog Bites Man)

CNN ran an admirably comprehensive hit job on the GOP this week. If CNN is where you get your news, no sane person could refuse to vote Democrat across the board this Tuesday.

The series was called Broken Government. Do follow the link. And then they ran a marathon of the whole deal Friday night, with more reruns to come this weekend. (Management didn't want to be left out either---it's a team effort.)

Didn't watch the whole thing meself because I went out, but it wasn't fit to leave on to keep Middie the Wonder Dog company. (She's an independent.) Even Jeff Greenfield, the closest thing to a centrist on the network, rounded up disaffected conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and, regrettably, Bill Buckley. Hisself.

Broken Government? With "Broken Government," "Where the Right Went Wrong," and "Do Nothing Congress" titles on the bottom right of your screen at all times---gee, tell us how you really feel, CNN. Oh yeah, and one called "Two Left Feet." Tell us how you think we should vote on Tuesday, CNN. Or why not just call the whole shebang Bush and the Republicans are Total Toejam and be done with it?

Now, admittedly, talkradio has been a nonstop Republican ad of late. But they don't pass themselves off as news. By contrast, their own website describes their own partisan propaganda as "CNN 'investigates.'" Investigates, my eye. Trolls, mebbe. Polemicizes, certainly. The only hope for the GOP on Tuesday lies in the fact is that fewer people watch CNN anymore.

The honest consumer of the news of the day must shudder to think what they have planned for Monday. Just stop calling yourselves a News Network, is all I ask---just dispense with the pretentions to actual journalism. At least when O'Reilly and Hannity come on Fox News Channel, I know I'm getting the op-ed page, and so does everybody else.

As for Mr. Buckley, I'm sure his criticism is accurate and that he was happy that in his dotage the establishment media asked his opinion once again after a long absence from the public eye, what with his retirement as National Review pontiff and the cancellation of his TV show Firing Line. (I do hope he didn't volunteer himself as a quisling in the defenestration of his own dear GOP.)

Because the question CNN neglected to ask Mr. Buckley, and neglected to ask at all during this cornucopia of political cant is, Can the Democrats Do Better?

As I'm becoming fond of saying, anyone who thinks things can't get any worse has no imagination.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Arnold Tries To Screw Us. Again.

Well, out here on the left coast, it's Arnold 24/7. And four, as in the next four years, since he is in the process of dismantling the Democratic nominee, Phil Angelides, a man who never has encountered a public dollar that ought not be used for political advantage, or a tax increase that ought to be opposed.

Anyway: Arnold will win Tuesday by 15-20 points. You would think therefore that he might help the down-ballot nominees running for Lt. Governor, Controller, etc. Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip, zilch, zero. Indeed, Arnold is trying to sabotage the candidacy of Tom McClintock, a truly principled man in a tight race for Lt. Governor. Arnold doesn't want a man of integrity across the hall, in that it would make him look ever-smaller by comparison. And so yesterday Arnold told some reporters that McClintock is "totally wrong" because he opposes Arnold's porkfest of bond proposals on the ballot. This utterly gratuitous slap at McClintock illustrates the one central, overridding truth about Arnold: He cares about Arnold, and nothing else.

Obama Besmirched

Illinois’ own Sen. Barack Obama is on the hustings these last days before Nov. 7, and so he’s in the news for that.  But he’s in it in Chicago newspapers for taking a favor from the state’s currently best known indicted political insider.

Chi Trib’s John Kass explains it pithily here, following on yesterday’s Chi Trib reporting. Sun-Times’s Mark Brown explains it here.  Upshot is, O. dipped a toe into corruption of the sort he condemned in Africa or didn’t know what he was doing, either of which tend to smudge the image that attaches to a presumably idealistic newcomer with “the flawless, unlined visage of a carefree young movie idol.”

There’s another matter, his falling into line with the presumably non-idealistic old-timers when it comes to local politics, specifically his failure to endorse a fellow Dem reform candidate in the primary last April followed by his endorsement of the feckless, reportedly hapless son of an old-timer now incapacitated and unable to run.  Chi Trib’s Eric Zorn gives this the attention it deserves.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New Hand on Deck

Today marks the debut of our newest crewperson, Jim Bowman, and we're pleased as punch to have him aboard.

Jim's a former reporter and religion editor for the Chicago Daily News and columnist for the Trib. He's also written a number of books on corporate histories as well as two on religion: Priests at Work: Catholic Pastors Tell How They Apply Church Law in Difficult Cases and Bending the Rules: What American Priests Tell American Catholics.

No kool-aid drinker, he. Jim himself is an ex-Jesuit who's now married and is a father of six who's spent a fair amount of time fighting their miseducation in the Oak Park (IL) school system. He's best known on the blogosphere as the gadfly known as Blithe Spirit who regularly catches a wee bit of liberal bias at Chicago Newspapers, The Blog. He'll keep the blog open for business (he'll certainly never run out of material), and we'll link to it on this page under "More From Our Crew."

You don't mess around with Jim. Word up.

Although he writes that he has not yet achieved his goal of becoming a superlative human being, he seems A-OK by me. We're sure you'll enjoy his sharp pen and good cheer, and to Jim we offer a warm and hearty welcome, matey.

The Cardinal is for Burning?

Euros and Democrats blame us for our bad image abroad, but so does at least one prince of the church. That’s Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who told a seminary audience in Chicago a few days ago:

“The world distrusts us not because we are rich and free. Many of us are not rich, and some of us aren't especially free. They distrust us because we are deaf and blind, because too often we don't understand and make no effort to understand," he said.

"We have this cultural proclivity that says, 'We know what is best and if we truly want to do something, whether in church or in society, no one has the right to tell us no.' That cultural proclivity, which defines us in many ways, has to be surrendered, or we will never be part of God's kingdom."

He has talked this way before. In September, 2002, at a downtown club luncheon sponsored by Lumen Christi Institute, a U. of Chicago campus organization, and the Catholic Lawyers Guild, he fingered the U.S. government as the enemy.

Church leaders could one day be prosecuted for refusing to ordain women and bless homosexual unions, he told this audience, adding that he hoped they would be with him when he went to jail. The going-to-jail scenario is something he could not have imagined two years earlier, he said. He did not say what changed his mind, except to identify it with a pattern of expanding domestic "police power."

Overseas, in his 12 years (1974–86) as a Rome-based world traveller for his religious congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate — something he mentioned also in the recent sermon — he felt welcome as a Catholic, except in communist countries, but suspect as an American. In the U.S. he found the opposite was true, he added, not explicitly excluding Chicago, where being Catholic is definitely not a disability. Indeed, he finds it "hard sometime to be both Catholic and American,” he said, enunciating quite an extreme position.

Americans' "cultural blindness" to the resentment others feel will destroy us "as a nation," he said. Other nations resent us because we "oppress them," he said, or they think we do after "50 years of intense communist propaganda. Be that as it may, "we can't impose our way of life" on others, he said, without specifying how we attempt that, and "we live in a fool's paradise if we don't realize" that.

In his recent comment, he said, “There aren't many places where I can say that, there aren't many places where I would want that to be said for me, and I wouldn't want to be quoted outside of this context.” But the alert and energetic religion writer for the Sun-Times, Cathleen Falsani, was in the congregation taping him, and two days later he was front-page stuff in a city where the front page has special meaning. How naive can a prelate be to speak to a church full of people as if it were just us chickens?

He had apparently felt that way at the Union League Club in 2002, where in the middle of the chickens was a fox in the person of an old, old religion reporter who took notes, for gosh sakes.

And he did so also in remarks a few months ago at a gathering of philosophers at U. of Chicago, where he offered "a strange, Manichean interpretation of twentieth-century history" as understood by a writer in left-leaning Commonweal Magazine. The writer objected to George’s “conflating spiritual and political power in a way that will prove unhealthy both for the church and for the world.” George had said secularization of Europe had started with Woodrow Wilson’s attempting to make the world safe for democracy and in the process excluding Pope Benedict XV from the peace talks.

It’s an interesting enough point, but more interesting is why George goes off on tangents, conflating, to seize on a handy word, his role as religious leader with geopolitical commentator.

Finally, there was George’s bizarre order issued in June, 2002 from an Oak Park pulpit that cameras should be removed and pencils should be put down by reporters, whom he likened to communist spies.

Two months later a Chicago priest, lashing out in a sermon against critics and news reports of his leadership of a home for troubled youth, quoted George: “This is the time, this is the season, for picking on Catholics,” telling the priest, “John, they're coming after you.”

Why stop at him? I think the cardinal would like us all to be very careful.

The Future of Christian Cinema

In commenting on our discussion of Christian cinema (see Karnick on Culture), some visitors brought up a couple of interesting points. One is that any kind of Christian movie ought to be acceptable to both critics and audiences, and the other is that the economic realities of making Christian films today require a more encouraging stance than Barbara Nicolosi and I seem to have taken regarding Facing the Giants.

Clearly both these observations are well-intentioned, but I think that adopting these recommendations would greatly harm any nascent Christian cinema, rather than helping it.

Let's examine them individually.

First, the premise that any kind of Christian cinema ought to be good enough for Christians, with the implied corollary that any Christian film is at least better then what Hollywood puts out, ignores an imporatant reality: what is on the surface of a film does not always reflect what it all actually means. Many Hollywood films and TV programs, despite their often shabby surfaces, carry meanings that Christians should find quite appealing. If you have any doubts about this, click on the "Movies" and "Television" categories on this page and take a look at some analyses of Hollywood products showing how easily they are misinterpreted if we concentrate solely on surface imagery.

The other side of this issue is the fact that an openly Christian movie can carry underlying messages and assumptions that are at best dubious, as in the Left Behind series (especially to non-Evangelicals), or are outright false, as appears to be the case with Facing the Giants.

As Michael Simpson notes in his comment on my immediately previous post, the message of Jesus Christ is the very opposite of "hack sentimentality," as Michael so aptly characterizes this kind of Christian cheerleading.

Hence, it is clear that the ideas behind Christian films should be approached with the exact same attitude toward which we look at the ideas behind mainstream cinema. Let's call it enlightened skepticism.

As to the second point, that Christian cinema requires encouragement, I submit that this is precisely what Barbara Nicolosi and I are both trying to accomplish. As I noted in my Weekly Standard review of Ms. Nicolosi's latest book, one of the contributors rto that volume correctly notes that
Christians are "of the lineage of Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Lewis, Tolkien, and Caravaggio," and that "there was a time when Christians were the undisputed masters of art and literature." As many Christians have withdrawn into a "safe" religious subculture, "Mainstream culture has moved on without us, and the world of entertainment has coarsened in our absence."
If we are to encourage people to create art that is both fully Christian and of high aesthetic quality, we must be willing to criticize their products fairly and honestly. Otherwise, they will have no incentive to try to excel, and we will end up with dreck—and garbage with a Christian patina is still worthless.

We do artists no favors when we pretend that good intentions are more important than results. Yes, good intentions are laudable, and we may well acknowledge people's intentions. But it cannot stop there. Bad art is bad, and we should tell the truth about it. Nowhere does Scripture tell us to bear false witness about our neighbors, even if we wish to do so to spare their feelings. A lie is a lie.

Pretending that substandard work is in fact good is a sure way to destroy an artist. Think about it this way: if you were coaching a child at basketball, and their shot mechanics were wrong but they were trying hard, would you really say that they're doing it right? Even if they were badly missing all their shots? To do so would be a contemptible thing.

The same is true with artists of whatever stripe, and it is particularly important when trying to nurture new artists and forms. To pretend that they are doing just fine when they're missing all their shots simply ensures that they'll never make the big leagues. Instead of artists on the order of Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Lewis, Tolkien, and Caravaggio, we will get complacent, pointless junk. And that would be worse than having no Christian cinema at all.

There is room in society for both high art and pop culture, and both have an important place and can be highly salutary in their effects. Yet both must meet quality standards if they are to have a good effect on people. And it is up to critics and audiences to encourage artists to try to reach the very highest standards in whatever form their work takes.

Our job as critics and consumers is to tell the truth, with our pens and pocketbooks. If we do that, the artists will find their way, and real creativity will flower. If not, the torrent of lies will kill them all.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Some folks have been wondering...

Good question. Perhaps this video can help...

Sorry about that. I've been busy trying to confront my existential anguish with a little artistic creation, and that's all I've got so far. (Such are the limits of the Self-Taught Man.) Now if you're willing to slum with a Scientologist, we can kick Sartre up a notch and take on our purposeless reality with a little funk (one reviewer assures me it is of the broken porch variety).

Nausea for the masses - with a beat you can dance to!

(For those who'd like to shout along with Beck at home - and in case S.T. is up for a review - here you go.)

A Bad Sign for Christian Cinema

Screenwriter and script analyst Barbara Nicolosi is extremely disappointed by the Christian-produced film Facing the Giants. I have not yet gotten around to seeing the film, but I suspect that Ms. Nicolosi is quite right. She points out that Facing the Giants is the cinematic equivalent of Contemporary Christian Music, bland nonsense meant to make Christians feel good and thereby bring in a steady stream of money from a highly defined market segment, what is known in the entertainment business as a cash cow.

In addition, Nicolosi argues, Facing the Giants is animated by a devotion to what is known as the Prosperity Gospel, a decidedly perverse notion prevalent among some Evangelicals, which holds that God wants believers to be happy and prosperous in this world (which is surely true to some extent), and that he will give believers such earthly success to the degree that they believe in Him and accept his promises. That is an absurd, unbiblical doctrine that is derived from Puritanism but puts an optimistic, positive spin on it. It is an idea, as Nicolosi notes, that utterly denies numerous direct statements in Scripture, especially the words of Jesus Christ himself.

In sum, the Prosperity Gospel is a very bad thing indeed, and it is clear that the story of Facing the Giants manifests it entirely. Given that even the film's defenders are not making any claims of aesthetic value for it, this surely suggests that the film is unworthy of people's admiration.

Now, not everything has to be great art, of course, but if a "message" film has a bad message and little to no artistry, it cannot be said to have much going for it.

As noted on this site earlier and as cited by Ms. Nicolosi in her article, the Fox studio has embarked on an effort to create low-budget theatrical films for the Christian market. The important question at hand is whether the model will be indie films that challenge current atheistic cultural perspectives or a bland and manipulative Christian Contemporary Cinema that uses religious tropes to snag an ignorant and complacent audience.

Right now we have no idea what the answer will be. As I noted earlier, however, Fox will undoubtedly follow the audiences' lead, giving Christians more of the type of film to which they respond with the most support, financial and critical.

The responsibility, then, is now most certainly with the audiences.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Let's Give John F. Kerry a Break

Well, sort of.

For the record and for those who have been on Mars (don't vote!), the 2004 Democrat presidential nominee said this to a college crowd:

"You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Now, his defenders (the AP?) note that before that he apparently slagged off on our fighting men and women,

The Massachusetts senator...opened his speech at Pasadena City College with several one-liners, joking at one point that Bush had lived in Texas but now "lives in a state of denial."

I just can't locate his remarks in toto, so it's tough to tell if it was just a typical Kerry bad locution or a total non sequitur. (If the tired "state of denial" riff immediately preceded the "stuck in Iraq" part, which would help it make some level of sense, you'd think they'd have found it by now. All we get is ellipses...but that's admittedly a provisional suspicion.)

So if we're to believe that Sen. Kerry wasn't just having a draft-era flashback to when only those without college deferments fought our wars, the explanation must lie elsewhere. (Yeah, this is a Barney Greenwald here):

Sen. Kerry claims the whole thing was a joke gone wrong, and admitted to CNN he needs some remediation in joketelling. And that's the problem. After 35 years in the public eye, he still doesn't know his strengths and weaknesses, or the simple fact of rhetoric and political life that you can't be outright nasty and funny at the same time. (He has specialized in the former, but has been a lifelong failure at the latter.)

What Sen. Kerry claims he meant is that if you stay in school and get good grades and make an "effort to be smart," you won't have a foreign policy that results in our current difiiculties in Iraq.


Now John Kerry fancies himself smarter than George W. Bush, but his own grades weren't any better than Bush's. John Kerry is tragic because he makes an "effort to be smart," but he doesn't get better grades and simply isn't any smarter than the next guy, even when the next guy is elected president of the United States. (Twice.)

So the only way I can accept Sen. Kerry's explanation about his remarks not being an insult to our troops is that he was unwise and a victim of his own overcleverness, trying to miscegenate Bob Woodward's now-cliche with an unrelated speech on education. This I can buy: it's in character. When faced with calling John Kerry unpatriotic or simply a twit, I prefer the latter. I'm a uniter, not a divider. Twits are people, too.

Don't Vote!

The American Association of Retired Persons has a new ad campaign and a website called idea being to learn the candidates' positions on things like social security and health care before you cast your ballot.

These are good things, but I'd prefer people know the answers to easy ones like

which party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives (Republicans);
the name of the current U.S. Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice);
the name of the current president of Russia (Vladimir Putin).

The most informed folks read the conservative Weekly Standard and the center-left New Republic.

Next highest are listeners to the Rush Limbaugh show. You could look it up. All things considered, I would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book, but the aforementioned bunch would be my second choice.

(And BTW, anyone who can't answer those three questions should stay away from the polls on November 7. Go shopping instead.)