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.”