Sunday, April 01, 2007



I finally got around to seeing Borat last night.

I used to drive my good friend Kevin crazy. Very witty, and a great storyteller, Kevin would come into work every day with some tale of bringing someone down a peg -- some pompous gasbag, or outrageously mean storekeeper -- by flashing out the perfect stroke of rapier-like wit at the perfect moment.

This is how I drove Kevin crazy. He would tell the story, and I, on the very edge of laughter, would always ask: "Did you really say that?" If he really did say that, I'd guffaw. If he didn't -- if he hadn't said the great bon mot right there on the scene, and only thought it up later -- my smile would shrink a bit and I'd chuckle.

Kevin's view was "if it's funny, it's funny! It doesn't matter whether I 'really' said it or not." But to me it mattered. Timing is everything, or almost everything, in comedy, and it really is less funny if the mean-spirited and pompous got away with it and were only skewered in Kevin's imagination hours later as he came up with what he should have said. It's the difference between Oscar Wilde and mere esprit d'escalier (the clever comeback that comes to you too late, as you're going down the stairs).

The entire Borat movie was like that. Yes, it had laugh-out-loud parts, and uncomfortable edgy satire parts. But the whole time I was thinking, that to really know how funny or how sharp this movie is, I'd need to know which of the scenes were genuine "candid camera" moments and which were staged. Comedy where you don't know how hard to laugh until you've done a bunch of background research has a major timing problem.

I've heard, for instance, that Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator and performer of the Borat character, was sued by the disgusting frat boys who picked him up in an RV on the road to Vegas. But I didn't hear that he was sued by Pamela Anderson -- so that whole thing was plainly staged. And so on.

As a satire, the "point" of Borat is create a character who's extreme cultural backwardness is turned on us as a mirror to show how culturally backward we are here in the U.S. A supposed TV newscaster from Kazakhstan, Borat (despite his "elite" position in Kazakh society) lives in a hovel in an impoverished peasant town characterized by cultural "norms" of rape, incest and Jew-baiting. Borat travels to the United States where he gains access to cultural events, people's homes and workplaces, and even local TV news broadcasts because his dupes (the people he captures on film) are purportedly convinced that he really is a Kazhak journalist making a documentary.

It's an interesting cultural/psychological setup. The American dupes tolerate, at least up to a point, some really outrageous behavior on Borat's part. This depends in equal measure upon both the friendly, trusting openness of many Americans (a trait that has a nice side but makes people gullible), but also, of course, on our gross ignorance of the world. Only people who are truly clueless about life on other continents would believe, for instance, that a journalist from Kazakhstan would return from the bathroom to the dinner table with his poop in a bag because he didn't know how to use the toilet. Meanwhile, by putting his American hosts in anapparent position of patronizing their backwards guest, Borat catches unguarded behavior displaying a level of cultural backwardness -- ignorance, prejudice, superstitious religiosity -- that sinks to the level of the movie's fictional Kazakhstan.

Okay, so there are many truly ignorant and scarily backwards people in this country. (Including me, insofar as I couldn't even spell Kazakhstan without looking it up.) I'm not sure what we're supposed to do with this information, which isn't really news in any event. Another satire shooting at the usual ducks in a barrel: southern and southwestern conservatives, small-town dwellers, evangelical Christians. Remember Michael Moore dwelling on the rabbit lady in Roger and Me? That was 16 years ago, so Borat's target is not exactly fresh meat. You want to watch over an hour of that?

Cohen is funny and talented, and I was not bored watching Borat, but in the end what impressed me most was Cohen's ability to stay in character. So really the movie is a kind of 90 minute audition demo tape. And if the audition is successful, I hope the next part is not Borat again.

Some random thoughts:

1. If Sacha Baron Cohen didn't use his middle name, you'd always have to say, "no, not the ice skater, the comedian" whenever you talked about him. Maybe you have to anyhow.

2. How could Cohen and the filmmakers sell the Borat premise to people when they plainly had to get them to sign "model releases" in order to use their images in the film? There has to have been a lot more deception going on than merely Cohen's character.

3. It was interesting and amusing to see the diverse reactions to Cohen/Borat's version of the Kazakh greeting: cheek kiss on both sides, followed (sometimes) by a kiss on the nose or lips.

4. Even though it's not the satirical "point," Cohen plays the backwards, Jew-hating, barn-animal-screwing Kazakh stereotype for all it's worth. That stereotype is the source of many would-be laughs in the movie. Until the 1990s, it was still okay to use such broad stereotypes of gays for comic purposes; until the 1940s or 1950s, blacks; and so on. I guess it's a sort of progress that we have to reach geographically farther to find acceptable demeaning stereotypes for comedy. Isn't it?

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]