Tuesday, November 7, 2006

More on the Borat mystery

After the last post I read several reviews in the hope that there would be some solid explanation of exactly why Borat is considered subversive satire. But the reviewers are all echoing each other until they blur together (except that Sacha Baron Cohen is usually referred to as Baron Cohen by Brits and journals with solid copyeditors—“Mr. Baron Cohen” as the New York Times puts it).

One thing that I didn’t find any reviewer mention is that when you work in a job with a lot of public contact you generally have to go along with even suspected gags. I’ve worked in retail for 20 years and have often encountered customers who appear to be pulling pranks, anything from peculiarly unique physical twitches to verbal accents that sound like Pepe Le Pew or Boris Badanov. It doesn’t help that a few times these have actually been hoaxes instigated by friends or bored co-workers (hi Bryan, hi Greg). But we always have to go with the benefit of the doubt, especially since most of the time these people are real and just trying to get assistance. So in Borat I feel sure many of the targeted people suspected a prank but had to act as if it wasn’t.

Basically reviewers are making two mistakes: taking the film at face value and then incorrectly assuming great importance to what’s been “discovered.” So the frequently referenced gun shop clerk who doesn’t bat an eye when Borat wants a gun to hunt Jews. Reviewers claim the clerk is anti-Semitic but the remarks come from Borat not the clerk. It’s not as if the clerk launches on some Streicher-esque rant but instead tries to work with a bizarre claim from a customer. And how do we know that he doesn’t already believe that this is a joke and is playing along? Or even that this really happened and the scene itself wasn’t planned? Admittedly this is somewhat peculiar customer service but my point is that we don’t know that this guy is anti-Semitic because he doesn’t do much but try to sell a pistol. But let’s assume it’s a real encounter and then I have to wonder if this was the worst the filmmakers could discover. Did they try only one gun shop? Or did the others refuse to sign a release? Because I’ve been to a gun show and know that colorfully offensive gun folk are not hard to find. And who really thinks the Hummer salesman was serious about running down gypsies? The rodeo guy and frat boys are a bit more obvious but again how much is them going along with the gag? Not that these aren’t narrow-minded people but then all we have is them perhaps playing to the cameras and apparently, for the frat boys at least, drunk as well. It’s worth noting in both scenes exactly which person is lying about who they are. Even more worth noting is that the majority of the people Borat encounters don’t display the slightest hint of racism, misogyny or even rudeness.

But that’s where the second main error originates. What exactly has Borat revealed? That people in the street don’t like strangers kissing them? Or that, gasp, there are racists and homophobes in America? Anybody who can get into an R-rated already knows this and there’s not much point to underlining it. In a very real sense this is not political comment or even satire because there’s no attempt to connect it to anything larger or deeper, larger in the sense of such attitudes being acted upon by people in power (political, economic or bureaucratic) and deeper in the sense of social or psychological structures that create and maintain such beliefs. I know people who think UFOs are actually aliens, who believe the moonwalks were hoaxes and who are convinced that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government. Suppose Borat had interviewed them then reviewers would have claimed that this is a satire on America as a nation of kooks. Finding a few racists (and Borat displays only a few) is neither difficult nor of any interest.

That’s one reason I can’t read as much into the bits with Bob Barr and Alan Keyes as some reviewers have, locating a political aspect that seems almost glancing. J. Hoberman claims the fact that both “are right-wing moralizers suggests something about the Baron Cohen agenda.” But really, does calling somebody a “genuine chocolate face” amount to any kind of politics? There was an attempt to innoculate the film against such complaints in the sequence at the start pointing out that Americans don’t find funny jokes about things people can’t change but this comment is remarkably pointless, especially since Keyes appears almost in on the joke (maybe not that comment which I remember being in a voice-over). The Barr sequence cuts so suddenly at the punchline (not remotely a funny one either) that you wonder what came after. Did Barr laugh? Kick Borat out? Realize it was a put-on? Continue the meeting? These may be right-wing moralizers but that’s exactly what Baron Cohen is not engaging; they could just as easily have been chosen at random.

Not chosen at random I’m sure is that Borat heads through the South. Somebody (Greil Marcus?) remarked that Southerners are the last group in America that it’s perfectly acceptable to ridicule and Borat doesn’t pause to consider that. Would the film have played this well to critics if the trip went through Detroit, Chicago and Denver? Obviously we’ll never know.

For me the one genuinely effective scene as satire is the bed-and-breakfast where Borat and his producer are so terrified at a harmless, helpful couple because they’re Jews that they can’t sleep and end up fleeing in the night. This time the aim is at Borat and anti-Semitism, whether or not you think humor is an appropriate tool to fight racism at least it’s clear that’s what’s happening. Oddly enough that’s what I think isn’t really going on in the much-remarked Running of the Jew. The giant, constructed heads make this seem like some folk custom, which is mostly the point but imagine if the scene had shown the villagers actually running real people. Not funny but also probably the kind of bitter comedy that’s needed exactly because it’s not funny. I don’t want to see such a scene--imagine Goodbye Uncle Tom for Jews--but Borat doesn’t go far enough. Not in displaying the Running since I think the appropriate effect could have been created purely through dialogue but not far enough in making viewers think about this. At the end Borat says they’ve stopped the Running because it’s “cruel”; again imagine the difference if the line was they stopped “because we’ve been told it’s cruel.” The actual line is a kind of lovable foreigner remark that’s filled American comedy--and yes I know most of the filmmakers are British--since the 19th century; the other more genuinely political in however tiny a way because it’s about power and why people act the way they do.

But let’s just collect a few of the wilder reviewer remarks.

* In the Times, Manohla Dargis says (building off a Jerry Lewis quote) that “Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t blow bullies out of the water; he obliterates them.” If that was true I’d be all for Borat funny or not but the main problem as noted above is that he isn’t going after bullies but is instead the bully himself.

* Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian describes Borat’s attempts to kiss male New Yorkers as a “comic goldmine” and then ends with the simple sentence “It is sublime.” Great, Borat as lost Shakespeare.

* Gene Seymour at Newsday claims the film “IS the quintessential movie comedy of our times” (yep, his capital “IS”), though leaving open exactly what “our times” are. This year? The past three years? Past three decades? Oh, it’s quintessential because it’s about embarassment which is quintessentially American. He closes with saying we could call it “Jackass with an agenda. But unlike Jackass, there's recognition that comes with revulsion.” I’m not sure what the recognition is (that we can all be embarassed?) but as my friend Jeremy pointed out, at least the Jackass crew is mainly doing everything to themselves.

* I particularly liked the reviewerese of Mick La Salle at the San Francisco Chronicle: “It's so inventive, so rich with comic moments, so outrageous, so shocking and unexpected, and so blithely willing to be offensive that it consistently leaves viewers off balance -- and howling.” Most reviewers love throwing out superlatives and feel that criticism is the act of filling out report cards. It’s hardly worth pointing out (though I’ll do it anyway) that a lot of Borat is quite predictable (antique shop, children running from bear, confusion in the subway, etc) and that if anything it should be more offensive. (Though oddly La Salle makes one error when he claims the film is on “3,000 screens” since there’s been plenty of press coverage that Fox reduced the original opening of 2000 down to 800 with plans to go back to 2000. No 3000 anywhere.)

* I expected a lot more reviews in fake Borat-ese but so far only found Paul Arendt at the BBC doing more than just a phrase or two. Of course he gets it totally wrong: “Here, we in processes of making mind up for yous: Question: to go to cinegraphic house and see Borat, hilarious new celluloid making from funny prankster Sacha Baron Cohen, or stay home and milk chicken?”

* And I should close with Kenneth Turan at the LA Times who in a mostly positive review nevertheless actually sums up much of my argument. (Still, I’m gonna argue that there have been politically and culturally provocative comedians that far outpace Baron Cohen since Bruce & early Pryor: Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Dennis Leary, Sarah Silverman, Lewis Black.) Turan: “With his corrosive brand of take-no-prisoners humor that scalds on contact, Cohen is the most intentionally provocative comedian since Lenny Bruce and early Richard Pryor, with a difference. For unlike those predecessors, there is a mean-spiritedness, an every-man-for-himself coldness about his humor. The one kind of laughter you won't find in Borat is that which acknowledges shared humanity. Instead, there is that pitiless staple of reality TV, watching others humiliate themselves for our viewing pleasure.”

Sunday, November 5, 2006


Sometimes you feel like the world doesn’t get the joke. So with Borat, one of the year’s best reviewed movies and rating a 96 at Rotten Tomatoes. (It has a lengthy subtitle which you can pull off the Internet if interested.) Entertainment Weekly even asked if it was the funniest movie ever or just the most outrageous, offensive one. Well, as it turns out none of that’s true. Oh, Borat is offensive but usually in easily digestible form. And the claimed political satire is so diffuse that it really doesn’t make much impact. It seems like Borat is being taken at face value for claims made about it but not for what the film actually does.

But start with the comedy. There’s a scene where Borat is in an antique shop and—gasp—accidentally breaks some dishes. While he tries to recover he continues to break more and just the laughter never stops. This stuff was tired when Lucy did it and there’s nothing new here. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel that this is some kind of balance for the store owner supporting display of the Confederate flag but if so that’s about as easy a target as you can get. Same for the Texas rodeo manager who tells Borat to avoid kissing men or even the misogynist frat boys (who I’m guessing are supposed to be alums). It’s hardly news that such people exist. (Though I do like that towards the start is an entire scene about the nature of comedy, perhaps the equivalent to Plato’s lost dialogue Komedie.)

But do these people exist? Apparently sections of Borat were filmed with real, off-the-street people and that’s where it gets dicey. Certainly not all scenes since some are obvious set-ups but it’s easy enough to image that several are real. So a driving instructor, car salesman, comedy instructor, news reporter, all get their willingness to help thrown back at them. But there’s one scene at a dinner party with three older Southern couples, supposedly in Birmingham. These people go out of their way to be polite and helpful to Borat but he continually tries to humiliate them, eventually even bringing a prostitute to the dinner. Now what was the point? That they suffered his antics longer than many others would? That they wanted him to feel welcome and have a good time? The inhumanity! I read one review that claims their response to the prostitute—who is black and skimpily clad even though she’s fairly obese—show how racist they are though I can’t imagine that their reactions would have been any different if she was white. Enough was simply enough. For all I know this entire scene was staged; almost certainly the prostitute wasn’t real (the IMDB lists her as both an actor and an actress, suggesting either they confused two filmographies or she has an interesting biography). Real or not, it seems as if the point was to make viewers feel superior to the yokels. That’s why I sincerely hope the mortgage convention that he crashes in the nude was not real; people there might be enjoying themselves on a trip from home or might be bored at the demands of their job but they don’t deserve to have a private night interrupted in such a way.

Similarly with the feminist group towards the start of the film. Certainly there’s some feminist rhetoric that deserves satirical skewering but Borat gets nowhere close to that. Again, the point is unclear. There’s a purely narrative function (one woman IDs the CJ on TV as Pamela Anderson) and perhaps even filling in the character bit that Borat has a quite backwards view of women, though that’s already been made pretty clear. But satire? I think of all the Monty Python characters who are confronted with something that doesn’t meet their world view—guards who won’t guard, self-defense instructors focused on vegetables, a shop owner who won’t admit he sold a dead parrot. In fact, Life of Brian is pretty much nothing but an attack on the limits of systematic thinking. But I see none of that in this scene or in Borat in general. The feminists don’t even go beyond common sense and the same reactions probably would have come from most men. Borat is so far out that there’s no way to make a satiric connection even if there was a target here.

Just check out the pentecostal revival towards the end. Borat gets swept up in the fervor but despite a couple of very timid bits (“Mr. Jesus” and the line about his “retarded brother” that the preacher changes to simply “brother”) there’s nothing aimed at them, expect probably the shot that they all step over his sleeping body to enter the building. Perhaps this type of speaking-in-tongue religion parodies itself but it feels to me exactly that Sacha Cohen (Borat’s creator) knew the line where he had to stop. Yep, OK to make fun of politicians, Southerners, feminists, rednecks, b-boys, even the President but don’t dare joke about Christianity or there goes much of your potential audience.

Sure, some bits work. The entire rodeo sequence almost, almost, shows what Borat could have been. There’s good stuff in the NYC street scenes, some of the hotel bits and other parts here and there. In fact I laughed at a lot of this but much the same way I laughed at Jackass or even some of the genuinely offensive Team America. (Parker & Stone are thanked in the end credits of Borat.) But it’s also annoying that four writers couldn’t figure out a way to maintain the fake documentary illusion. Partway through Borat loses his producer/cameraman (who eventually returns, a plot device copied from Spinal Tap) but the scene where Borat explains this is both handheld and has zooms, so who’s holding the camera? One moment he has no money and then he has some. Perhaps not a big deal and we really shouldn’t have expected more from people who thought blundering around an antique shop was a good idea.

Back to Python again. There’s a video interview with John Cleese where he says suppose you have a character appear. The man’s head uncontrollably twitches and he talks in partial gibberish (which of course Cleese enacted). Now this isn’t funny if it’s the milkman. But it is funny if it’s the Under-Secretary of Homeland Development. I think he’s completely right and it’s the problem I have with that famous photo of Benjamin Peret insulting a priest. Attack the institutions, the offices, the personae, the bad ideas but the people are still people and even if they don’t deserve respect they also don’t deserve humiliation or being forced to think they way I do.