[12 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Just how gullible are we? As Sacha Baron Cohen’s pig and pony show continues to rake in the disposable income of an indiscriminate North American demographic ($67 million and counting), the critical community is having a literal laudatory filled field day. Rarely has the supposed scholarship of the journalistic branch been so unified in its praise. Some point to Cohen as the new Peter Sellers or the next Monty Python, others push for the British comic as a clear Oscar front runner, while others suggest that his movie is a kind of comedy revolution, a Blair Witch/Pulp Fiction like genre bender that merges reality with the ridiculous to form a new kind of radical reinterpretation of filmmaking.
But what, exactly, has Cohen done? Where is the invention in showcasing the readily apparent racism buried right on the surface of the United States social structure? Why is his ambush style approach to interviews and interaction so celebrated? It is really nothing new within the media framework. Howard Stern used to manage various foils (Stuttering John, Gary the Retard, etc.) to take the piss out of pompous, self-important individuals and the recent Jackass phenomenon argued that senseless stunt work in the name of self-serving slapstick can be intensely popular. And yet Borat seems to suggest something more than this to the rabid members of the fanbase. For them, this movie is much more than a cobbled together mock documentary. It’s a striking cinematic call to arms.
But would it surprise you to learn that this new Eastern European emperor has no clothes (his infamous nude wrestling/fight scene in the film aside)? Would you be shocked to learn that many of the movies more infamous moments were scripted and staged for the cameras? Recently both MTV and the New York Post have ‘outed’ various aspects of the Borat production, from which characters are really actors (Borat’s prostitute date) to the reality behind the various threats, skirmishes and fights featured (there were arrests, and a few ugly confrontations). While not meant to undermine what is obviously a growing phenomenon, these reports bring into perspective the power of film, and the credulity of individuals desperate to find something new and unique in an otherwise routine motion picture industry.
Primary amongst the revelations was Pamela Anderson’s willing participation in the project, including her full cooperation in the film’s infamous finale. For anyone not instantly jacked into the entire Borat experience, this last act confrontation between the buxom Baywatch beauty and the swarthy stalker-like reporter is a seemingly blatant buzzkill. What starts out as a standard photo op meet and greet with her fans turns into a full blown, storewide chase, ending with Cohen and his co-star grappling openly in a store parking lot. For many, it’s the prankster piece de resistance, a pristine melding of Borat’s naiveté with celebrity’s harsh realities to form an intellectualized version of a Kutcher punk.
Except, none of it is real. Not a single moment. Though she claims to be “sworn to secrecy” Anderson’s camp makes it clear that the actress has a long standing relationship with Cohen (they have worked together before) and reports indicate that the two conspired together to stage the assault in front of a pair of unknowing security guards. Even more intriguing are hints that scripted elements were used, along with professional camerawork, all in an effort to make sure the scene went off perfectly. Now, for a movie that is selling itself as an off the cuff altercation between acceptable social standards and human values, doesn’t having your target in on the ruse destroy the subtext? Is comedy by entrapment still funny once you learn the victim is as complicit as the attacker?
Even worse, there are troubling reports about the factual material in the movie as well. Members of the feminist group that Cohen interviews/insults argue that they were not fully informed about the purpose and point of their conversations with the actor, and when you think about it, they actually couldn’t have been. Had they been told that a UK comedian, playing a bigoted foreign journalist, was going to sit down and ask them questions that attack the very foundation of their group’s gender-based agenda and that, even better, this material was going to be used as part of the big screen comedy in which the whole point is to deflate those with a self-important (or shockingly misguided) approach to their beliefs, how many would have said yes?
This goes to the very heart of this surreal sub-genre, an entertainment category with its roots firmly in the success of nu-reality television. Unlike Survivor, where a competition supposedly separates the winner from the losers, or MTV’s The Real World which claims to capture authentic young people in the act of being buffoons, nu-reality walks a fine line between fact and fiction, making up material as part of, and in direct response to, how certain individuals and situations respond to their surroundings. Structured like an old fashioned suspense sequence in which certain people are in on the joke (the audience, members of the cast), and arguing that what you are seeing is an accurate reflection of the truth, the nu-reality experience pretends to play fair while relying on a foundation of falsehood to get its results.
It’s a lot like entertainment entrapment, especially since in Borat Cohen is coercing the indignation and indignity out of his unsuspecting victims. The law makes it clear that individuals cannot be held liable for crimes they were more or less forced or cajoled into committing and it’s the same with Borat’s comedy. It gets bigots to expose their hatred, idiots to emphasize their cluelessness and the psychotic to show their terrifying true colors through the humor equivalent of a well-rehearsed show business sting operation. But how clever is it really, and indeed, how successful overall? Is it funny to find out that a redneck country bumpkin thinks that Jews are evil? Does it make it more hilarious that Cohen’s character totally agrees, and even amplifies the anti-Semitism?
Some will argue that none of this matters. No matter how he got the audience reaction during his butchering of the National Anthem, or how ‘staged and scripted’ certain scenes are, the reactions are the reason behind the film’s import as a shocking, scatological satire. But doesn’t that argument beg the manner in which they were achieved – and more importantly, the truth behind said responses? Would the Anthem scene work if you knew that the jeers and boos were added in later during post-production, or that the collapsing horse was merely a happy accident, not the result of Cohen’s performance? Would you care that some of the targets appear in on the joke (the driving instructor, the antiques’ dealer) and would that, then affect your subjective viewpoint on the film’s success?
In many ways, Borat is the kind of experience that demands the support of subterfuge for as long as possible. Like the Blair Witch, which tried to get pre-screening audiences to believe that it was the real final footage of a doomed documentary crew, the success of this comedy rests solely on the level of believability you have in the prank. Had Cohen merely made a frazzled foreign farce about a Kazakhstan reporter leaving his hilarious hometown for the first time, the reaction would probably be minimal, not massive. In fact, it’s the same fate the comic’s first film based on one of his well known small screen characters faced. Ali G Indahouse went straight to DVD in America, its distributor sensing that, without the crazy confrontational antics that made the TV show a success, the film faced an uphill battle at the box office. And they were right.
Like learning the trick behind a magician’s mindblowing performance, or getting step by step instructions on how a certain sensational special effect was accomplished, discovering that Borat has as much manipulated as genuine material as part of its production acts as a buffer to much of the movies’ heralded genius. Even more distressing, recent reports suggest that the people of Glod, an impoverished Romanian village with no running water or sewage, were paid a mere ₤3 each to be portrayed as abortionists, rapists, and sexual deviants in the film’s opening sequence. Tricking people who should know better is one thing. Fooling folks who have nothing is the height of moral bankruptcy.
The true brilliance behind Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen is not the resulting film. It is merely a fresh, friendly experience marred by occasional gross outs and delusions of social commentary grandeur. It is not the funniest thing to ever hit cinema, nor is it the shape of things to come – one hopes. No, the real genius here is getting people to pay for the privilege of being part of the gag itself. In the end, Borat‘s biggest success is fooling the audience into thinking that the movie is more meaningful than it is. What started out as the second coming of comedy has ended up being an expertly controlled extended shock jock joke. When all is said and done, the only ones who’ll be left laughing are Cohen and his cohorts – and you can guarantee their giggles will resonate all the way to the nearest bank.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-front-page-whorat/