Last night I watched “Borat”, now available from Netflix and all the other usual outlets.
Since there has been an ocean of words about the movie, I am not sure that I have that much to add but will try.
To start with, my wife and I are huge fans of Sasha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who plays Borat, Ali G and Bruno on a half-hour HBO show that is only available in reruns nowadays. Cohen seems to have abandoned television for movies. His next project will be based on his Bruno character, a gay Austrian television reporter who covers the fashion beat. Like his other avatars, this character has a knack for getting people to put their feet in their mouth. In a typical segment, he’ll get a fashion designer to render his opinion on what religion is “in” that year or not.
Ali G, of course, is the character who has adopted Black hip-hop mannerisms, while being obviously white. It has generated the most memorable comic episodes by far, although it is doubtful that Cohen will ever get any future mileage out of the character, since he is so well-known. In fact, he had to transport Ali G to the USA since he was so well-known in Great Britain. Here he is interviewing Noam Chomsky. Very funny and completely harmless.
The Borat character is the most controversial since he is given to blatant anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic outbursts. Since it is abundantly clear that the character is being used in the same way that Norman Lear used Archie Bunker, one wonders why one would feel compelled to attack Cohen for spreading hatred.
In an interesting article that appears in This Magazine, Pike Wright compares Sasha Cohen favorably to Sarah Silverman, another Jewish comedian who has achieved some notoriety for “political incorrectness”:
During an appearance on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2002, Silverman recounted how a friend had advised her to avoid jury duty by writing a racial slur on the selection form—“something really inappropriate, like ‘I hate Chinks.’” Instead, sugary-sweet Silverman explained how she wrote “I love Chinks” because she didn’t want to be considered a racist. An Asian-American media watchdog group protested the use of the slur until the network apologized. Silverman did not.
So does she really think it is OK to say Chink? Silverman never breaks character by smiling at her own outrageousness (as in, “Oh my, did I just say that aloud?”), so we’re left wondering who the real Silverman is. Unlike Cohen, her act intentionally cultivates this ambivalence. If we knew, we could decide if her act is full of racist jokes or full of jokes about racism. Couldn’t we?
I must confess to having spent no more than five minutes watching Silverman on her new Comedy Network show. I just didn’t find her funny at all. I have a feeling that her comedy is more about belittling racial minorities than attacking racism, from what I have seen. Her shtick seems influenced by SNL, where she worked until being fired. SNL spends an inordinate amount of time satirizing society’s underdogs nowadays, a clear departure from the show’s foundations.
My main complaint with “Borat” is that it sacrificed the TV show’s original premise for a rather opportunist bid for mainstream appeal. In adopting the “road movie” genre of National Lampoon’s “Vacation” or the ineffably stupid “Little Miss Sunshine”, it gave short shrift to the kind of comic interaction found in the HBO series. This is despite the fact that the HBO series would only include 8 minutes of Borat per episode. Those 8 minutes, however, gave Cohen much more time to develop his comic interaction with his patsies than in any particular scene in the film. Additionally, there is far too much material in the film that is staged, or that appears staged. And much of it is crude humor that comes across as a slightly more elevated version of MTV’s “Jackass”.
In keeping with the dumbed-down Hollywood approach, there is far more bathroom humor in the movie than found on the TV show. For example, in one scene Borat–a guest at a fancy dinner party–excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns, he presents his host with a plastic bag filled with his excrement. In the original skit that appeared on the HBO show, which obviously was the source of this scene in the movie, the entire 8 minutes is taken up with Borat getting his hosts to hoist themselves on their own petard by asking them questions about the Old South.
My guess is that director Larry Charles had a big influence on the content of the film. Charles was executive director of the Seinfeld show with Larry David and Seinfeld himself. He has a keen sense of mainstream tastes and was probably hired to direct the movie in a calculated bid to make Sasha Cohen a household name. Ironically, this kind of success will ultimately doom his career for the reasons cited above, but I imagine that Cohen will have so much money socked away that it won’t make any difference.
In his comments, Brian makes a point that I neglected to cover in my original posting: “It is Borat’s slight against Eastern Europeans that I find troubling.” This is an important point and something that I have thought about myself. To start with, I think that there is definitely a bias against Eastern Europeans in Great Britain that probably helped to enable the war in the Balkans. As Diana Johnstone observed, the Bosnian Muslims were considered “more like us” from the standpoint of Western European and British liberal sensibilities. With their blue eyes and their urban life-style, they seemed warm and fuzzy in comparison to the peasant Serbs, who came across as darker, more savage and more Eastern.
I am also sensitive to the use of a “Stan” as the butt of Cohen’s humor. All of these former Soviet Republics, especially Azerbaijan, have a heavy percentage of ethnic Turks. So in a sense, the stereotyping is not just Eastern European, it is Turkoman. Since I am married to a Turkish woman and have a strong affinity for Turkish culture, this does bother me a bit. Also, keep in mind that Mahir Çağrı, a Turk from Izmir, sued Cohen for essentially ripping off his website which is filled with malapropisms and crude overtures to European babes. Since I have definite plans to either move to Izmir at some point, or maintain a vacation apartment there, I didn’t appreciate this connection either, even if it was based on unfounded allegations.
After mulling it over, I came to the conclusion that Cohen’s “Kazakhstan” is so broadly comical that it is impossible to take seriously as a genuine assault on Eastern European or Turkoman ethnicity or culture. It is about as malevolent as Chico Marx’s representation of things Italian. Like a lot of Cohen’s humor, it has a kind of ironic self-referential character that defies easy pigeon-holing. Is he mocking East Europeans? Or is he mocking the stereotypes of East Europeans found in the West? I would accept that he is doing both things, but it is not the sort of thing that is likely to be used for reactionary purposes, like banning immigration, etc.
If you want examples of nasty British satire, I would refer you to the novels of Evelyn Waugh or V.S. Naipul. In their fiction, the natives inevitably come across as uncivilized and irrational. Furthermore, their works are taken much more seriously than “Borat” ever will be.