The Borat Phenomenon
Did you click on the Youtube link, yet? I'll take that as a yes.
What you saw on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show is guaranteed to be shocking to the rank and file of the British public.
Because Sacha Baron Cohen talking out of character is a very rare thing -- in fact, he's purposely refused to be interviewed out of character in Britain, the better to be accepted IN character.
Not since another beloved Jewish comic, Adolph Arthur (Harpo) Marx, has there been such commitment, such perserverence, and yes, such chutzpah whilst in character than the various incarnations of Mr. Baron Cohen.
-- If only KISS had not scraped off their make-up. --
In fact, I'll not hear a word of disdain or hostility towards Sacha Baron Cohen, because such a commitment to his craft is so rare, at any time in history, but especially in the age of instant celebrity, that it beggars the mind.
How can he keep it up?
CAN he keep it up?
Doesn't he yearn to throw the shackles of Borat and Ali G and Bruno off, like so much snakeskin at the Serpentarium?
The answer is, of course he does, and to a large extent, he actually DOES...
...so did Harpo, after all -- you think he had sex in character? Wouldn't his horn get in the way?
Unlike comics in the past who used to get in character during their comedy routines, such as Lily Tomlin's Baby or Flip Wilson's Ernestine, they were temporary bits of whimsy, ready to be doffed off by the next ticklishly silly skit.
Enter stand-up, the point when comedians became personalities more important than their material.
Stand-up has killed comedy as we knew it, the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, of Gracie Fields, of Mark Twain, of Buster Keaton, of Lucy Ball, not to mention of Edna Ferber, making it inflexibly unidirectional and excrutiatingly reliant on repetition, rather than the inspired brio of repartée and physicality.
Whilst in vaudeville or in the music halls the audience could always interject its loud dominance over the proceedings, and become correspondents to mayhem, stand-up is determined by the pace of the comic, as he or she judges the flow of energy by the audience.
You may think that hecklers overthrow this state-of-affairs, but in actuality, like a college professor who wants to be addressed by his first name but can assert his authority over his class at any time, the power dynamic is still controlled by whomever does the standing.
Here I must pause for a moment to say that the worst stand-up comics I've ever seen are British.
God, what on earth possesses us to think we can take the American habit of speaking one-liners and extend that to a monologue of gut-clenchingly funny observations (or tired, overdone schtick repeated endlessly until you've built a career on it, hello Alan King), trying to do the same?
Our humour, like our civilisation, is built on the wry, sarcastic, near mute enjoyment of the pain of others.
It's observational humour, whose bon mots are targeted towards eliciting a raised-eyebrow of recognition from the surrounding audience.
The point is NOT to laugh, since to do so breaks every code of British interaction known on that wretchedly rainy island.
Of course, we laugh like the dickens inside of us, or alone in our rooms listening to The Goons, or watching Basil Fawlty, and Monty Python, but to actually do so in public is a lesé-majesté as unthinkable as it is gauche. Well, it used to be, anyway...
British humour is the humour of subtleties, of passive/aggressive one-upmanship, of taking the sails out of the pompous or stuffy in an endless stream, the equivalent of standing around in a circle, waiting for headmaster to dole out his paddling.
A people that love to insult as creatively as possible, to circumvent the libel suit.
This is most unlike the lung-expanding pratfalls and unself-conscious goofiness beloved by Americans (a reason why Benny Hill was so loved in the States, perhaps, though he has dated horribly á la the Keystone Kops). American comedy is redolent of that snappy comebacks game played by black Americans, the Dozens, or the smart-alecky, yet loving Yiddish schtick.
This brings us back to Sacha Baron Cohen, that dazzlingly funny Jew.
See what I just did there? Chances are most people read that last line, and clenched their teeth in surprise.
It seems to suggest that I am hyper-aware of his religion or to some even, "race"; a man who says he tries to be "Talmudic" in the way he approaches his portrayal of others.
(This prompted one reply on a messageboard of,
"Funny, I'm Jewish, and I don't remember from Hebrew school where in the Talmud it condones the wholesale deception and exploitation of others for fame and fortune."
Textbook un-Borat reply, if ever there was one)
I'm not hyper-aware of Sacha's Jewishness. But he is.
In many ways, his need to dig under the surface of people who are not anti-Semitic at first blush, is almost as self-tortured as many black people's reactions to perceived racial insults, like compliments about their verbal skills or when you confuse one physically for the other in all innocence because you forgot your glasses that day (not that that ever happened to me, okay. Anyway, the charges were dropped).
This stems from the very real, and very prevalent racism they have experienced, and continue to experience, every day, and is not to be gainsayed by anyone who has not experienced it.
But when not present immediately, there are some groups of people who go in search of racism or bigotry, alert to the fact that it has only been covered like a festering pimple, but is ready to spew at the merest poke.
By injecting into the public discourse, visions of Jews as cockroaches, even to make a point about the stupidity of bigots -- some of the biggest laughs I heard in the cinemahouse, were at image of the two Jewish bed-and-breakfast owners being perceived by Borat and his mate, as having "transformed" themselves in the middle of the night, into big ole Southern Palmetto bugs, which made me instantly sad and disturbed.
In that one moment, Borat the film had truly tapped a well of deep anti-Semitism in its audience, and perhaps worse of all, re-introduced the rabid Medieaval/Hitlerian images of Jews as vermin.
That it was a Jewish man, and not Dr. Fritz Hippler (director of the skin-crawling "Der Ewige Jude", which I refuse to own in my private collection) who relaunched these themes into the public's mind, is why I think Sacha Baron Cohen is treading a very fine line between satire, and just plain irresponsibility.
How sad is it, when the images of Jews as rats, nearly gone and buried from Western society's conscious mind and completely discredited not the least because of the Holocaust, have been unearthed for a new generation as yet unschooled about this event? By a Jew...!
(Some of the biggest laughs from that scene were from young teenage boys who had somehow sneaked into the film, yeah, like that's so hard.
I cannot express to you, the feeling of depression that overcame me, at that moment.
It's all very well for 'sophisticates' who on paper know what Baron Cohen is doing, to laugh. But I overheard these kids file out, talking about Jews as roaches, in the most literal sense imaginable. What have you reaped, Sacha, what have you reaped?)
Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his American Vertigo book, wondered out loud after having attended a Nazi memoribilia convention, if indeed some of the collectors were attracted to Nazi geegaws because they secretly wanted to wear an SS uniform, or perhaps yell out a hearty Heil Hitler! when no one was looking?
(I remember thinking, "how self-tortured is that")
The key point is "secretly".
It is understood that no sane Westerner today could in a million years hope to be taken seriously, if he publicly espoused Nazi views.
Sure, some point to intellectual pygmies like Jörg Haider or David Duke, itself forced references since it belies the fact that these men are few in number, and yet, the fact that they exist at all, is still proof to some that palpable bigotry exists at the heighest levels.
But by and large, anti-Semitism is a social death-knell in milieus from Iowa to the Upper East Side, except when couched under geo-political terms about Israel (and even then, it's dicey because it's so easy to expose).
So what remains, for people who were the victims of millenia of hatred and suspicion, is that today in the West, they are faced with that most ghastly of situations:
Not really knowing who is a real bigot, or not.
How can one possibly protect oneself from these people, if they have gone under cover, or are protected by shibboleths known only to their fellow bigots?
One ferrets them out by pretending to be a bigot oneself, is what!
We'll get back to that, but let's pause for a moment and consider another aspect to the Borat Phenomenon.
Men love Borat, and women seem less impressed by the gloriously moustachioed one.
I myself have commented elsewhere that I thought Borat the film was bloody brilliant -- and very very unfunny.
Women are less conscious of the good opinion of other women, in relation to being found "cool" or "tough". Their femininity is not defined by how unmasculine they are, unlike men, whose masculinity is defined by how unfeminine they are.
A lot of the psychological traits men exhibit in groups, boil down to this one factor, and goes a long way to explaining why they want to be perceived as childish, that is, unreformed by the civilising world that women represent since childhood, and rebellious to laws and social niceties, to appear less soft.
UPDATE: I found this wonderful short essay by Isaac Asimov on the very topic of male and female humour. Although his personal faults are not lost on me, Isaac Asimov has long been my hero -- I read his little-known books on language as a child, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in linguists or English as a tongue. In this comic essay, he suggests that men's humour stems from the fact that they are fatalists who believe in exposing the euphemisms we use, especially regarding bodily functions. He infers ever so slightly that these were invented by women to control conversation and thereto, life itself. Thus when a man acts in a manner which can be seen as childish by his lewdness, he is subverting that woman-controlled process with barbed glee. He also suggests that males like to be with other males, because their courage fails them with women -- which they don't like other males to see. As mentioned, this group-pressure to appear tough, and untamed is a particular of the male psyche, almost exclusively. I'm glad Isaac agreed with me, before kicking the bucket.
Exceptions exist in droves, but almost $200 million dollars grabbed from its largest fanbase, the 15-34 male demographic, does not lie.
What is especially ironic, according to exit polls, is that the vast majority of people who said they LOVED the dusky Kazakh and his smarmy ways, were the very people he used his laser beam of wit on.
Jewish American males especially, I heard on NPR, were taken with the humour presented in the eponymous film.
One commenter, himself Jewish, said that they could take a joke like the best of 'em. Or at least, that was the impression they wanted to convey, he quipped.
One would think, if one were a little literal-minded, that perhaps black people would line up in droves to watch this movie, which portrays them sympathetically in relation to other "treatments" in the film -- the opposite, for example, to their historical bête-noires, white Southerners.
Such seems not to be the case, for whatever reasons perhaps too numerous to explore in this one sitting.
It IS interesting to note that Borat has tanked in France and Germany, and seems to be sluggish in other parts of the world, like East Asia, although with its heavy emphasis on physical humour, one surely cannot assign language as the primary reason.
In Germany, Borat was number 1 in the box office for a mere solitary week, before being overrun by the Blond Bond, and latterly, Eragon.
The French disdained Borat entirely, preferring Eric Lartigau's romantic farce, Prête-moi ta main, during Borat's debut, a Gallic slap to the derriere if ever there was one.
Sure, they're whiteys too, and those countries are no stranger to anti-Semitism, to say the least, but something about Borat didn't reach them enough to warrant more than passing curiosity.
It strikes me that this film for Americans is a release from the oppression of political correctness -- that need to repress, and censor behaviour in OTHERS around one, the better to adhere to so-called civilised behaviour.
In Western Europe, civility is traditionally emphasised as an internal expression of self-censorship, but still one controlled by perceptions of class and education.
Political correctness is in its infancy in many parts of Europe, a good 20 years behind where North Americans find themselves socially today, a fact not lost on anyone who has ever heard Luis Aragones (Spain's World Cup manager) speak.
When trying to motivate his player -- of Romany origin -- to outplay black Frenchman Thierry Henry, he told him that he was much better than that "negro de mierda" (crappy black boy), an expression still common in the Spanish language, and not nearly as strong as its English translation -- itself a telling statement.
This having leaked out, and a hubbub created by British tabloids about the patently racist remark, Aragones rather comically replied that though he has many black friends (bien sûr!),
"All I did was to motivate the gypsy by telling him he was better than the black."
Though many Spaniards were embarrassed and expected an apology, if it had been in the States, no manager would have survived the comment without being sacked immediately -- perhaps even losing his entire livelihood through lost sponsorships, as was in the case of Fuzzy Zoeller with his bitter anti-Tiger Woods remarks, or the infamous "monkey" quip about a black wide-receiver by Howard Cosell, back in the day.
This utter ruination based on unfortunate remarks is precisely the legacy of political correctness run amuk, which Sacha Baron Cohen tapped into, which is at the basis of his success.
People liked Borat, because Borat could say what no one in the US can say publicly anymore.
BUT HERE IS THE POINT: Americans liked Borat not because they agreed with his godawful boorish remarks, but rather admired the cojones of not caring what he was saying and how it was received.
In other words, Americans loved the bravery of it all.
This is the crucial point, which so many people around the world failed to grasp about Americans. They wilfully believe that he's exposing some grievous faults in the American psyche, when in fact, the audience just loves his daring.
Furthermore, though Sacha Baron Cohen plays it cool by only hinting that his Borat has SOME idea of his foulness (note the opening scene, when he shrugs knowingly at the camera, announcing the proclivities of the "town rapist), he invests enough wide-eyed innocence in him, that he becomes a walking Id -- the release of all our childish impulses, before civilisation went and civilised the hell out of us.
It is this behaviour which is subversive, and therefore deeply fascinating to anyone over the age of 12.
The best comedy has always been satire, which of course, the many characters of Sacha Baron Cohen represent.
They are not spoofs, in the now familiar Mel Brooks mode, which lovingly recreates personas or genres with hysterical glee.
They are not send-ups, which take into account well-known characteristics of speech or behaviour, such as Rich Little used to do in his many impersonations of the powerful or famous.
(By the way, who does impersonations anymore? Another casualty, in the long list of modern-day fatalities of the stand-up preoccupation. Or maybe celebrities today are just not that unique. I can do a Jimmy Cagney accent or a Cary Grant one, like THAT. Quick, do a Tom Cruise one without having to lug a sofa around with you)
They are certainly not satires in the vein of Molière or Rabelais, who sought to exaggerate the hypocrisies of society, by stretching characteristics such as piousness or moral dudgeon to highlight their inherent duplicitous nature.
No, Sacha Baron Cohen's incarnations perhaps are closest to Jonathan Swift and his rapier wit of disdain for the obsessions of his time.
Borat owes more than a little to Swift's A Modest Proposal, which enjoined his countrymen to feed its poor by carving up dead babies, thus killing two societal malaised birds with one rather nasty stone.
Jonathan Swift was able to follow his argument with single-minded logic, disregarding the obvious lack of humanity his thoughts would warrant, as well as considerations for good taste, decency, and self-control such a proposal would require.
He did so to prove a point, not just about the topics of hunger, overpopulation, and poverty, but to prove the larger point that lack of empathy for others' suffering, particularly that of the landowner's, not logic and reason, were at true fault in the situation.
Like Baron Cohen's film, his essay was supposed to be a mirror on the face of (his) society and its time.
The reflection may not be flattering, but it is truth, it suggests, all the same.
My objections to the film, and I have many as you can read, despite holding perhaps the opposing viewpoint that it is a work of comic genius, lie on the methods used to unmask these lurking hypocrisies, not what Borat represents à priori.
I find his premises unfocused, and selective, and his uses to bring about his greater points, mired down by self-indulgence, even a very real lack of humour in its most sophisticated sense -- the art of making a point through an humourous remark, situation, or anecdote through cleverness.
Whenever Borat is in a pickle, you'll notice that his character reverts to its most puerile remarks, with references to bodily functions, and cheap sight gags which don't enhance his points, whatsoever.
A true talented comic can weasel his way out of a sticky situation, by staying in character, but come out of it enough, so that there is a concession to the moment, if not to the subject itself.
This is what Lenny Bruce did so well (by portraying his bitterness as a kind of stepping out of character), and so far, what Sacha Baron Cohen has not mastered. Perhaps it's just not a part of his personal make-up, and therefore, won't ever be a factor in followup films.
Baron Cohen has also allowed his film to become mired in that age-old American habit of the lawsuit -- where disaffected parties can sue for monetary damages, more than the supposed restitution of honour that lawsuits were technically targeted as being.
Everyone is getting their's, or at least, trying to, by pointing out that his team of facilitators, directors, producers, assistants, were less than forthcoming about the film's purposes.
Whilst he luxuriated in the ex-Royal Palace of Sinaia in the Transylvanian Alps, gypsies were paid $4 per diem for their services, although it is true that the team apparently gave the village computers, and improved some of their lot whilst there.
(I can't help but to think of the Fair Trade label, and what outspoken anti-globalisation actors in Hollywood, say about paying locals a comparable fair wage. Since they often go on shoots in distant, much less expensive lands, I think the point is neatly made that for them, Fair Trade for acting is another hill of beans)
But the fact remains that the film crew exploited the villagers for all they were worth, and from time immemorial, taking advantage of the poor, the marginalised, perhaps even the blissfully ignorant, when you yourself are anything but, leaves people with a very sour taste in their mouth.
In that part of the world, there already is virulent anti-Semitism, and though anti-Semitism does not mean you have to pander to people's impressions, so that your hands are always squeaky clean the better to be able to rise above their irrational bigotry of you, it does mean that you are sensitive to the climate of the local, depressed culture.
Perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen may not suffer by his actions, since he'll have moved on from the area, but there might be other Jewish Romanians, who may not be so fortunate.
Playing into the hands of those who believe that Jewish people are "exploiters" by underpaying people for their work, is neither good comedy, nor good thinking.
In a lateral sense, the loud-mouthed, genuinely gross fraternity brothers who later claimed they were duped by the Borat team, falls into this category.
Are you telling me that Team Borat had to tell these frat boys to "go for broke" during their scenes, as well as making sure they were well-liquored throughout?
Not that frat boys need to be horsewhipped to be socially lubricated, you understand.
But it seems to me that Veritas need not necessarily require Vino, to come out.
If lewd, sexist frat boys are what Team Borat wanted to expose, why not just show up at the doorstep of any US campus, point a camera, and start shooting?
That they exist, they do.
But by liquoring them up, Sacha Baron Cohen dilutes the scene by allowing his detractors to claim he exploited drunken young men to make a point.
Which is what he did, of course.
That isn't comedy genius. That's just Hell Week.
Let's not overstate this last topic, although it is worthy of comment all the same. But so is the fact that Borat is the outward expression of a very British man.
Sacha Baron Cohen, as has been noted ad infinitum, is a Jewish man, whose religion means a lot to him, but not in any mawkish sense.
To anti-Semites, Sacha Baron Cohen gives them the inside joke of speaking in heavily-accented Hebrew throughout, as well, of course, of the reductionist joke of himself being Jewish.
A kind of Droste effect of the anti-Semite making fun of the Jew who is a Jew.
Retiring the real-life Baron Cohen may be, but with a touch of self-confidence about himself, that speaks to his upbringing, but also to his culture.
Rubbing people the wrong way is not necessarily seen as a negative in British society.
In fact, the polar opposite is seen in a much more ridiculing light -- that horrible idea of being "nice".
We in Britain are not nice. Americans are nice.
WE are polite and both of us place a high premium on being upbeat.
What Borat the film was able to bring out in technicolour clarity, is that Americans are nice in the long-suffering, kind, and accomodating sense, almost to an unbelievable extent.
Though Christopher Hitchens doesn't think much of female comedy, he does think much of American patience towards crazy foreigners.
After quoting the indictment towards Americans by New Statement regular, Ryan Gilbey:
And it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople.
Hitch fumes in return.
Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass").
Obviously, this film brings out a special kind of jab to the rib by people who love trying to find the very worst in Americans, and indeed, about United States in general.
What Hitchens is able to see, which other people do too, even if they will not admit it publicly (a secrecy which we've noted already has always being the mark of the bigot, with virtual X Marks The Spot on the forehead) is that Borat's ultimate joke is played not on his hosts, the Americans who invited him to their homeland, but on the audience, and its prejudices.
Many years ago, we had a "Britcom" called 'Til Death Do Us Part, which later became the inspiration for a little American sitcom called, All In The Family.
Both these programmes changed the way their fellow citizens looked at themselves, because they dealt with satire.
They were shocks to the senses because of the rampant bigotry and prejudices allowed to be mouthed by its protagonists, Alf Garnett and later, Archie Bunker.
These characters were unrepentant racists, but who were both so convincing as actors, that many members of the public were either incensed or overjoyed that someone had finally said what they did, out loud without censure.
Johnny Speight wrote odious Alf Garnett's character to the hilt, and yet, not without controversy. To some in British society, his racial epithets of "wog", "coon", and latterly the almost innocuous-sounding, "mick", were a bit of satire too far.
As the BBC says,
Sadly, the weight of protests over Speight's employment of such vocabulary - honed and shaped by producer Dennis Main Wilson - often obscured the qualities of the episodes, some of which were quite magnificent, like brilliant, compelling half-hour stage dramas. Unlike other sitcoms, Till Death Us Do Part gave the viewers cause to think; its arguments were never ratified but both sides of an issue were presented - usually in an intentionally simplistic and heavy-handed way.
The Financial Times called the series 'The rampaging, howling embodiment of all the most vulgar and odious prejudices that slop about in the bilges of the national mind.'
The difference is that Johnny Speight was British, making a pointed commentary about the racism of his fellow countrymen, still so common, at the time.
Sacha Baron Cohen has the unenviable task of posing as hick, a foreigner, and an anti-Semite, the better to expose foreigners, hicks, and anti-Semites' disgusting views.
It is almost as if an Hollywood studio pounced on the brilliant idea of sending Jon Stewart or Steve Colbert to the UK, posing as say, a cowboy from Texas, to make fun of Brits' with their bad teeth, their hooliganism at football matches, their bad food, their bad weather, and their cruel ways, which places a premium on winding up people, the better to irritate them and see what they do then.
Not only would this never happen, despite the fact that neither Stewart nor Colbert are very much known in Britain, and thus no ex-Soviet Republic would need to be pilloried, and also because neither Stewart nor Colbert are representative of that kind of comedy, but because there's no interest in doing so.
Americans have no interest in pointing truths about Britons, in any malicious or if you will, insightful way.
On the contrary, they are amused by Britain, and love to point out the many positives they perceive about it, which of course, we British love to hear about ourselves.
Instead of Notes from a Small Island, this would be like imagining Bill Bryson donning a costume, cannily taking pot-shots at Brits, instead of the love letters his books about Britain, so lovingly are.
Americans are not interested, repulsed, fascinated, repelled by Britons, unless they are like precisely like Bill Bryson, an Englishman manqué.
At most, they are curious about certain things to do with Britain, like its musicians or Royal Family, so different in tone from their own experiences.
Sacha Baron Cohen, like so many people in Britain, cannot leave the topic of America alone.
He seems convinced and perhaps sets out to prove that these Masters of the Current Universe, are at heart, easy to be duped and their superiority is therefore, suspect.
Does he succeed in doing so?
The only thing Borat does with true originality, is to expose the anti-American sentiments of people (including certain Americans themselves) who are by default eager to see the worst in Americans.
With such a premise, the comedy need not be terribly insightful.
It just needs to be memorable.
Remember that next time you hear the word satire.
I Borat. I like Sex. Is Nice.