Friday, January 05, 2007

Alan Dale on Borat and Jerry Blank and Voltaire and Brueghel the Elder (not forgetting Judi Dench, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers)

Alan Dale is still an almost completely cool guy. Here he finds subtlety and depth in "Strangers with Candy." It undermines "our belief in human perfectibility," "as skeptical as Candide without Voltaire's righteous anger simmering just below the ironic froth."

Taken together, the series and movie put folly, self-indulgence, and corruption on display as panoramically as Pieter Brueghel the Elder's Fight Between Carnival and Lent, except that there's not even a corner of the vision dedicated to a meaningful spiritual authority. Strangers With Candy reposes so little faith in our aspirations that life becomes one extended example of comic bathos. The makers see our species as worse than it is and laugh nevertheless, infectiously; not laughing in response would, if anything, make you more like the characters rather then less.

Of course, this kind of irony doesn't present the whole truth. Rather, it's intended as a counterweight to the countless romances that glamorize or gloss over unpleasant facts and intractable problems, and that spin fantasies of accomplishment for us to project ourselves into. Even given its extreme bias, irony like Strangers With Candy can be more honest than such romances, and more recognizable. At the same time, insofar as Strangers With Candy is comic irony, it favors impact over plausibility, shocking us by assuming our identification with the loser-protagonist as she fails in ways that are depicted with no quarter for taboos or sensitivities.


Sedaris gives the most staggering female slapstick performance in the exaggerated, creepy-frantic Keystone vein in movie history, and with more tang than any Keystone comedienne ever had. As Jerri, Sedaris embodies an ironic view of human nature that borders on a revelation of the horror of total hopelessness but then turns that glimpse of horror back into all-out burlesque. With the series and now the movie, Sedaris has become the all-time queen of the one-dimensional, so-bleak-it's-comic visionary. (For my money, she gave the most unforgettable performance by a lead actress in 2006, edging out even Judi Dench, who in Notes on a Scandal finally gave the astonishing performance she has repeatedly been credited with.)

His comments on Borat are not as provocative:

Cohen has two main sources of inspiration: a low cunning about what will puzzle, shock, offend, or outrage people and a live-comedy genius for taking his victims slowly, by degrees.

But I think this is just right:

Cohen's shtick is almost entirely opportunistic; far too much has been made of the content of what Borat says and elicits from his victims. Most of the humor that doesn't derive from the tension of live encounters with unwitting participants is dialect humor about the simplicity and backwardness of immigrants, which was a staple of the vaudeville circuit. And the fact that the rodeo audience seems at first to go along with Borat's zany oratory doesn't tell you anything besides the fact that an audience hearing something so out of the ordinary will react slowly, because it's out of the ordinary and because there can be a certain inhibition among members of a relatively random group. Cohen thus makes possible some highly unusual sociological observation, but the comic substance resides solely in what he's saying and doing.

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