Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Is "Borat" Funny?

It was funny enough at any rate to be the top-grossing movie in the US for two consecutive weeks recently. Sacha Baron Cohen’s documentary about a journalist from Kazakhstan who goes to learn about America and befuddles the real-life locals with his Central Asia hillbilly antics has provoked, in addition to huge ticket sales, at least two threats of litigation from people who were taken in by the title character – one a stereotypical college undergrad goaded into expressing nostalgia for slavery and another a polite Southern lady at the dinner table who gets handed a bag that is probably full of the excrement of Borat (who is unaware of how flush toilets work). After some early expressions of outrage, the president of Kazakhstan has now gotten some good advice and decided at least publicly to take it in good fun.

I saw it, and laughed a lot, although sometimes not without guilt. Should I have? This Internet philosophy guide describes one theory of humor that is potentially germane. (The other three seem to have no relation to Borat.) In the superiority theory of humor, traceble perhaps to Aristotle and Plato, something is funny when it places the observer in a superior position to the observed. Hobbes writes in Human Nature that "the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly." This need not involve ethnic humor; much of the Marx Brothers hinges critically on this type of humor without any connotations of what we would now call prejudice.

And I do not automatically reject ethnic humor as unfunny. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate mark of the post-tribal society is the ability of everyone, punchline and listener alike, to laugh at a joke based on stereotypical exaggeration. And yet there is something not quite right about Mr. Cohen picking on a real country that has not done him or anyone any harm, especially given that so little is known about it, so that the marginal addition of the movie to what most people know about it is fairly large. Indeed, if anything Kazakhstan stands out in that part of the world where, contrary to scenes from the film, maniacal anti-Semitism appears relatively rare and the film’s depiction of the general primitive nature of the society seems forced. (Whatever its difficulties, Kazakhstan is not a country where brother-sister incest, to take one over-the-top example, is a big problem.) While ABC News in its Nightline broadcast recently managed to find someone there to live up to the stereotype Mr. Cohen paints (in that he said he wished Mr. Cohen were standing in front of him so he could kill him), it seems as best as I can tell like a harmless country.

The real butt of the joke, though, is America. It is Borat’s job to show us our pretensions, and take us down a peg. And this is funny, up to a point. Most of the movie actually shows the usual easy targets – a Southern minister, passionate Assemblies of God worshippers speaking in tongues – showing great forbearance to a comic actor insistent on provoking them. (Evidently some scenes were deleted because the filmmakers couldn't get the reactions they wanted.) And yet some reactions clearly are hilarious – Borat's rendering of a pidgen paean to America's "War of terror,” and the befuddlement and eventual anger it provokes in a rodeo crowd, is an example. That people would file lawsuits because they were allegedly taken advantage of is unfortunately a sign of the times. But the real lesson is that Americans, in huge numbers, are paying $8 a pop to laugh at themselves. The movie is a guilty pleasure, and if you know anything about world affairs it is a little unfair, but perhaps the Kazakh president had it right at the link above when he said there is no such thing as bad publicity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Borat was the WORST film I've ever seen. I could live without the image of him crapping and masterbating in the middle of New York City. The image of two ugly naked men wrestling in a hotel room is now forever etched in my mind. The film was insulting to anyone with intelligence or dignity.

Since when are rape, incest, beastiality, sodomy & abortion laughing matters? If any American father showed a photograph of his son's penis in public or on film, he would be put in jail for child pornography. Yet Borat supposedly exposes his "son's" nudity and we all laugh and point? Yes, it's only acting, but what's wrong with this picture??

Black women are portrayed as whores, Americans are portrayed as drunks, bigots, religious fanatics. Jews are highly disrespected in this film. Russian citizens are misrepresented as being ignorant, incestuous people.

'Borat' crosses the line between borderline humor and outright vomitous material. The fact that this film was a hit reflects just how low our entertainment standards have fallen. Total waste of my time and money.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Thank you for this thoughtful comment, which has prompted me to rethink this in a separate post.

12:25 PM  

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