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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Borat’s altered ego

I first became familiar (if that’s the right word) with Sacha Baron Cohen in 2002. At the time when we moved to Ireland fulltime, there was a movie playing in the cinemas called Ali G Indahouse. I had no idea what this movie was about and, because of either bad eyesight or typos or both, I was under the misimpression that the title was Ali G India House.

Perhaps it is about Moslem-Hindu cross-cultural understanding, I mused in those scant nanoseconds that I actually gave it any thought.

The title, of course, was just a hip way of saying “Ali G in da house” or, as we older white people would have it, “Ali G in the house.”

Since then, Da Ali G Show, which aired on UK television in 2000, went on to have an American version, and Baron Cohen has gone on to even greater fame for his outrageous sort-of documentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and for voicing the role of the king of the lemurs in the Madagascar movies. Let there be no misunderstanding, Sacha Baron Cohen is a very funny man.

Ali G was the first noted character in a repertory that Baron Cohen has developed over the years. In a way, I suppose that makes him a male, edgier version of Carol Burnett. Ali G, for example, was, well, I guess you could say he was a British version of Eminem. He was not black but he reveled in “black” (hip hop, Jamaican) culture and music and speech patterns. Reportedly, he was inspired by a DJ on BBC Radio 1, Tim Westwood, who spoke on air in an ersatz Caribbean accent, despite being born and raised in Suffolk, the son of a bishop. So Ali G was always basically a social spoof of a certain type. When Baron Cohen began speaking to ordinary civilians while in character, he came to realize that he could make unwitting bystanders part of the gag. He found that, as Ali G da interviewer, he could get all kinds of interesting reactions from his subjects by making the most outrageous assertions. From then on, his stock in trade has been embarrassing important people on air and getting them to say or at least agree with all kinds of amazing things. His interlocutors have included everyone from Mohamed Al-Fayed to Boutros Boutros-Ghali to David and Victoria Beckham to Noam Chomsky to Gore Vidal to Ralph Nader to Donald Trump to Newt Gingrich to Sam Donaldson. So, in a way, Baron Cohen has evolved from being Carol Burnett to being Michael Moore, but with a less overtly political purpose.

As would be expected and, indeed, probably encouraged, the Ali G character caused a fair amount of controversy. Ostensibly, people who watched were laughing at how silly it was for a young white man to try to be black. But some people saw it as a tricky way of making fun of black stereotypes. And that has been the dilemma of the politically correct in approaching Baron Cohen and his other creations ever since.

I happened to get an early look at the Borat movie at a midnight screening at the 2006 Cork Film Festival. I confess that I laughed for a good part of its running time. Much of the laughter was due to the fact that I was watching a master comedian. And much of it was that strange laughter that comes from shock and disbelief and that gobsmacked feeling we get when we exclaim to ourselves, I can’t believe he said/did that! I was never tempted to see it a second time, and so I can’t say for sure how much of the humor survives when the shock of surprise is eliminated. My suspicion is that it would not be nearly so entertaining on the second go.

As with Ali G, the character of Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev is potentially, no, make that, deliberately offensive. Presumably, Baron Cohen’s aim was not to parody Kazakh culture, something that few in his audience would know or care much about, but rather to have a vehicle to voice the most outrageous politically incorrect viewpoints for their shock value. Borat is a racist, a misogynist, an anti-Semite, you name it. Where the comedy strategy with Ali G’s interviews seemed to be to get people to talk down to his level, Borat’s modus operandi appeared to see how many people he could get to agree or at least tolerate his shocking views. That means it was inevitable that the movie would require him to travel through America, particularly the South, although, in fairness, the filmmakers dragged their leaky poison pen to lots of locales, including New York and Los Angeles.

Once the shock and laughter have subsided, we are left with a kind of dirty feeling for having laughed at ordinary people being duped and, just maybe, at some of the racists/misogynist/anti-Semite things that Borat has said. And I’m sure that Baron Cohen would say that this is at least part of the point: to force us to examine some of the rude impulses that exist inside us, despite our best efforts to do and think the right things. Still, in a scene like the one in which Borat has spent an evening with friendly, courteous white southerners who think they are instructing him in American etiquette and then brings in a black hooker he has picked up on the street, we wonder why this is supposed to be funny. This is fill-in-the-blank humor. Oh, look at the southerners feeling uncomfortable with this black woman in tight, short pants, ha, ha. This seems to me to be one instance where the film is highlighting the filmmakers’ stereotypes and prejudices rather than its subjects’ or the audience’s.

Anyway, we are about to besieged, in a couple of weeks, by Sacha Baron Cohen’s unique brand of entertainment once again. This time the protagonist is his Brüno character, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion journalist. The new movie is already making news. Two weeks ago The New York Times reported that Elton John and the Walt Disney Company had declined to give permission for Baron Cohen to use John’s song (from Tarzan) “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” (Maybe Elton was put off by the fact that, as Brüno, Baron Cohen looks strangely like Princess Diana.) Reported the Times, “The filmmakers wanted to play the song during a scene in which the title character, participating in a cage-fighting match, pulls down his opponent’s pants and kisses him on the mouth, prompting a horrified crowd to throw garbage at him.” And that, along with Baron Cohen’s previous work, gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect. One scene, described in the Times article, has Brüno interviewing former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who was told the topic would be Austrian economics. “When lighting trouble delays the interview,” says the paper, “Mr. Baron Cohen strips to his underwear. Mr. Paul storms out muttering, ‘This guy is a queer.'” The article goes on to say that America’s gay community is ambivalent about the film, with some saying that it is good to expose homophobia and others saying the film may actually encourage homophobia.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the movie will have no effect at all on such issues as gay marriage and don’t ask, don’t tell. The idea that it will raise anyone’s consciousness about gay issues seems about as likely as the notion that Borat raised anyone’s consciousness about the situation in Kazakhstan. More to the point is that this sort of movie, like its reality TV equivalent, is relatively cheap to make. Borat cost $18 million to make and brought in $262 million worldwide.

Will I go see it? I certainly wouldn’t refuse to see it. But it won’t necessarily be my first choice either.

-S.L., 25 June 2009

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