Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Essay 1292

Anyone familiar with the Russian (a.k.a. Cyrillic) alphabet will immediately spot the typo in posters for “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” The letter serving as an “A” in the title figure’s name (see image above) is actually the phonetic equivalent of a “D” in the English alphabet.

The movie ultimately takes advantage of viewers’ unfamiliarity with the Russian alphabet — as well as our collective ignorance on a host of other cultural tips.

Borat’s skyrocketing popularity cannot be denied. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be disturbed by the rave reviews.

Critics have drawn similarities between Borat and MTV’s Jackass. The comparisons are an insult to Jackass. Yes, both entertainment vehicles share a level of crudeness and obscenity. But Borat is rooted in racism. Only a jackass would fail to recognize it.

Forget the proclamations that Borat is an equal opportunity offender targeting everyone and everything with biased barbs. It just ain’t true. There are no gags involving Latinos, Asians, Indians, Muslims, Native Americans and the usual suspects. Borat preys on specific segments in styles ranging from subliminal to slick to sick.

Aside from a cameo appearance by Republican activist Alan Keyes, the Black folks in Borat’s world are prostitutes and dice-rolling punks. It’s interesting that Sacha Baron Cohen forwards this negative vision, given that he’s made a fortune biting hip-hop via his Ali G persona. It’s also interesting that Borat is much more comfortable hanging with homeboys in the hood (and homosexuals!) than with a sweet Jewish couple in a suburban bed & breakfast.

Borat appears to be patently anti-Semitic. But is he really? In a weird way, the movie is almost pro-Semitic. Jewish folks are depicted as powerful and frightening. There are no stereotypical Jews displaying ugly qualities. Borat simply hates and fears them. We’ll let blog-visiting shrinks probe whatever is behind the man’s peculiar attitudes in this area.

On the other hand, Christians get skewered in the film. They are presented as dumb, narrow-minded crackers speaking in tongues. Hell, the movie even shows imagery that’s nothing short of blasphemous. While Borat would never stage nasty acts in a synagogue, he’s eager to disrupt Christian services with his sophomoric sinning.

Kazakhstan receives the worst smearing in this movie. The country is a rung below Third-World status. Its citizens are stupid, thieving, lying, repugnant perverts and whores. Incest is the norm. Misogyny and masturbation flourish. Bashing Jews is cool. And defecation is a public affair.

Hey, why not? Who would possibly complain about the defamation of a foreign nation? It’s just a joke, right?

You’d think Americans wouldn’t need a countering documentary from The Discovery Channel or National Geographic to confirm the mean-spirited caricatures Borat brings to the screen.

Heaven forbid Mr. Cohen would have played the same game by leading with Blacks, Latinos, Asians or Native Americans. The protests would be swift and deadly, at least in terms of killing profits. And focus groups wouldn’t accept Indian or Muslim characters — they’d be too unattractive.

No, Cohen opted to mess with a relatively unknown and obscure community not yet protected by political correctness. The decision feels calculated — and cowardly. Yet sold-out audiences are rolling in the aisles, while Sacha Baron Cohen is laughing all the way to the bank.

Hollywood long ago abandoned icons of insensitivity like Charlie Chan, The Cisco Kid and Amos ‘n’ Andy. Sports teams have reconsidered their Native American mascots. Advertisers like Anheuser-Busch have experienced public backlash when inventing critters like “Steve and Zagar” for Bud Light. Borat far exceeds any of the aforementioned in the despicable department. He’s not very niiiiice.

People insist that you shouldn’t judge this movie unless you’ve seen it. It’s tough to support such an argument. Are we required to attend KKK or Nazi rallies to verify prejudice takes place?

In short, Borat means Bigot. That may not be a literal translation, but it’s definitely a figurative one.


Jerimiah Redbone said...

Oh lighten up you p.c. weenie! It's only a goddamn movie and a prety good one too. The critics liked it and suprisingly it was #1 at the box office this weekend, a welcome change from the recent #1 "Saw III" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 27" (or whatever!)...so the public likes it too. Yeah we know there are no black prostitues or hip hop gangsta punks in the world. Uh huh! The WASPS were the ones that fared the worst in this flick and they are all laughing. Get a freaking life dude!


Make the logo bigger said...

But did you laugh at any of it? Honestly. Feels like a lot of that critique was based on my feelings about the flick, yikes.

The more I thought of it today, he's not Latka Dice Clay as much as Stern with a moustache and an accent. But I still did ackowledge Borat's full of racism & everthing else offensive.

If you took away the stuff people might deem as offensive, racist, etc, you're also left with around 30 minutes of legitimate Jackass stuff. And vice versa. There's a lot of stuff that Knoxville does that is the same as what Sasha did here.

Two things to diasgree with:

1) "Are we required to attend KKK or Nazi rallies to verify prejudice takes place? "

No, but that's not the point for me. As for seeing the film to be able to critique, I always see, read or hear whatever I'm reviewing so at least I know what I'm referencing. To do otherwise is to speak out of turn, no?

I'm not saying someone has to like what they see or agree with, just see it, hear the CD, etc. Movie reviewers see a lot of stuff they hate as well, but they still have to see it as part of their job.

To do otherwise is the SOP of the Jerry Falwells of the world: "Oh, I didn't see it, but some of my followers told me it was evil." Well, then Jerry, I have zero respect for you because we can't have a discussion on the matter because I'm going to be referencing stuff you have no clue about.

2) "There are no stereotypical Jews displaying ugly qualities. "

Hmm, hafta disagree. The throwing money scene under the door or the opening 'Running with the...' in his homeland. Wow. That stuff was cringe material all the way.)

I did notice that Asians and Hispanics were spared. Native Americans escaped as well. But Muslims, I thought he indirectly portrayed them in a less than favorable light, especially at the rodeo.

But I think you missed what I noticed a lot in this as you focus on Borat as the cause of all the bigotry, racism, xenophobia, etc. (Hard to to be specific about the movie as I don't want to give away scenes), but there are some pretty scary people in the film who really didn't need prompting to say the stuff they said regarding race, homophobia, views on women, etc.

Call the film racist and everything else, but you hafta call it both ways.

That's why I think Sasha was doing this more as a take on him hating the US as much as anything.

Without spoiling, the one shot of a certain street sign prior to the dinner party says a LOT about his agenda with US Southern culture and Christians.

I'm, curious what you're take is on the review by Mario Van Peebles, who felt the movie was a little too thin with some of the stunts in the middle, but otherwise thought it was very funny. Even with the hate-fileld themes the character brings to light.

Did you laught at anything in the movie? (Just curious, seriously.)

HighJive said...

Quick responses:

Not really basing comments on specific feelings and criticisms, MTLB. The critiques have been pretty consistent, from Newsweek’s David Ansen to NY Times to others. Definitely was not directing anything at you or any individual.

Just bringing a different perspective to the picture. We all view the world through our personal lenses. Would the audience responses be different in a theatre filled with folks from Kazakhstan? Probably. Some will argue the citizens of that country are not the target audience. This is true. But were Native Americans the target for Bud Light’s “Steve and Zagar” campaign? Is it kosher for one group to use another group as the butt of their jokes?

We like to couch things in phrases like “political correctness,” but it really goes beyond that. Can’t think of many instances in history where stereotyping on Borat’s level created positive results. Society recognizes yet frowns on such actions from the past. You’re laughing today. Will the next generation view your responses as appropriate? Hope not.

Not sure I agree that Jews were presented in the same light as Blacks or Christians or Southern Whites.

Go watch the movie again. But try viewing it through another person’s eyes. Dave Chappelle ended his show for good reasons. Let’s see if Cohen reaches the same point someday.

Make the logo bigger said...

That's cool. I didn't take it in any negative way, just saying.

I think Jewish people were portryaed as the devil while the Christians and born-agains were depicted as God-fearing buffoons, either way, I'd say Sasha has issues with those two groups more than any others in the movie by far.

(Is he really tearing Borat's home counry a new one by portraying the entire nation as being so hateful of Jewish people, or is Cohen himself doing it. That's the thing I'm not sure about. I'll let others throw out the inevitable self-loathing comment we always here about Jewish comics.)

But the parts I'm laughing at are as much about the hidden camera Jackass stuff as anything. The Running with the ... scene at the beginning was South Park, etc. As in, let's try and put in as offensive a scene as possible. That one, I cringed at.

But then, I also thought the scenes with the hitchhiking trio were as sexist as anything Borat did. I thought of Mel Gibson and what these three will say when the movie comes out, “We were misquoted”.

(Sorry, alcohol doesn't turn you into a racist. If you said it when you were drunk, you thought it when your were sober.)

Same goes for the rodeo crowd and a few others he ran into. That's not Borat talking, that's Americans saying that stuff. So that's where I have to ask, what's worse:

The fact he showed their behavior in the film, or that they said those things they did without prompting.

As for the pranks: The subway suitcase scene. The bear scene. The two guys chasing each other down the hall during the hotel convention? Sorry, but I'm laughing my ass off. In that case, I doubt the bear or naked guy coalition is up in arms.

That's where I'm coming from, in that the movie is a mix of everything. I'm not trying to get deep and summon Freud, but maybe Cohen is trying to push the limit as to how much someone will take when exposed to racist/sexist remarks before reacting. (The women leaving the meeting. The evangelical leaving dinner, etc.)

It's almost like Andy Kaufman's old act where he would come out and not say anything for five minutes, just to gauge people's breaking point of uncomfortableness.

As for seeing it through someone's else's eyes. Hard to do 100%. I know where you're coming from. Like you said on racialicious and I agree, it's relative to one's experience. No way I would know what Chappelle would feel though.

(I could suppose it, wouldn’t be the same.) But Chappelle was as much in charge of his image and how he portrayed race as Sasha was here. (Wondering if he had other issues in trying to deal with fame and fortune and that's why he left the show behind.)

Still waiting though: did you laugh even a little at anything during the movie?

Make the logo bigger said...

"Feels like a lot of that critique was based on my feelings about the flick, yikes."

(What I meant to say was my intention wasn't to be the advocate for seeing this movie that I thought was funny in spite of the people who may take issue with its content. I defnitely don't have the sway to see a movie that Ebert does.)


Hajpaj said...

I was so infuriated by what I saw of the flick that I couldn't even see straight.

What broke my heart was the marketing efforts in support. If Borat had been "Emmel Fecklestein" this movie gets stopped by the ACLU.

Every gay rights group comes out in force if the lead character is from the island of Lesbos spewing comparable garbage.

Cohen cleaned up because as redbone said, the problem isn't with him, it's with everyone who has problems Borat.

Make the logo bigger said...

"What broke my heart was the marketing efforts in support."

I saw the limited release planned and had heard the studio was thinking this thing was going to tank. Only ads I saw were the trailers in movies ahead of time but they'll probably flood TV this weekend.

"If Borat had been "Emmel Fecklestein" this movie gets stopped by the ACLU."

Sad thing is, I don't think the studio ulitmately cares, just as long as it makes $$$$.

Gibson depicts the Jews killing Jesus in Passion. All the movie studios distance themselves from him. Bad PR ahead of time.

It blows up huge after release. And now who's Gibson partner for distribution on Apocalyptica? Disney. THE family studio.

(Dude, the bear scene on the highway was funny though, c’mon.

HighJive said...

how come they had to depict a BLACK bear?

just kidding.

Make the logo bigger said...


Anonymous said...

I don't even know where to begin. This movie isn't racist, it's American subjects (and likely a good share of the audience) are.

It's a treatise on bigotry in America and it works because people think they're talking to a rube from "somewhere foreign". This allows them to open up in a way that they never would to an American. The fact that Borat slowly reveals horrifying details about his country and its customs is effective in eliciting American's true feelings.

The film was created by a man who spent over a decade in the ARA, is widely respected as a civil rights academic, and has the experience and perspective to comment on bigotry in ways that go beyond counting how many references to Asians something contains.

You've clearly missed the point and been utterly oblivious to most of the subtext of this film. You are either not smart enough to appreciate the film as a statement about xenophobia, or, more likely, you're so rabid in your pursuit of political correctness that you can't see the forest for the trees.

Your "relatively unknown and obscure community not yet protected by political correctness" comment vis a vis Kazakhstan is incredibly arrogant and patronizing, and it's far more offensive than anything in the film. In fact, most of your condescending "protection" of those being "attacked" is also horribly offensive.

By the way, those "dice rolling punks" and "homeboys in the hood" were obviously not punks, not homeboys and not in the hood. Judging by their surroundings, appearance and demeanor, I would guess they were shooting dice in front of their dorm. The establishing shots of a poor inner-city neighborhood were a little Hollywood magic and anyone with a clue would recognize that. Unfortunately, you are clueless and should not be throwing around accusations of racism.

HighJive said...


yes, your interpretation of the movie is exactly how the majority of the audience members perceived things.

bravo on your keen insights and conclusions.