A rundown of the week’s cultural moments, books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona Above image: On the Rocks Friday 23 October, 2020 Long read
Years ago, one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s closest collaborators told me of the personal toll exacted upon the comedian by going out into the world as one of his (now-famous) alter egos – Ali G, Brüno and Borat: ‘It is unbelievably demanding to have to prepare and take part in these prank scenes and set-ups – especially as the characters have got more famous. He never knows what is going to happen. It is incredibly stressful.’
It is now 22 years since Baron Cohen’s Ali G first appeared on The 11 O’Clock Show – a brilliant satirical impression of a young White man from the ‘Staines ghetto’ desperately trying to appropriate what he imagined Black street culture to be, and then gormlessly interviewing the famous (Gore Vidal, Buzz Aldrin, and Donald Trump).
Next up was Borat Sagdiyev, the roving Kazakh reporter seeking wisdom in Western nations, whose regular appearances on Da Ali G Show (2000 to 2004) yielded a very successful feature film in 2006: Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan.
So, it is all the more remarkable that – under the radar, without having his cover blown or attracting media attention – Baron Cohen has made a sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery Of Prodigious Bribe To American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (Prime Video, 23 October).
Already, the film has generated global controversy due to a scene in which the unsuspecting Rudy Giuliani – Trump’s personal attorney – is shown apparently reaching into his trousers in the presence of the actor Maria Bakalova playing Borat’s daughter (who is, in turn, posing as a TV reporter). Borat also has a mission to deliver a particular gift to ‘America’s most famous ladies’ man’, Mike Pence.
The satire is vividly contemporary, embracing the pandemic, social media conspiracy theories, and the horrors of the Trump administration (it includes the caption: NOW VOTE, OR YOU WILL BE EXECUTE [sic]). The greater point being that the world has changed since Borat last took to the road in the US: for a start, the sequel is being streamed rather than released first in movie houses, sadly shuttered in many countries by COVID-19. And – to a shocking extent – many of Borat’s absurdly bigoted views have now, in the 14 years since the first film, been brought into the mainstream by social media and the rise of the populist Right.
…and speaking of Sacha Baron Cohen: don’t miss his performance as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (Netflix). Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the movie tells the tale of the 1969 trial of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters, charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago the previous year.
The cast also features Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden (who went on to marry Jane Fonda and become a long-serving California legislator); Mark Rylance as defence lawyer William Kunstler; and the reliably excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt as federal prosecutor Richard Schultz. But it is Baron Cohen – charismatic and whip-sharp as Hoffman, founding member of the Youth International Party (Yippies) – who steals the show, proving once again that he is a first-rank actor, as well as a comedian of genius.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Billions (Sky Atlantic)
Back for a fifth season – and already confirmed for a sixth – the adventures of hedge fund mogul Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and his nemesis, Chuck Rhoades Jr (Paul Giamatti), the Attorney General of New York, are now pure escapism in the bleak age of the virus and looming recession. But the show’s class has always depended upon the quality of its two lead performers (Asia Kate Dillon and Maggie Siff are also outstanding) and its capacity not to take itself too seriously. The world of Billions – swaggering deca-billionaires vying for the cover of Vanity Fair – now feels like an alternative universe, pure entertainment remote from the real story of 2020. All the better for it.
I Am Greta (selected cinemas, including Curzon)
Nathan Grossman’s documentary is a smoothly made account of Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary rise from lone school climate striker to a position of international leadership, and, as such, an important record of a remarkable accomplishment. It is less successful as an exploration of character and motivation. But, in an age already drenched with hyper-personalised celebrity, some – including Thunberg herself – would argue that this represents progress.
People You May Know (iTunes)
A must-watch before the US presidential elections, this documentary, directed by Charles Kriel and Katharina Gellein Viken, follows the former’s investigation of the links between Evangelical churches and data-scraping tech companies. Kriel was an adviser to the Commons DCMS select committee’s investigation into fake news and misinformation, and his disclosures about the use of US worshippers’ personal data to assist political strategists are riveting. The film is also excellent on the Evangelicals’ calculated support for Donald Trump as an ungodly man who is nonetheless the ‘instrument’ of God’s work.
On The Rocks (Apple TV+, 23 October)
Who can resist the creative reunion of Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola, whose directorial debut, Lost In Translation (2003), was one of the great movies of its decade? The theme is more formulaic this time, and the tone more overtly comic: Murray plays Felix, playboy father to Rashida Jones’ Laura, who join forces in a gumshoe quest to find out if her husband is cheating. Though Murray is always captivating, it is Jones – an underrated actress – who gives the movie its emotional depth and heart.
Troy by Stephen Fry
Hot on the heels of the British Museum’s extraordinary exhibition on Troy last year, Stephen Fry retells the great Homeric saga in characteristically compelling style. With this third volume on the Greek myths – following Mythos (2017) and Heroes (2018) – Fry is successfully staking his claim to be the Robert Graves of our age (and, let’s face it, Graves was never a great panel-show presenter, director or comic performer).
A Cry From The Far Middle: Dispatches From A Divided Land by PJ O’Rourke
O’Rourke has come a long way since Republican Party Reptile (1987) made the decade-defining claim that conservatives have more fun. This collection has the same satirical edge, but is the reflection of an American man of letters now in his seventies, observing ‘an era of idiot populism and hooligan partisanship’. His observations about social media, wokeness (which he welcomes as a gift to satirists) and the decline of classical liberalism are all very funny – as is his description of the pandemic as ‘a children’s party game where they’re all blindfolded and swinging sticks – except they’re clobbering each other instead of the virus piñata’.
The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child
No thriller franchise in recent decades has attracted such near-universal acclaim as the Jack Reacher series. The 25th novel – the first to be co-authored by Child and his younger brother Andrew – begins in Nashville and embraces cyberattacks, conspiracy and (of course) murder. But the core story remains the same – the unencumbered, itinerant figure of frontier justice, exacting vengeance wherever he goes in clipped, readable prose. And no, Tom Cruise should never have played him.
Blue Electric – An Opera (The Playground Theatre, 27 to 31 October)
A collaboration between composer Tom Smail and writer Alba Arikha – who are also husband and wife – based on the latter’s evocative memoir, Major/Minor (2011). There are few enough opportunities right now to enjoy live performances of opera – especially innovative work of this sort. Having seen an early version, I guarantee this will be a captivating evening. Book now.
‘Before’ by James Blake
A terrific EP from the London-born singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer – developing his trademark brew of electro, dubstep and trip hop. Blake’s music is never less than evocative, haunting – and adds up to the soundtrack of a troubled soul, speaking truth through a keyboard.
The Familiar Stranger by Frisco
One of grime’s true greats delivers his third studio album, which does not disappoint. Hardcore delivery mixes with dance-hall beats that keep the listener guessing – right up to the final, devastating track, ‘Black Man’.
Letter To You by Bruce Springsteen
The Boss’s 20th studio album is the first to feature The E Street Band since High Hopes (2014) and is accompanied by an excellent new Apple TV+ documentary. At 71, Springsteen makes no effort to conceal his debt to the past, and to the aggregation of memory that infuses his music – and the album is all the stronger and more compelling for it.
Tom Lehrer’s lyrics
Hats off to the legendary satirical songwriter, now aged 92, who has put his ingenious lyrics into the public domain. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. The lyrics to songs such as ‘Wernher von Braun’, ‘The Vatican Rag’ and ‘National Brotherhood Week’ are among the funniest words written in the English language. If you think I exaggerate, check out the Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel on YouTube.
…and before we go… do watch and listen to ‘The Love’, a wonderful video message by the Black Eyed Peas and Jennifer Hudson, urging Americans to vote against hate and division on 3 November and the rest of the world to pay attention to the most consequential presidential election in living memory. In the words of will.i.am: ‘The citizen activists joining us in this video give me hope that positive change is not only possible, it will happen, and collectively we can turn around the breakdown of civil society. This is a call to action for every American of voting age to show up safely and vote on, or before 3 November like your life depends on it.’
Do join us, too, at our Sensemaker Live ThinkIn on 30 October, from 1pm to 2pm, when – as part of our pre-election coverage – we’ll be looking at American culture and values, and how they stand at a crossroads.
Stay safe – and optimistic, too.
Editor and Partner