Monday, April 30, 2007

Movie Chat: Borat


I can't think of such a critically and commercially successful movie since Pulp Fiction where there has been a bigger difference between the movie that the critics were gushing about and the movie that I actually saw on the screen.

I admit: I had been avoiding the movie because I found the idea of Sacha Baron Cohen using his comedy skillz to expose the hidden anti-Semitism of Americans to be on the borderline between insulting and irrelevant. I mean, there's so many things about us that actually deserve ruthless satire that to take on something that hasn't really been a major issue for years.

And, I should also admit that Borat was my least favorite character on Da Ali G Show, partly because it targets people-on-the-street like those awful Jay Leno "Jaywalking" bits. Cohen says that the Borat sketches are "dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry"*, but because he and his producers have complete control over the staging, filming, and editing of these encounters, it's always seemed to me to be dirty pool. That is, while I've laughed at the Borat sketches on Da Ali G Show, I've never been able to take them seriously as high-minded satire.

Anyway, my fiance and I kept hearing how funny the Borat movie was from all of our friends and she had listened to a big NPR piece about it (she'll watch almost any movie that gets praise from NPR).

First, let me get this out of the way: I laughed all the way through - it is pretty hilarious.

But I what surprised me was how little "satire" there actually was. Despite Cohen's interviews and the spin critics had put on the movie, there were only (I think) three or four moments where a someone revealed their inner anti-Semite. And even those instances are pretty weak cases: there's the two salesmen who go along with Borat's comments about killing Jews because they're (a) being polite, (b) are a little befuddled by his behavior, and (c) probably want to make a sale. And then there's the frat guys. In that case, if all that Cohen could get a bunch of drunken frat guys to do is bring up a Jewish stereotype than either he wasn't trying hard enough or the virulent racism that he was looking for just doesn't exist to the extent he thinks it does.**

Regardless, the "exposing racism" parts of the movie make up (I'd guess) less than 10% of its running time. The rest of the movie is one big "backwards foreigner" joke. I'd agree with Steve Sailer's suggestion that Cohen's schtick is an updated version of the Polish Joke. So, if you've made a movie that spends most of its time making fun of ignorant East Europeans***, it's better, in this PC day and age, to emphasize its anti-American parts, even if (or maybe especially if) those aren't actually that prevalent in the movie.

Remember I brought up Pulp Fiction back at the beginning of this post? Here's Alan Dale on the critics' take on that movie (you should really read the whole piece):
Pulp Fiction’s attitude was shrewdly presold to Americans from the Cannes Film Festival on, and it would have seemed impossibly square to make the usual objections to the violence since quotation marks hover around the action. Much of the press proved themselves squares in another way, by praising the movie for picturing the state of our souls. Educated audiences and critics, especially, don’t want to think that actions that are hard to watch could be enjoyable to them in a superficial way. So they read Tarantino’s good-time treatment of sketches on pulp fiction motifs as a statement about how dissociated people have become. The idea that Pulp Fiction is an X-ray of American culture is a reading for people who believe in things like Post-Modernism and Generation X and other ways we have of selling ourselves our own intellectual and editorial ponderousness. Pulp Fiction is relentlessly superficial. The situations have no existential edge, and even the ironic self-consciousness about moviemaking is unfocused (clearest in the diner sequence in which the waiters are made up to look like ’50s rock-n-roll and movie stars).****

This relates back to some things Sean Collins brought up a few weeks ago about the way critics respond to horror movies: "For many mainstream film critics, the slightest display of political awareness automatically enables a horror film to transcend the genre, regardless of what else is going on, or whether anything else is going on."

So, I'd enlarge all of this to a more general point:

When critics and "educated" audience members find themselves enjoying something that is disreputable (nihilistic black comedy, backwards foreigner ethnic jokes, horror movies), they need to rationalize it by attributing to the movie some kind of redeeming social message.

This isn't a huge problem, I guess: I mean, we all expect critics to act like gasbags on occasion (I'm certainly not immune), but I think it would be more interesting if we could talk about why we enjoy these kinds of disreputable entertainments without having to invoke platitudes about how they teach us all an important lesson about ourselves.

I laughed at Borat because it's funny to watch a character who doesn't get contemporary America's (and/or Western Europe's?) rules of civility and politeness blunder his way through encounters with people who are bound by those rules. This is like one of the all-time standard jokes: foreigners just don't get it!It's funny to see Borat piss off a bunch of feminists because he can't help expressing his primitive ideas about male-female relations or for him to make fun of a woman's looks in front of her and her husband or for him to be from such a backwards country that a regular hotel room seems like it must be reserved for royalty.

Did I learn anything from the movie? Umm, not really. I mean, the people in the movie more or less live up to their stereotypes: the NYC commuters are in a hurry and don't have time for Borat's bullshit, the car salesman seems willing to agree to anything in order to make a sale, the genteel Southerners are polite to the point of absurdity, the feminists are humorless, the rodeo crowd seems happy to cheer jingoism, the frat boys drink a lot and like to party.

So, yeah, I don't think the movie has much to offer in the way of messages about the state of contemporary America. And I'm pretty grateful for that. Messages are easy, comedy is hard.

*I disagree with this premise, too. I know a guy who will always "confront bigotry" whenever he hears it. I.e., he'll start berating his cab driver if the driver says something bad about a different ethnic group. Personally, I think this is kind of silly (not to mention potentially dangerous). For example, there are some women in my office who happen to be Puerto Rican and one of their favorite topics of conversation are the differences between Puerto Rican men, Dominican Men, Arab men, African-American men, Mexican men, WASP men, etc. Now, when they start into one of these discussions, I could speak up and tell them to stop spreading stereotypes and talking like bigots, but, honestly, I think that would be pretty crazy.

**The frat guys also talk about never letting yourself be ruled by a woman. But that's what all guys say to each other when they've had a few too many. It's a kind of generic expression of guy solidarity, which fades as you sober up.

***Though Kazakhstan is in Central Asia, the Borat character is pretty obviously Eastern European/Slavic. I wonder if, like Children of Men, Borat reads differently to an American audience than to a British one. The Brits are having more trouble dealing with Eastern European immigration than we are in the States, so my guess is that Borat's ethnicity comes across more clearly to them.

****I think this is also why Eli Roth talked about Hostel in terms of its anti-American message. The movie paints a pretty dismal picture of Eastern Europe (which, admittedly, many critics pointed out), so it's probably better for the American filmmaker to go out of his way to show that the movie is really a criticism of America.


T Hodler said...

This is a great post. And I agree with your premise.

I also think that Borat was a little bit of a special case because it was a television show first, and a lot of critics were responding to that instead of the movie. Especially that one episode where Borat starts the "Throw the Jew Down the Well" singalong at the Texas bar. It seemed like almost all of the reviews and essays of the movie talked about the satirical brilliance of that particular scene and used it to discuss the premise of the movie, even though, of course, it isn't in the movie.

Which maybe just proves your point even more. I don't know.

Jon Hastings said...

T -

That's a good point.

I think the bar scene from the show is funny in an outrageous "I can't believe that!" way, but I still don't think its incisive satire, because it is part of staged performance. I just don't buy Baron Cohen's idea that the audience singing along with him represents some kind of bigotry on their part, more than it represents their willingness to go along with a joke that may be in bad taste. The whole silence = bigotry thing seems silly, too, especially coming from a comedian who builds all of his jokes off of ethnic/sexual/class stereotypes! He's obviously a smart guy, but he also really seems to believe his own spin. I wonder if he'll end up having a Dave Chapelle moment?

I do sympathize a bit with the critics: they need to fill up space, which means they have to write something more than "Man, I can't believe I laughed so hard at all those ethnic jokes".