Monday, November 20, 2006


Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen.

I heard Sasha Baron Cohen’s mother was of Jewish Persian origin, so I went to see his movie to find out what this "son of Persia" has accomplished. I was instantly struck by how familiar the main character seemed. The disarmingly innocent ignoramus lost in a civilization with a superior attitude took me back to all the Tork jokes I grew up with.

Tork jokes are a form of bragging, an insecure boasting of the Persian cultural dominance. During the centuries that Turkic speaking people held military and executive power in Persia, the Persian speakers consoled themselves with the notion that they were the dominant wit. Here’s a common recipe for a Tork joke: One savvy Persian observer, one illiterate village Tork, throw in a situation, gloat until funny. Borat replaces the savvy Persian observer with the American movie audience--who seem to enjoy laughing at Khazakhs even more than Persians like to make fun of Torks. But what consolation is the American audience seeking? Why did they pay 68 million dollars at the box office to be disgusted into laughter by Borat’s exotic toilet habits, guiltless sexuality, and overly libidinous courtship behavior?

The answer is partly in the cake Cohen has, and partly in the cake Cohen eats. In a commercially brilliant sleight of hand this artist panders shamelessly to America’s post 9-11 xenophobic arrogance, and at the same time delivers a scathing commentary on the nation’s imbecilic state of mind. While we lounge in our theatre seats complacently laughing at the loose morals and crude anti-Semitism of a clueless semi-Islamic character, we are also led to ask whether that last superior laugh isn’t really on us. In one scene Cohen --who does not let his film subjects know he is really an actor--returns to the dining room holding his excrement in a plastic bag, asking what he should do with it. The victim of this Candid Camera joke is a polite Southern hostess who recovers gracefully, and to my great admiration, shows Borat how civilized people use the toilet. So far this is America the beautiful. But later during the party when Borat’s after-dinner guest turns out to be an African-American call girl, Borat is thrown out of the house, along with his guest. Tolerance has limits.

Based on audience response, if I were to divide Borat’s 68 million dollar early box office take between distinct camps of Borat aficionados, this would be my guess,
Brilliant commentary on American hypocrisy : $10 million
I live in the greatest country in the world; supersize my sex and scatology jokes: $58million

As a member of the smaller group, the funniest scene for me was when thousands of rodeo fans held their right hands over their hearts while Borat performed Khazakhstan’s “national anthem” to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” All the time Borat bleated the fake words to this petty and childishly belligerent “national anthem,” the camera panned the proud faces of American patriots who still cheer as their president continues to shred their constitution, desecrate their bill of rights, and disgrace their country in the eyes of the world. This gag made me chuckle more cathartically than any bad Persian joke about how dumb Torks can get

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If I were to choose a more appropriate title for Cohen’s film, I would use, “Borat Try Teach Dumb America beginner Lesson For Make Benefit Neocon”. As such Borat seems to be more a desperate weapon of public persuasion by a political movement that appears to be in retreat after six-hundred thousand Iraqi dead, Abu Ghraib, the war on Lebanon, etc., etc…
Cohen has found a safer course for his character Borat to smear a large segment of the world’s population by inference than the cartoonists who unleashed so much fury on European streets when they depicted the prophet Mohammed with a bomb strapped to his head. While Cohen stays safely away from becoming a victim of the next Fatwa, his character Borat couldn’t be more effective in subverting public awareness if he was actually a Mossad agent acting as US President.