Friday, November 17, 2006

The Phenomenon of Borat

Given the tremendous amount of press it received, hailed by many as the funniest comedy of the year, yet decried by others as the most anti-Semitic film every made (Leni Riefenstahl, anyone?) I decided that I needed to see Borat and make a determination for myself. I'm not familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen's other alter ego, Ali G, nor do I find films such as Jackass entertaining. That being said, the first thing to know about Borat is that it is funny. Gut bustingly funny. Horrifyingly funny. (I may not be able to have a sexual thought for a solid month without wanting to vomit.) It is "Can they really do that?" funny to the highest degree. It is also profoundly disturbing for a variety of reasons. David Brooks wrote an Op-ed entitled "The Heyday of Snobbery" in the Thursday New York Times. In it, he states that "the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's performance is his sycophantic reverence for his audience, his refusal to challenge the sacred cows of the educated bourgeoisie." Brooks points out that Cohen knows his audience, making fools out of gun-toting homophobic hicks, while side-stepping any attempts at "ridiculing the pretensions of somebody at a Starbucks or a Whole Foods Market."

It is indeed a flick that causes those of us who "get it" to have a terrific time laughing at the fools who don't. In this manner, it caters to "blue America snobbery, as people on the coasts try to fathom those who would vote for George W. Bush. The only logical explanation is that they are racist, anti-Semitic idiots who can be blamelessly ridiculed" One of the the Democrats major miscalculations (and there are oh so many to choose from) was to dismiss Bush and his cronies as country hicks. Say what you want about Bush, but he has proven to be an incredibly shrewd politician, and the part of me that finds Cohen's portrayal of so-called middle America hysterical is the same part that foolishly and egotistically dismisses those who don't like Cappuccinos and the Whole Foods olive bar.

The flip side of this equation is the fear that the laughter heard throughout the theater was not out of appreciation for Cohen's satire, but of an agreement with his absurd positions. (One early scene features the Kazakh capital's yearly "Running of the Jew", and the Jew is listed as one of Kazakhstan's three major problems. Cohen himself is actually a devout Jew.) I have doubtless become more sensitive to this in the past week, as the only thing that seems to unite the melting pot of the Park Hyatt is disparaging remarks about Jews. The problem with Borat is that if I am not laughing out of an intellectual elitist sense of superiority, I must be laughing out of racism or homophobia. Perhaps it is a bit of both, and perhaps the problem is not with Borat but with me. Indeed, Cohen would argue that the point of his film is in part to ridicule the absurdity that anyone would hold the views the film puts forth. I'll leave the societal nuances and implications of Borat to the likes of David Brooks, but suffice to say that it has been quite some time since a film made me simultaneously laugh and think as hard as Borat.


Alex said...

Borat is indeed very funny. Brooks, as usual, is at best only partly right in his column. Must takes paind to ridicule people at a San Francisco coffee house to plese Brooks? As a comedian, he had no burden of objectivity to ridciule bourgois liberals. Brooks claims to want equal opportunity humor, but in fact he despises that which he perceives to be "Blue State" culture. Enough ranting...

Too bad to hear the international staff at the Park Hiatt hold anti-Semitic sterotypes, but I guess it's not surprising.

Jeff said...

Matt Ratner! Hey, I'm not sure how you reached your conclusion that Borat can only be funny if you have an intellectual elitest sense of superiority or you're racist or homophobic. Cohen is funny because he's playing a character with--like you said--absurd beliefs, and absurdity is funny whether you're elitest or not. I'm sure he could be just as funny skewering over-the-top environmentalists or other "blue state" radicals. The idea that laughter in the theater was at the Jews' expense doesn't make any sense to me--would it really be funny, for racism and not absurdity's sake, to rally against Jews on the streets ok Kazakhstan? Maybe I'm too optimistic about human nature.