Skip to comments.Borat Repulsive Comedy Sells but Can We Afford the Price
Posted on 11/10/2006 3:04:12 PM PST by Alex Murphy
(AgapePress) - If a deeply-accented reporter from Kazakhstan approaches you and asks to film the two of you while you use your occupation to teach him about American culture -- run. You are about to get punk'd. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is the creation of edgy comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who also is the man behind the character "Ali G." Borat's fan base consists of the kind of people who find funny immensely vulgar comedy which produces its laughs at the expense of often completely innocent people. Unfortunately, there are many such fans. Borat had such a gargantuan per-screen average in its opening week that Fox is more than tripling its number of screens in its second week of release.
I am sure that Cohen would like nothing more than to be labeled a morally subversive envelope-pusher, and there is a side to his comedy which does force Americans to confront the worst in themselves. But self-evaluation can be achieved by more constructive means than mere debunking, and the movie is much more likely to pander to some college students' desire to watch a morally noxious film (while feeling superior to the mostly middle-class dupes that are Cohen's targets) than it is to turn them into the kind of reflective citizens who would want to repair this damaged world. At its worst, Borat desensitizes people to the very behaviors that need to be challenged (racism and religious bigotry, for example).
The purported object of Borat's "humor" is to show, unmercifully, America to itself. The film begins in Borat's little Kazakhstan village populated by a materialistic competitive neighbor, an incestuous prostitute, a fondly-regarded village rapist, and a mechanic who moonlights as the town's abortionist. A village festival focuses on fearful anti-Semitism, culminating in children kicking and beating upon a "Jew egg" out of which a dangerous "Jew chick" will hatch if it is not first destroyed (Cohen expects a pass here because he is Jewish). Once we've all had a look at Borat's superstitious, racist, misogynistic culture, it is off to America, where Borat's journeys intend to demonstrate that all we find vile in Kazakhstan is plentiful in the United States.
Immediately upon arrival Borat encounters New Yorkers who are violently fearful of strangers. Then Borat heads south where he finds people who are both racist and violently anti-homosexual. The most disturbing interactions occur right before Borat sings his own national anthem at a Salem, Virginia, rodeo to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner." In discussing his country's treatment of homosexuals, which is to hang them, the American on camera suggests that this is what he'd like to see done to homosexuals here in America. When Borat tells a car salesman that he wants to purchase a car that will make women want to have sex with him, or when he asks a gun shop owner which type of gun is best for killing Jews, neither salesman misses a beat. They answer his questions without flinching or, as would have been proper, recoiling in disgust at the suggestion. Finally, Borat has to hitch a ride to California with a group of college students from the University of South Carolina, who proceed to get drunk with Borat, introduce him to pornography, and offer their opinions on the desirability of reinstituting the slave trade.
The persuasive power of the film lies in the selectivity of the images and interviews. What the viewer never knows is how much footage was shot of people who would not take the bait, or who demonstrated appropriate outrage at Borat's cultural suggestions. Instead, viewers are left with the concocted, purposefully edited view of middle America as a place where the only power is the dollar, where people pine for an oppressive past, and where prejudice is universal.
There is certainly a place for cultural critique in humor, but Borat's approach appeals to the lowest possible denominator. C.S. Lewis once argued that the easiest form of critique is debunking: the process of saying that something presented to you really just isn't so. It is simple because, despite professed cultural virtues, there are always plenty of exceptions available as fodder for criticism. All Cohen had to do to engage in debunking was look around, trick people into agreeing to be filmed by using guerilla tactics (including, according to some of the unwilling participants, outright deception), shoot a lot of film (after all, he would have to edit out any level-headed people), and find the folks that fit his predetermined assessment. Stitch them all together in the editing room, and Cohen has his movie. Americans claim a superior culture, but look at all the stupid Americans -- and don't you feel superior for being in on the joke?
Debased and Desensitized
Comedy serves a variety of functions. Sometimes it can be used redemptively -- as when humor arises from pride and the errors that follow on the road to the proud person recognizing his or her folly, and ultimately changing or making amends. Examples include films such as Bruce Almighty, Cars, and even Nacho Libre. While we may revile aspects of the main characters' lives, the final push in the film is toward morality, humility, and nobility. If we see a version of ourselves at the outset, these films find a way, through humor, to persuade us that we can be better people.
Other times films serve to mock virtue, and the humor comes from flaunting morality and getting away with it. In such films, such as the American Pie series, and more recently My Super Ex-Girlfriend and John Tucker Must Die, the criterion for coolness is lots of partying and wide-ranging sexual escapades (the more immoral the better). Authority figures (parents, teachers, police officers, etc.) are buffoons whose only reason for existence in the film is so that the cool kids can cleverly avoid them. These kinds of films teach viewers that only chumps are chaste, and that morality is for suckers.
But the kind of comedy Borat strains for is even worse. It belongs to the Pulp Fiction variety of humor. Pulp Fiction director, Quentin Tarantino, managed to get entire audiences to laugh at an accidental shooting in a car that took off the back of a man's head with graphic realism. Incessant exposure to extremist humor ultimately has a desensitizing effect on the viewer. In Borat the situations -- some of which are so vile and vulgar that I cannot begin to describe them in a family publication -- are just as likely to produce gasps in the audience as they are to evoke laughter. But the mixture is deadly to moral thinking. Borat fans come to wonder, "What's the big deal? Can't you take a joke?" To which Christians should respond, "Is nothing sacred?"
Laughter is a wonderful gift, but if there is no place to draw the line, if there are no topics that deserve reverence, when everything is funny or able to be ignored in the pursuit of a gag, comedy can become morally damaging to its viewers. Proverbs 26:18-19 best sums up the destructive intent: "Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death, so is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, 'Was I not joking?'"
In addition to complicity in debasing the viewer, Cohen's stunts were costly, and in one instance, dangerous. Dharma Arthur, the producer tricked into putting Borat on a local newscast, claims in a recent edition of Newsweek that the stunt caused friction between her and her supervisor, resulting in her early release from employment with the station. Mike Psenicska, Borat's driving instructor, claimed in The Baltimore Sun that Cohen's stunts behind the wheel put other drivers in danger.
One Odd Moment
There is an odd moment late in the film in which Borat attends a Pentecostal revival meeting. While the camera lights on Christians in various expressions of religious fervor (running the aisles, dancing, speaking in tongues), when Borat goes forward to "receive Jesus" he seems oddly discomfited. He makes no wild jokes; he doesn't sucker-punch anyone. He simply tells them that he is headed to California to claim his bride (never hinting that his intended is Pamela Anderson). It is only at the end of the film, back in Kazakhstan, once there is plenty of geographical distance between Borat and the unsuspecting Christians, that Cohen drops the other shoe. Borat explains that since the village has now converted to Christianity, they no longer have "The Running of the Jews" through town. The camera immediately cuts to the replacement tradition -- crucifying a Jew while the neighborhood folks poke at the hanging man with pitchforks. Laughter was sparse in my Southern California screening, and not a few "boos" were heard. Nevertheless, it won't be enough to derail the film.
Borat's a Hit -- So Graciously Hit Back
There is no denying that Borat will be a towering financial success. In its opening weekend it had already rocketed into profitability, and shows no immediate signs of stopping. In a bizarre sort of way, its own success could kill a sequel. As more and more people, even those who will not see the film (and you shouldn't) are exposed to the media attention Borat is receiving, Cohen will not find people so readily able to be duped a second time. Everyone will be more wary if anyone comes along with a participant agreement that simply must be signed now ("You don't need to read it; it's just boilerplate"), which is a good thing.
But what should our response be when someone asks if we have seen this "hilarious" new film? It would be easy to slip into self-righteousness, sniff, and say, ""I would never be seen at a film like that!" Instead, some questions might be more helpful, such as: "What parts of the film did you find funny?" Wait for a response, then add, "I heard that the movie depicts Jews as monsters, and that children kick a 'Jew egg' to keep it from hatching a 'Jew chick' -- was that funny? I also heard that a Jewish man is crucified and attacked with pitchforks -- did you laugh at that? Did you think it was funny that Borat tells the happy-go-lucky local rapist to cut back a little, or when he pointed to the area mechanic who uses his tools moonlighting as an abortionist? What about the gun shop clerk who advises Borat on the best caliber bullets with which to kill Jews? Was that a laugh riot?" Say it with a smile on your face, and make them defend their reaction to the film. Some may slink away from the conversation mumbling "killjoy," but don't be dismayed. You might have just performed a community service -- helping some people rediscover one of their suppressed, yet valuable, character traits: conscience.
You could say the same about any Michael Moore movie.
Geez, what a whiner. Lighten up, Francis...
That is the same reason all those "man on the street" segments on "The Tonight Show" which make Americans look dumb as posts are suspect. You have to wonder how many people give the correct answer to the question of the day before a nitwit comes along. Edit a bunch of nitwits together who don't know who is buried in Grant's Tomb or who George Washington was, and voila! "Proof" that Americans are ignorant.
I don't know about that. Hannity's man on the street interviews seem pretty straight-forward, and the people are monumentally ill-informed.
It's been 16 years since I was in the States. I did my best to explain some of the things. I grew up around Pentacostals in middle Georgia (we called 'em the Holiness Church but it's the same thing). I grew up around people that spoke in tongues every Sunday but I had the very devil of a time explaining that one to my friends because I always thought it was a load of crap when I was younger and haven't changed that viewpoint yet.
People can get angry at Borat for 'cherry-picking' scenes of Americana but my life and home wasn't a matter of cherry picking- it was just the reality where I grew up.
One thing I couldn't explain to them was how Borat escaped alive after making a mockery of the National Anthem in Texas. He would have been shot in Georgia when I still lived there.
Sounds like he lifted the plot and interviews from Michael Moore's film.
"The profligacy of the representations soon drove away sober people. The frivolous and dissolute who remained required every year stronger and stronger stimulants. Thus the artists corrupted the spectators, and the spectators the artists, till the turpitude of the drama became such as must astonish all who are not aware that extreme relaxation is the natural effect of extreme restraint, and that an age of hypocrisy is, in the regular course of things, followed by all age of impudence". Thomas Macaulay, 1871
This movie doesn't sound any more vulgar than a typical episode of South Park. I'm sure the same imbeciles who find South Park funny will find this movie funny.
We have always used Michael Medved's reviews to point us to which movies are worth seeing.. He gave Borat 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, so we went to see it..
It was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It wasn't even very funny, and it was beyond crude. I was surprised that it got an R rating. It should have been an NC-17.
Medved really bombed on his review! My dear husband and I kept looking at each other during the movie, remarking "Medved liked this????? Has he lost his mind????"
A Medved misfire for sure.
It's not like Cohen's brand of comedy is new. I remember when Howard Stern had a contest to settle who was smarter, blacks or whites. The white contestant was an Ivy League grad and the black guy was a homeless alcoholic. Liberals didn't think it was so funny back then.