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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)



THE WHERE:
Late night show at Silver City to a completely packed house. This is of course after trying to see it on Thursday and not being able to because it was literally sold out all across the entire city.

THE WHY:
Looked hilarious. Been a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen since first year university when Greg introduced me to the wonderful world of Ali G. I never really got into his Borat character but the trailer looked hilarious and it's the same kind of deal either way.

THE UGLY:
After watching the film and finding it to be an almost complete letdown despite quite a few vintage Sacha Baron Cohen sketches (no, not Sasha Cohen) the thing that puzzled me most wasn't why the audiences loved it, that makes sense, but how this film managed to fool seemingly every single film critic out there who labelled it as a brilliant satire.

Borat (and Ali G) were both brilliant comedic ideas. I think they worked so well because there were 2 levels of comedy at work, on the one common level is of course that Sacha Baron Cohen's characters are extremely funny, but on the second level, his premise is based on reality. The ingenuity of his sketches was that second level, it was funny because we the audience were "in on the joke", we knew that Cohen was just playing a character but his unsuspecting - and most often, upper class erudite - guests did not and the joke was in watching them tread carefully and often carelessly with their words.

A major problem I had with the film that I never saw mentioned anywhere else strangely was Cohen's attempt to seemlessly mix in sketches that were clearly staged and pawn them off as reality. The comedy of his sketches as previously mentioned relies so much on the fact that these are real unsuspecting people. The second it becomes clear that the scenes have been staged, such as the Pamela Anderson "wedding" scene, the RV, the hooker, it loses all of its potency. It's a sort of reverse fourth wall rule. In fiction if you break that fourth wall in the middle it disrupts the viewer. Borat begins with a virtual pact that Cohen makes with the audience, that we will be "in the know", beyond the fourth wall. Does he think he can just shove us out of that at his convenience? (Incidentally this is the reason why I think reality TV sucks, because it tries to pawn off the fact that it is unstaged and raw when neither is truly the case)

The good part about the film is that it's essentially his more often than not brilliant sketches. The bad part about the film is the same thing. The film is really no more than a series of Cohen's sketches loosely thrown together with a plot that feels like it was created in about 5 minutes (the Pamela Anderson thread? Come on, you can do better than that). The film feels twice as long as its 84 minutes because of all the downtime we have to tolerate in-between the sketches. I'm sure even devoted fans of the film can't help but notice these bits as nothing but filler. I would have rather (and have in the past) sat through 2 hours of unrelated Ali G sketches.

The really crude stuff (i.e. the naked wrestling) I definitely could have done without and was surprised to see how much of it there was considering how smart the original shows were. I wonder if this was something Cohen always wanted to do or if he just threw in because he thought it would go down easy with the kiddies. What was more alarming was how easy the critics went on this stuff, many even praising it as hilarious. But I suppose there's nothing concrete to really say about that. As Siskel used to say, what is funny and what is sexy are two things that are not debatable.

If the aforementioned criticisms were the only problems then no doubt I would have still loved it, unfortunately though, the sketches themselves are even problematic. Not all the sketches I suppose, the ones with the driving instructor, the humour coach, the formal dinner, and the Jewish bed & breakfast are all vintage Borat, but it's those where he ventures into politics that bring the film down, and not so ironically, these are the scenes that have the critics raving.

Fortunately there is good old Armond White's review which I feel perfectly explains this otherwise unexplainable phenomenon of good reviews for such a crude comedy (which isn't to say crude comedy's are always bad, but that critics almost always rate them badly). Essentially what White says is happening is a sort of reverse "Fantasies of the Art-House Audience" except in this case it would be fantasies of the ultra-liberal audience.

Cohen's original TV sketches worked so well because first of all because he mocked his own ignorance and juxtaposed it with his refined guests. It was not at their expense. And this latter point is paramount because we are never meant to forget that these are real people. That is what makes it all the funnier. But what he doesn't realize is that when he decides to cross into the "serious" side of filmmaking, the rules are different.

Fictional comedy has very few boundaries, but satire is more than just comedy at something's expense, it is part documentary. As White says, the film can't be political in the same way as a fictional satire. Its satire must be of a documentary kind that relies on real responses, unfortunately these responses are completely manipulated. Kenneth Turan (another great reviewer) puts it more succinctly than I ever could: "...he ends up baiting the harmless and playing ordinary people for fools just because they are gullible and had the bad luck to run into him, and it's here that the laughter especially sticks in your throat. The car dealer who doesn't object when Borat makes anti-Gypsy remarks may not be a secret racist but simply someone who decided it was a mug's game to get further involved with an obvious lunatic. And the Southern dining society that gets mercilessly humiliated seems to have committed no sin worse than earnestness, credulity and hospitality."

The film is simply scoring cheap & easy points by making us feel good about how much better we are than these ignoramuses. The only thing political about this film as White says, is Cohen's calculated manipulation of our social confusion. His allusions to a Michael Moore-like approach seems appropriate. I've never even seen any of his works but most real critics would tell you that as a strict documentary filmmaker, he stinks. He is extremely narrow-minded, but is able to be popular because his thinking falls in line with majority of the media left-wingers and so they declare his films "insightful" when really they are expressing joy in finding a film that confirms something they have already made up their minds about. Regardless of whether or not this is really true of Moore, it certainly is true of Borat.

How else do you explain how some of these same critics thought too highly of themselves to "fall for" the satire of a much better and sentimental film like Forrest Gump? We laugh at Forrest because he knows nothing about shrimp fishing and yet goes ahead and does it anyways because he promised Bubba. We laugh but then we realize he's right, what else was the purpose of making a promise? To deceive and to pander? His lack of self-consciousness and social awareness is what allows him to treat black people the same as white people and not understand what the difference is, and in doing so it is both funny and insightful. But these supposedly highbrow critics don't go for that kind of "sentimental" thing, they resist it with every cynical bone in their body because these are "simple" messages for kids that they are above, and yet they lap up the dumb and dumberer moral relativism of Borat and wrap it up as a "satire".

The fact that Borat essentially plays its so-called satirical parts as documentary allows it to theoretically be more incisive (which is probably what is happening with many critics) but what Cohen forgets is that the second you venture into documentary territory, it comes with its own rules of propriety which Borat flaunts. In this sense it reminds me of what C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity regarding people who marry with the "death do us part" vows and yet feel free to divorce the second they are no longer feel in love or are simply tired of their marriage. Why get married in the first place with the vows? These people want all perks and respectability of marriage, with none of the responsibility. Similarly, Borat wants all the respectability of a biting satire and documentary without any of the filmmaking responsibility.

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