Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Borat debate reemerges

It being the time when film critics offer their top ten list of movies from the last year, the debate over whether the Borat movie is funny, manipulative, racist, or just plain dumb rages on. I still submit that it is highly overrated and lacks most of the humor of the television show. I have not yet seen a satisfactory rejoinder on why it is funny for Borat to wreck some harmless man's antiques or what exactly Baron Cohen is skewering about Southern gentility by re-emerging from the bathroom with a bag of feces at a dinner party. Many of the episodes in Borat seem trying, as if Baron Cohen could not get his subjects to be sufficiently ignorant, coarse, or racist without him acting obnoxious. Even then, they don't always come off badly: the befuddled shop antique owner seems helpless, the members of the Southern dining group understandably end the dinner early. The thesis of the movie--that Americans are an ignorant lot--seems to have been established before the movie was shot. On this score, Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader makes a good point:

I keep reading that this movie is a sly (or not so sly) critique of racism and intolerance based on ignorance, but Sacha Baron Cohen's apparent semi-ignorant intolerance of the Kazakhs is almost always factored out of the discussion. It's pretty easy to paint them as a pack of pathetic anti-Semites if you know nothing about them, but isn't that the kind of glibness Borat is supposedly attacking?

To me, the interesting aspect of the television episodes of "Borat" is the inhibitions revealed even in the most bigoted of his interview subjects. When Borat is driving with a blatant anti-Semite, the man goes off on Jews in a frighteningly absurd rant, going so far as to sanction the act of rounding up Jews. He then stops himself to say that we don't do that in this country. Oftentimes, when Borat starts baiting people with questions that could incense their latent racism, he receives variations on that same response: that we do not say those things in this country. Borat's bluntness is often met with cautious reluctance to disclose true beliefs, as when he gets a Republican primary candidate to hesitantly acknowledge that the logic of his beliefs mean that Jews will go to hell. In "Borat," Baron Cohen reveals a nation where political correctness has been internalized, and this may not be such a bad thing. Borat the film appears to be getting accolades for being "offensive," but that's no feat if the clever humor of the television show is lacking.

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