I while back I caught the film "Borat" with a group of acqaintances. I was ambiguous about seeing the movie after reading a little about it because it didn't sound very funny. Despite hoping for a pleasant surprise, most of the film I found annoying and very little funny. In contrast, most of the audience found the film hilarious. I couldn't figure out why, as (my acquaintances at least) were a very educated crowd who seemed fairly politically correct, something the film is not. I never realized that portraying ignorance, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, heck, celebrating those things, was funny.
I thought about the whole thing a little more and talked it over some with friends, but didn't come to any conclusion. The other day; however, "Fresh Air" on NPR featured an interview with Sasha Baron Cohen, the creator of the film and character. (I'm sure I could provide a link, but my skills are minimal and I'm sure any reader has the Google-fu to find "NPR" and "interviews" and then the one with Sasha Baron Cohen.) Listening to the interview, more particularly the interviewer's questions, I had the following idea why Borat strikes so many as funny and is lauded as much as it is: the movie reenforces stereotypes that many college-educated people have regarding "regular America's" xenophobia and racism. The character Borat singing "throw the Jew down the well" and having a kareoke crowd join in on the chorus just shows how bad most folks really are (actually, this wasn't in the movie, it was from his television show and a comedy album). Drunken fratboys waxing enthusiastic about the return of slavery (which was in the movie) shows the way most of America thinks. I believe that is wrong, but also think that it is a common belief among certain folks.
I'd love to see the unedited footage from which the movie was constructed.
What struck me most about the interview was Cohen quoting the historian Ian Kershaw that "The road to Auschwitz is paved with indifference" in response to a question whether the kareoke bar was full of anti-Semites. I can't help but wonder how having thousands if not millions laugh at anti-Semitic rants helps that indifference (part of the immediate post-movie discussion was along the lines of "Well, Cohen is Jewish so his portraying an anti-Semitic character is ok). That laughter strikes me as a far cry from that inspired by Mel Brooks, who avowed a desire to reduce any glamour or coolness attaching to the Nazis by portraying them as ridiculous.
I'd anticipate someone saying that by exposing the racism and indifference lurking just beneath the surface of America we are made more careful of it or can be more honest about ourselves. I just don't get that vibe from "Borat" or my experience with the film. I see a guy making outrageous statements and, because the character is a benighted foreigner who gets varying levels of agreement from non-actors, audiences laughing. After all, they can laugh at jokes about Jews,or slavery because they are too smart to know that those things are ok. As long as they know that stuff is really wrong, it's ok. Right?
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