I finally got around to watching Borat. I'd been putting it off, because the little bit I'd read and seen about it disturbed me. Mainly: why would Sacha Baron Cohen, an accomplished satirist, mock a real country and its people when he could so easily make up a "funny" sounding name for a fake Eastern European country? And he didn't just mock the people of Kazakhistan. He charged them all with being vicious anti-Semites, one of the most damning and damaging things you can say about a person in this post-Holocaust world.
But all the television ads and various pundits talked about how amazing the movie was. Cohen even appeared on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show (staying fully in character), a program I admire and respect greatly. And Stewart treated Cohen with some level of admiration.
So we rented the movie, my wife and I.
And all I could think of when it was done was: I am so glad I didn't actually pay to see that awful production in a movie theater.
It was far worse than I had been led to expect. Sure, there were some funny parts (usually derived from the jaw-dropping feeling of "Did he really just do that?"), but to my mind it was an extremeley crude production that got its laughs by:
* Truly dumb and revolting sight gags. The very worst of it: Cohen wrestles with his obese director, both of them naked and the latter's balls slapping against Cohen's face. All I could think was: how badly did Cohen want to make this film that he would go through that? Just disgusting....
* Endless references to penises, vaginas, prostitutes. "Perfect" movie for teenage males, but how could anyone elevate this garbage to "The Best Comedy Ever Made"?
* Incredibly offensive mockery of rural people. People living in his "home village" in Kazakhistan apparently find incest just fine and rape perfectly acceptable. They are all stupid beyond (below?) measure.
* Revealing the misogyny, bigotry and anti-Jewish sentiments of drunk people, frat boys, and "rednecks." Wow. That is really amazing. Who would have thought? Like we didn't know that you can find people pretty much anywhere you look who are ignorant or prejudiced.
So what's the big deal? People make stupid movies all the time, like Jackass One and Two.
Sure they do. But those movies don't get bandied about as the best comedy ever made. Why was this film treated so differently?
After thinking on it for awhile, I have come to this conclusion:
Borat got a free ride into the Stratosphere of fame and profit (the film must have brought in a fortune) because Cohen leverages the fact that he is Jewish, he plays a crude anti-Semite, and he castigates an entire nation as anti-Semitic. Turns out, you simply can't go wrong playing that card.
We all know how awful "those people over there" are when it comes to Jews. And if we don't know, well, we certainly aren't going to question it, because then it might as seem as if we are going "easy" on those anti-Semites, or that we don't take anti-Semitism seriously.
In other words, I think Borat was hyped the way it was by Western pundits and media as another guilt payment for the Holocaust. Jews have always been and always will be victims, Jews were almost all killed off by Hitler (and Stalin and Spain and....). Poor, poor Jews.
Now, please don't get me wrong. I am totally disgusted by anti-Jewish expression and action. The Holocaust was a terribly tragedy -- for Jews, for Gypsies, for homosexuals, for humanity as a whole. But can't we learn the right lessons from this tragedy?
Hitler's attempt at extermination of the Jews was made possible by decades of vicious stereotyping and scapegoating of an entire people.
Surely, then, Jews more than any other people should take care to avoid doing the same thing to another people. Yet that is exactly what Sacha Baron Cohen has done in Borat.
Cohen shouldn't be treated as an artistic genius. He should be considered a dangerous bigot who makes the world a more dangerous place. Hmmm. That sounds really harsh. OK, he might not be dangerous. He might not even be a bigot. But he is contributing to the bigotry of the world in dangerous ways.
I don't know if he has yet apologized to the people of Kazakhistan, but he certainly should. And perhaps he should also consider donating the profits of his film to a group that battles all kinds of bigotry, not just anti-Semitism.