Culture

Sacha Baron Cohen and Other Political Freex

Here Come the Videofreex
Media power connects a new documentary and two comedies.

‘I felt entitled,” amateur reporter David Cort confesses in Here Come the Videofreex, a documentary about a little-known slice of media history: In 1969, mainstream TV network CBS employed a group of counterculture youth (beamish renegades who called themselves the Videofreex) to capture the subversive activities of Sixties radicals. Most of those videotapes are gone, but the entitlement lives on in the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders delusion, and the mass manipulation of cable-TV “news” outlets.

Here Come the Videofreex – and the new Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, The Brothers Grimsby — inadvertently drive home the overlooked truth that much of today’s liberal media is not pledged to liberté, égalité, fraternité, but instead is based on modern degradation of that motto through, again, a sense of entitlement.

Entitlement is quite different from “Civil Rights,” and Here Come the Videofreex helps us understand how the two things became closely linked and then were tied in with the self-satisfaction of media domination. Directors Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin observe those Sixties youth who felt that through the then-new video technology they could more accurately address the proletariat — a sense of righteous free expression like the social networking of cell phones, Twitter, and innumerable blogs. They were eventually crushed by corporate media’s ultimate indifference. CBS sacked the Videofreex but let them keep the “worthless” technology, which led to the Videofreex’ brief pirate TV enterprise.

It’s amazing to see this all laid out in an indie documentary while we currently contend with the bewildering, flip-flopping propaganda of MSNBC, Fox Cable News, and the shamelessly pandering CNN — all 21st-century videofreaks with small regard for reporting or objectivity. Their “news” cycles merely exploit American politics.

When a veteran hippie mused, ‘Turning people on to video was like turning them on to grass,’ it seems stunningly naïve.

Co-director Raskin had worked on the 2013 Our Nixon, the most compassionate of all Watergate documentaries, which most reviewers misunderstood — seemingly deliberately. Today’s media politics all result from class privilege: Millionaire newsreaders follow the dictates of their behind-the-scenes tycoon bosses (broadcasters committed to the status quo and partisan politricks). They’re determined to influence the voting and polling patterns of viewers and readers. This is what the now-aged provocateurs of Here Come the Videofreex teach us. Parry Teasdale, Davidson Gigliotti, Skip Blumberg, Chuck Kennedy, Carol Vontobel, Ann Woodward, Bart Friedman, and others recall their pasts without guile, even as they lament their inability to fully “democratize” the U.S. media.

Movie fans will appreciate how accurately Arthur Penn captured this class and gender history when he predicted the hippie movement’s collapse in the 1969 film Alice’s Restaurant. But today’s media romanticize Sixties counterculture and so resist investigating the anarchists behind Occupy and Ferguson and Baltimore and Bernie Sanders protests. They don’t take counterculture “fun” seriously enough. “Overthrow of the government [would make] a great f***ing movie!” one of the Videofreex enthused.

Here Come the Videofreex catches the essence of this delusion. When a veteran hippie mused, “Turning people on to video was like turning them on to grass,” it seems stunningly naïve. It’s also au courant.

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Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong in “The Brothers Grimsby”

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t know the difference between audacity and offense, which is why, like Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher, and the late-night-TV bandits, he is favored by political partisans. They think promoting shameless, outrageous bias is a cultural virtue. Cohen’s new film, The Brothers Grimsby, mixes the offense and the absurdity of his 2007 Borat into a parody of British spy movies. Dole-collector Nobby (played by Cohen) reunites with his long-lost brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), who has become an MI6 secret agent.

There’s audacity in Cohen’s connecting escapist entertainment to documentary (he parodies James Bond as well as the BBC genre of miserablist British indie filmmakers, like Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay), but his brazen presentation of the British underclass lacks social insight. He never reflects on spy-movie escapism or how, particularly in England, it becomes part of the entrenched class system. The Brothers Grimsby tweaks class anxiety (Nobby fathers a brood of welfare-state miscreant soccer fans who embody the lower-class faults of indolence, penury, and waste) and then absolves that corruption with lewd, ludicrous — though sometimes funny — vulgarity.

#related#Cheerful distraction is typical of the way contemporary political satire works. Consider Cohen a political freak — one of those panderers who make fun of social frustration and resentment and are never constructive. Cohen’s burlesque (raunchy sex gags so blatant they’re surreal) is his most hilarious and effective mode, but half-jokes about government surveillance expose a double standard; he’s either politically ignorant or dishonest. Identifying Nobby’s hometown as “Grimsby –Twin City to Chernobyl” recalls the callous witlessness of Borat (while director Louis Leterrier supplies truly audacious, lightning-fast drone’s-eye-view action scenes — violence that deserve a more serious context).

Worst of all is the last-minute caricature of a real-life Republican presidential candidate, whom Nobby infects with HIV (only part of the Manhattan audience applauded). Why such heinous “topical” humor? That Cohen avoids satirizing Britain’s prime minister or royal family shows that contemporary comedians are unimaginative as well as biased. Most of today’s “political humor” appeals to liberals’ inhumanity, their insensitive self-righteousness. This is made plain when Nobby helps his spy brother’s mission and discovers the lethal efficacy of mindless gunfire. He editorializes, “I understand why you love guns so much: It completely detaches you from the guilt of your actions.” That’s liberal rhetoric, but it also explains why the vicious, ad hominem political humor currently rampant in our media is so abhorrent.

*      *      *

Dustin Milligan in “Me Him Her”

In Me Him Her, writer-director Max Landis puts his sense of entitlement to good use. Son of Hollywood filmmaker John Landis, Max portrays adolescent license (as in his remarkable sci-fi script for Chronicle). Me Him Her knows how Hollywoodians operate. When superstar actor Brendan (Luke Bracey) observes, “L.A. is like a giant jigsaw puzzle someone forgot to assemble; the pieces are laid out all over the floor,” he’s also describing America. Landis’s recurring gag, “We have to tell you your sexual orientation?” addresses Brendan’s yearning, as a closeted gay actor, to connect, to understand himself and his place in the culture. Among Landis’s best lines: Brendan’s BFF, Cory (Dustin Milligan), provokes his father’s generational advice: “Men don’t have best friends.”

Unlike second-generation director Sofia Coppola, Landis has a humorous disposition. He’s more socially conscious — a view no doubt learned from L.A.’s most subversive youth chronicler, Gregg Araki (Me Him Her is almost a conservative update of Araki’s finest comedy, Nowhere). Just as politicians claim to “evolve” on gay issues, Me Him Her (the title eschews any punctuation that would separate people) expands the rom-com into social compassion. The issue of sexual parity gives Max Landis a handle on American political reality that is finer than Sacha Baron Cohen’s deceitful political humor. Landis may feel entitled, but he’s not a political freak.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.

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