Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Is Borat Really All That Funny

mSydney Morning Herald entertainment writer Alexa Moses wonders what we're really laughing at when we watch Borat.

Spoiler alert! If you're worried about bits of the film's plot being blown, you'd better not read on.

I'm having some misgivings about Borat. Not only did I see the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan this week, but I sat through the staged, faux-jokey press conference with Sacha Baron Cohen, during which I heard about 40 gags about shoving Jews down wells, shooting gypsies, having sex with family members and the bagginess of women's nether regions.

According to the press pack journalists were given, the filmmakers are doing this in aid of "exposing prejudices and hypocrisies in American culture". That seems to be the way Borat's pranks, pulled on unsuspecting members of the American public, have been understood by many film critics, too, who are joyfully flagellating themselves about how the character uncovers the crassness and xenophobia of Americans.

A single viewing of the film puts that theory to rest. Borat Sagdiyev's antics through the United States show two things: how polite, tolerant and multicultural most Americans are, and how much we enjoy laughing at crass jokes we're not supposed to tell about sex, shit and race.

Take the case of etiquette coach Kathie Martin in Alabama who thought she was doing a real interview with a Kazakh journalist for a documentary. Baron Cohen showed her photographs of himself dressed as Borat, standing with a young boy with his penis exposed whom he claimed was his son. When Borat asks if he should show the photos around, Martin's only response is a slight hesitation, followed by a suggestion that perhaps these are not the best photos to share.

I don't know about you, but I doubt I'd have her poise and restraint.

At a dinner party, also in Alabama, Borat asks his unsuspecting hosts - who believe they are feeding a Kazakh documentary journalist - to use the toilet and comes back to the table holding a plastic bag of excrement.

Hmmm. What would you do if a guest did that? Throw up your hands? Lose your temper? Instead, the hostess takes him upstairs and politely explains how to use the toilet. Now that's commitment to courtesy.

How about if a strange bloke tried to kiss you on the train from Rockdale to the city? Would you kiss him back or tell him where to go? Hmmm.

There's also a scene in which Cohen, posing as Borat, worms his way into a rodeo in Virginia and sings a fake Kazakh national anthem to the tune of the American anthem.

At first, the crowd cheers his words supporting America's war, but then as his statements grow more outrageous with "George W. Bush will drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq", the crowd stops cheering.

In fact, they start booing. They do not support what he's saying. In fact, they appear to disagree. Only a hand-wringing film critic with a political point to make could miss it.

To the filmmakers' credit, the rodeo's producer Bobby Rowe makes some anti-gay comments and tells him to shave off his moustache or he will be mistaken for a Muslim. I don't agree with such sentiments, but I can't imagine America is the only place where people who think in such a way exist. Nor is Rowe hypocritical. He later told that he stood by his comments, and added to them. If that's as crass as America gets, it's less crass than critics would like us to think.

No, the comedy in Borat isn't anything as subtle as exposing crassness and xenophobia in American culture. It's village idiot comedy based on pranks, it's I-can't-believe-he-did-that comedy, the kind that gravitates towards shocks and stunts.

We laugh because Cohen has the guts to run around naked, break other people's expensive china, talk about having sex with his sister, and to say outrageous things in front of 500 people. We laugh at the jokes about incest and hating people from particular nations and groups, because they're so over-the-top, and also because they are jokes we rarely hear any more. They have shock value. And Cohen gets away with it because he's playing a role. The ultimate justification for Borat's anti-semitic/sexist/racist gags? These are Borat's opinions, not Cohen's.

I can't fault Cohen's commitment to the Borat role. As an actor, he has created some amazing stunts without breaking character. Now that's good acting, good art, and hats off to him for it. But the odorous, hard-to-miss suggestion in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is that people from other countries are idiots who don't know how to behave.

I've never met an eastern European, a Nepali villager, an African, or anyone from any Asian nation who thought it de rigueur to bring their excrement to table. I haven't met anyone from Kazakhstan but I'm willing to believe they might restrain themselves on that score, too. When we laugh at Borat boasting about his digital watch and trying to sell pubic hair, it's not because we're laughing at ourselves. We're laughing at the fact that he's so backwards, he thinks digital watches and pubic hair have currency.

Borat is a heavy-handed series of shocks and pranks, a well-acted step-brother to Punk'd or Jackass. On that level, Borat is easy to appreciate. But don't give me guff about clever, postmodern reflections on hypocritical, xenophobic society.

- Alexa Moses

Posted by SMH Online

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