Friday, November 17, 2006


Becca and I went to a motion picture last night. I remember those. It was the first time we’d gone since HE was born.

Anyway. We saw Borat. Borat is a movie-length treatment of a stock character on a British comedy show. The titular character is a clueless Kazakh journalist roaming about the United States, or “the U. S. and A.” as he calls it. Borat is a fictional character, done by a very wise and worldly comedian—Sacha Baron Cohen, an Cambridge-educated devout Jew.

There are two main jokes to the movie, and neither is the real reason for the movie’s popularity. First is Borat’s awkwardness, his uncouth, naïve, anti-Semitic, pre-feminist, pre-modern ways. In one scene he flees a Bed-and-Breakfast owned by Jews, because he’s terrified they’ve shifted shape to unknown monsters. In another he plays gawky white boy to some unsuspecting black teenagers in Atlanta, telling one short, overweight and dark-skinned kid he looks like Michael Jackson.

The other primary joke is Baron Cohen’s tricking unsuspecting Americans into making fools of themselves. In fact, most interviewees rolled with the punches, and silently resisted his philistine bait. In that sense, Baron Cohen mostly failed in his attempt to make fun of everyday conservative Americans.

Borat - Trailer

The real attraction behind Borat is the hip, insider experience the viewer gains from watching the movie. The word hip derives from a West African word meaning “to see farther (than others)”. Watching Borat is hip, in this sense, because of the secret shared between the comedian and the audience. We know something the victims don’t. That makes us cool insiders, and that makes us feel good and superior to them.

Coolness requires outsiders, and those outsiders are the dinner party hosts, the Pentecostals, the cowboys, the politicians and the small-town businessmen Baron Cohen provokes. None come off as buffoonish as Borat himself, so the primary joke doesn’t work all that well. All that’s left for the viewer is the feeling of being superior. I believe that cool, insider feeling is the primary attraction for the movie.

One more comment: for all the discussion about stupid Americans, the real victims of Baron Cohen’s contempt are actually the eastern European peasants he portrays as incestuous barbarians. Ostensibly Kazakhstan, the scenes were actually filmed in Romania. It seems Baron Cohen found the poorest village in Europe, put livestock in people’s living-rooms, and called the villagers rapists. The Americans he only provokes, hoping their foolishness would speak for itself. But the Romanian peasants don’t get a chance to prove the Englishman wrong. They have to suffer another humiliation on top of their poverty.

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