Analingus and the Borat Antidote for Cultural Thin Skin

Amos Posner
Borat among his fellow Kazakhstanians

He's the most polarizing figure in recent pop culture history, and our mainstream movie maven is here to tell us why that's a good thing - for comedy and for society.

A sexy-time explosion was felt all around the world this month, as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan arrived in all its long-titled glory. It pummeled its competitors at the box office, and generated more buzz and longer lines than anything this year except possibly The Departed. And it’s no accident. It’s also the funniest movie in quite some time, more than living up to the character’s origins on Da Ali G Show. But what’s so interesting about the comedy is how people interact with it. More than just making us laugh, Borat has become a prism through which we can see just how warped we’ve become, and has revealed a series of rather stupid truths about all of us.

Sadly, it was the actual nation of Kazakhstan that started the avalanche. It’s hard to imagine anyone was actually going to take the movie as a true reflection of the character’s country of origin, so it’s still befuddling that president Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Kazakh government took the result so seriously. The country took out a four-page ad in The New York Times and met with President Bush before banning the movie. My father once told me that many countries would probably take offense to a clothing line being called Banana Republic, but none would express its outrage publicly, because they would first have to admit to being banana republics. In essence, this is what Kazakhstan has done. If nothing else, they have confirmed one of Borat’s many arbitrary facts cited about the country—that it has one of the worst senses of humor in the world.

Yet this is indicative of what Cohen has done to everyone. From Kazakhs to Gypsies to Jews to Southerners, every group has offered up their own Claude Rains-worthy “shocked, shocked!” reaction to Borat somewhere along the line. Sometimes, these groups miss the point completely. Many members of the Jewish community were up in arms when Borat appeared at a country-western bar on Da Ali G Show and sang a song called “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” prompting the unwitting audience to sing along enthusiastically. It was obviously subversive for a man named Cohen to dupe a crowd into clapping along to such a song. But people are all too willing to take offense and miss the humor or even pointed commentary of what’s going on.

With Borat, Cohen has found the perfect mix of Charlie Chaplin and Chris Rock. We laugh as the tramp stumbles comically through America, but also as he plays the straight man to all of us, pulling the curtain aside to reveal the comedy of what’s real, and forcing us to laugh at ourselves and those around us. He weaves between the two so seamlessly that we sometimes don’t notice and aren’t quite sure what’s real and what’s created. That’s part of the fun, too. The most important rule of engagement is to laugh as readily about yourself as you do about others. Like South Park and The Simpsons at their best, Borat spreads the satire to everyone, and if you take offense or take it too seriously, the joke’s on you.

For that reason, I take it as a great point of hometown pride that New Yorkers are portrayed as xenophobic, violent, and perhaps even sociopathic brutes, willing to threaten Borat or run into traffic to avoid him, yet I’ve heard nary a peep about offended New Yorkers. The conventional response seems to be “Well, yeah, of course some of us are.” It’s too bad that the South was presumed unable to take that same attitude about an Alabama dining club that meets in a plantation house on a street called Secession Road. Like the Kazakh government, red state test audiences sent the message that a region full of bigots and nutjobs is just too believable to be funny.

Anyone willing to react to Borat is the exact target for its jokes, both in the movie and afterwards. People have been quick to discuss the effectiveness of internet buzz and Cohen’s in-character media blitz for raising the movie’s profile. That may have helped its initial box office performance, but what really sets the movie apart is how its humor spills into real life after the credits roll. Most great comedies are just quotable. Borat is a self-sustaining statement. Anyone willing to take the movie or themselves seriously enough to take offense is immediately folded into the gag. The joy of laughing at the humorless people who miss the point continues long after you’ve seen the movie.

All of that has shined light not just on the stupidity of the movie’s victims and knee-jerk opponents, but on the bizarre move by Fox to cut its opening weekend release by more than 50 percent just a couple of weeks beforehand. The studio said the movie was "soft in awareness", but wasn’t that their fault in the first place? The studio had to know the movie was good, so why display anything less than full confidence? Why let there be soft awareness for Cohen’s coming out party after a prominent role in Talladega Nights, the year’s biggest comedy? Most likely, the smaller opening was just a marketing ploy. Come see the movie that’s offensive to racists and so forth.

Hollywood mainstays periodically complain about how hard it is to develop stars these days. Why would Fox mess around with the first major starring role for the most gifted comic actor since a young Eddie Murphy? Either it’s pussyfooting with a risky movie or it’s getting overly fancy with marketing a movie that could have been a hit just on the strength of college students alone (the people that come off worst in the movie, incidentally). Fortunately, the fans made Borat a huge success in its slashed release and sent a resounding “Who cares?” to the self-ordained cultural watchdogs who stood against it. Perhaps studios will be less afraid of promoting movies that aren’t completely neutered. Perhaps a comedy protagonist coming within inches of involuntarily performing analingus is exactly what this country needed.

I’m a great fan of Noel Murray of The Onion AV Club, but I think he missed the point recently when he said that, while a strong comedy, Borat was not the pointed satire and cultural exposé that some wanted it to be. Perhaps that’s true to some degree, and exposing a bit of latent racism in this country certainly isn’t a titanic achievement. But whatever the movie may have lacked in direct social commentary was far overwhelmed in how it brilliantly revealed us -- all of us, every group, national or ethnic, and every Hollywood studio -- for how thin-skinned and jumpy we are about self-identity, race, sex, and movies. Sacha Baron Cohen has turned the mirror on our collective ridiculousness. Oh, and he did it while making the funniest movie in years. Great success.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.