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November 06, 2006 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 2006-11-06

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The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Monday, November 6, 2006 - 5A

Steamy 'Shortbus'
looks past the sex

DailyArts Writer
Though its rapid succession of
graphically uncensored sex scenes
will undoubtedly scare away the
prudish audiences, director John
("Hedwig and
the Angry Shortbus
Inch") provoc- At the State
ative new film ATheater
is much more ThinkFilm
than a run-on-
the-mill raunchfest. It's a cinematic
ode to post-Sept. 11 New York City
- an homage created solely to push
its audience toward seeing what's
beyond the surface of things.
Like Woody Allen''s "Manhat-
tan," "Shortbus" uses backdrops of
the famed city to complement sto-
ries of incorrigible characters in
love and lust. But while the former
used romantic shots of the city's
skyline as relief from the non-stop
narcissism of its characters, "Short-
bus" instead aggressively imposes
an audience voyeurism, zooming in
from the darkly drawn skies of an
animated New York to the three-
dimensional lives and sexcapades
of a troubled group of 20 and 30-
The stories we find aren't always
written - or acted - perfectly. But
there's something incorruptibly
real, and ultimately moving, about
the people we meet. Fitting, consid-
ering many of the actors helped pen
"Shortbus" with Mitchell.
We meet the adorable Sophia, a
sex therapist who's never had an
orgasm. She befriends two of her

clients, a gay couple with sexual
issues of their own, and the three
eventually end up in Shortbus, a
pleasure palace where the sexually
starved and bored come to chat,
drink and solve problems by get-
ting off.
Of course, the most explicit
scenes occur here, but with no gra-
tuitousness. Despite a glimpse here
and there of breasts, bare buttocks
and stimulation, our attention is
pretty much glued to Sophia and
her journey into her new world.
John Cameron Mitchell man-
aged to stage tragedy and comedy
incredibly well with his avant-garde
musical "Hedwig and the Angry
Itch" a few years ago, and he does so
again with "Shortbus." The stories
feature main characters struggling
with deeper issues beneath their
sexual dysfunctions, and they're
'Hedwig' director
creates a new sort
of sex ed.
seamlessly pieced together, each
convincingly doing justice to heart-
break without neglecting its humor.
And their discomforting resonance
actually has less to do with sex than
with the characters' surroundings
- New York City. Mitchell never
takes a clear position, but when a
character reveals that she wants
to leave the city because the rising
cost of living after Sept. 11, deeper
worries than sexual dissatisfaction
are certainly implied.

Sacha Baron Cohen is a very smart man.
Sure, he is as an entertainer, but for a moment
let's pause in recognition
of the man as an unparal-
leled hellraiser of popular *k**C
culture. Known to most
as Ali G, or more recently Borat:
as Borat, the wide-eyed Cultural
Kazakh journalist who Learnins
roams America coast to of America
coast, Cohen has been a for Make
force in television for some Benefit
time. Now he's suddenly Glorious
taken Hollywood by storm, Nation of
and if his comfort with the Kazakhstan
new role is any indication, At the Showcase
he doesn't plan on going and Quality16
anywhere anytime soon.
The debut feature of one 20th Century Fox
of his most, um, beloved
personalities, "Borat: Cul-
tural Learnings of America for Make Benefit
Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," or as the kids
are calling it, just "Borat," has been heralded as
everything from the funniest movie of the year
to (in a particularly absurd case of hyperbole)
the funniest movie ever made. Don't for a second
think that's because it actually is. In truth, the
film, surprisingly uneventful and small in scale,
clocks in at 84 minutes of very studied goofball
comedy. What makes the movie remarkable is
the extent to which Cohen has turned it from
irreverent satire into one of the most extrava-
gantly hyped, worshipped films in memory - all
before anyone had even seen it. Between the You-
Tube clips and Cohen's one-man variety act giv-
ing interviews in character across the country,
the blitz surrounding "Borat" requires the kind
of media and studio cooperation that can only be
the work of Cohen, who has taken a mostly tra-
ditional gross-out comedy and made it into the
moviegoing event of the fall.
Is the movie funny? Of course it is. If theaters
ran the trailer on loop across the country the
movie still have would been funny. The problem
here is not Cohen's talent for comedy, which is not
in question, but his ability to balance the movie's
mouth-foaming desire to expose the ignorance of
middle America with its equally ravenous desire
to have a 350-pound man rub his naked ass into
another man's face. That scene, in outrageously

Nothing we are going to say is funnier than what he was actually saying, so why bother?

graphic and overlong form, is the centerpiece of
"Borat," and it is funny if only for the fact that
the performers actually seem to have a good time
executing it. The problem is that it's paired with
sequences, like, say, one in which Borat's declara-
tion to a rodeo crowd that his nation supports the
American desire to kill every man, woman and
child in Iraq is met with continuous applause.
Cohen, if he is half as smart as his act suggests,
wants us to be shocked by this. So why present it
in the one genre of film designed precisely so that
no one will take it seriously?
Surely the film is effective in its central aim
- exposing and exploiting Americans' ignorance
about others and, surprisingly, themselves - but
at the same time, it's content with ending such a
sequence with a sight gag aboutBorat's manhood.
The film's collection of gun-shop owners and frat
boys and rodeo chiefs say just about every last
thing Cohen wants them to, and their responses
are stunningly bigoted. To its credit, the film's
obvious caricature of Kazakhstan - which, in
case anyone forgot, is a real country - distanc-
es itself from an actual representation of it, and
Cohen knows just how far he has to push a joke
to get an effective punchline. He takes nothing
further than it needs to go. He doesn't offend just
to offend; there's a political point to be made in
most every sequence here, even if it is easy and
irrelevant, which it often is. But the idea of a nar-
rative inescapably clashes with the idea of bite-
size satire, and the political potency of Borat asa
character is lost ina feature-length context.
And so, strangely enough, the film works best
as a narrative. Borat can throw money at a Jewish
couple in defense of his life, talk about executing
gay men and tout a woman's smaller brain size,
and still - curiously, paradoxically - we love
this guy. When he brings a prostitute to a dinner
party with a pastor and his like-minded friends,

Borat is the least cruel person in the room. Truth
be told, and against all odds, he's kind of sweet.
His unrequited love for Pamela Anderson seems
genuine. Perhaps the film's most unrecognized
suggestion is that Borat's total obliviousness to
his surroundings is the product of an environ-
ment that has created it - one not unlike the cul-
ture he encounters on his coast-to-coast road trip
through America.
"Borat's" failings as a film for the most part
will not occur to its audience, who will no doubt
explode at its jokes all the same. There is a very
strongchance that said jokes will be lost on most
of them - a concern even 20th Century Fox
seemed to have in regulating the film's initial
release mostly to urban and college-town centers.
Since it's unfair to either party to judge a movie
based on its audience, the question becomes one
of whether "Borat" encourages its viewers to
delight in the hate it subversively seeks out, and
the film makes no indication that it does. For the
most part, Cohen lets the bigotry he finds speak
for itself, and even if it is often lost in the mix, his
point in doing so is always clear.
In its first weekend the film has been a sen-
sation, a commercial hit big enough to be a case
study and (according to IMDb.com) an audience
favorite intense enough to already sit comfort-
ably among users' top 250 movies of all time. It
has a 90 on Metacritic for Christ's sake. (That's
three points short of "Schindler's List" and six
points higher than "Mystic River," in case you
were wondering.)
In short, this is the biggest success story of any
film since "The Passion of the Christ," the impli-
cations of which I'll leave for you to decipher.
What I take from all this is that Sacha Baron
Cohen very much knows what he's doing, and
even when his film doesn't quite work, we're in
the hands of some kind of master.

Original comedy master to screen at Michigan

For the Daily
Mel Brooks is the godfather of
comedy seem Blazing
classy. Unlike Saddles
this weekend's Tonight only
highly antici- at7 p.m.
pated release of
"Borat," eagerly At theMichigan
touted for its
outrageously offensive exploits,
"Saddles" epitomizes the compro-
mise between provocation and
tasteful humor.
After narrowly escaping a hang-
ing, Bart (Cleavon Little, "Fletch
Lives") is appointed as the new
sheriff of a western town scheduled
for demolition to pave the way for
train tracks. The problem: Bart is a

black man in a post-Emancipation,
pre-Civil Rights era.
Bart quickly finds his only friend
in an alcoholic quickdraw, Jim (aka
The Waco Kid). Played by the outra-
geous Gene Wilder ("Willy Wonka
and the Chocolate Factory"), Jim
helps Bart prove his worth as a
sheriff. Ultimately, the two become
unlikely heroes in the battle to save
the town from destruction.
As part of The Michigan The-
ater's Comic Masters Film Series,
"Saddles" makes jokes at the
expense of blacks, Jews, Germans,
women, cowboys, racists, Chinese,
Hollywood and so on. Brooks him-
self even plays a Native American
chieftain who speaks Yiddish. No
one is safe from him - but no one's
truly offended, either.
Even if social commentary isn't

stick - w
(also playr
get his pe
suggests I
and the p
in a visu
eline Kah
is brillian
dancer w
upon how
- Kahn is

Brooksoffersplentyofslap- to ever receive an Academy Award
rhen Governor Petomane nomination for singing about how
ed by Brooks) struggles to "everything below the waist is
n's cap back on, someone kaput."
he think of his secretary, And Brooks then easily goes
en slides right into the cap from a scene entirely composed of
fart and burp humor to political
satire, with his portrayal of a com-
plete imbecile heading an unapolo-
Brooks: He's getically corrupt government. It's
r than Borat a mockery that's ever-applicable to
, real-life politics.
classier too. "Saddles" is also an accurate par-
c r t ody of the classic western, follow-
ing an underdog hero's ascension to
small-town fame from his humble
al double entendre. Mad- beginnings allthe way to hislegend-
n ("Young Frankenstein") ary ride off into the sunset. Brooks
t as a burlesque German is straight on with his parody of the
'ho constantly expounds genre's classic formula. At one point

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sexually exhausted she is
s perhaps the only actress

See SADDLES, Page 8A

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