Monday, November 13, 2006


The Borat phenomenon is sweeping the nation both despite and because of the extremely bad taste of the movie. Anyone who has not seen the nude wrestling scenes have missed the biggest sacrifice an actor (Sash Baron Cohen, not the fat dude, Ken Davitian) has ever made for his art. Coming out of the theater, what people were talking about was that scene. It makes all of us enjoy outrageous sophomoric humor despite our inclination not to do so. I almost didn't go to the movie since I had seen so many of its scenes but I did want to see the wrestling scene.

But what really interests me is how easily "regular folks" were taken in by Cohen's antics. I am, of course, assuming that most of the "regular folks" were not in on the joke in many of the scenes, including the one in which the wrestlers went into a room where a convention meeting was going on. In cases in which individuals are filmed he had to get release forms but not, I suspect, when large groups were involved, in part because it would be impossible. Right now, Cohen is being sued by the drunken frat kids he traveled with for a while because they were drunk when they signed it. This is not quite as bad as the Twinkie Defense but it is close. I suspect that thee young men find it difficult to get dates.

Cohen's ability, as Borat, to con people depends on their having had little personal familiarity with foreigners but having seen people living in very primitive circumstances Such people are likely to assume that that a foreigner may not know our customs and manners or level of technology. This will tend to make them more forgiving of errors in behavior that seem to be honest ones at the time. A second reason is that Americans who have had few interactions with foreigners tend to assume that people who do not speak English properly are a little stupid. I don't think Americans are alone in having that prejudice. A third reason that such people can easily be taken in by someone as gifted as Cohen is that they will expect substantive linguistic errors. So, if Borat is trying to excuse himself to "go to the bathroom" he may be assumed not to know the name of the room he wants to go to or the correct language to use to explain why he needs to go there.

Spoiler paragraph coming: The "dinner party" scene has a hilarious sequence of events in which he tries to excuse himself to "go to the bathroom" and uses some impolite ways of talking about it. That much he could easily get away with. He then returns dangling a little white semi-transparent sack with dark stuff in it. At that point, surely some would assume that he was pulling their legs but the movie continues with a woman in the "bathroom" with him explaining how to use the toilet. We will never know whether she was in on the joke or not, but I've known some fairly dim, very polite people in my life who could possibly be taken that far "down the garden path," as it is called.

Last Spoiler paragraph: Borat's encounter with Holy Rollers (Evangelicals who "act out verbally" by hopping about and speaking in tongues is particularly nice since he, for the most part, lets these people make fools out of themselves without too much exaggeration in behavior by Cohen. I say that in full ignorance of what actually happens when Holy Rollers get together but stories I have heard made what went on seem credible.

Cohen has used interactions not only with ordinary folks (watch his HBO show "Da Ali G" if you can) as well as some very prominent persons such as James Baker, who will shortly tell W how to get us out of Iraq. Of course he can't con such people for long but what he does get is funny. Clearly, there needs to be a separate genre for his sort of humor -- I suggest it be called "train wreck humor" for Cohen creates little and even some quite big train wrecks wherever he goes.

The linguistic moral to this story is don't assume that foreigners are stupid simply because they don't know English well. I should add to that that one should not assume that they are culturally backward except in very rare cases such as encountering Tarzan in a jungle.

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Blogger Distar said...


I refuse to go see Borat.

5:21 PM

Blogger Ripple said...

I saw it last weekend. My wife lived 16 years in Kazakhstan and she says it doesn't depict the place in a realistic light. As far the movies goes, she thought it was funny regardless. My favorite scene was the one where the find out the bed and breakfast they are staying in is owned by Jews. I was busting a seam!

7:59 PM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

Braved the long lines and saw the movie over the weekend. Am still trying to get rid of the wrestling scene in my mind. The movie was a "two thumbs down" for me.

9:37 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I've just started hearing some of the buzz over this one in the last few days.

It probably won't make it to our local theater, so I'll be spared the PC moral dilemma. Probably won't actively spend money to rent it, but if it eventually turns up in the offerings on one of my movie channels, I'll probably watch it.

It's a work of fiction, a "commedy" of sorts, and is not being promoted as true, right? (I'll look for a trailer tomorrow in the office; connection here at home is too slow.) Is it in bad taste? Probably...but what else is new these days? As for the disgruntled villagers...

From the article linked to by Distar: "They made us look like primitives, like uncivilised savages." (Nicu Tudorache)

Let's see...mountain village named "Mud" where around 1000 people live [sic] mostly on public support in "dilapidated huts" with no running water and toilets that "are little more than sheltered holes in the ground".

Um...in what way does that NOT deserve the epithet "primitive"?

I'm not saying it doesn't sound like there are some real grievances. If Cohen & company were filming without the proper permits and having paid the required fees, they should have to pay them with penalties. If they promised the people more money than they paid, that's a breach of contract. If they trashed someone's hovel by bringing in a "manure & milk machine", then they should be made to pay compensation. As for the rest of it, if the film is not being promoted as a faithful depiction of reality (a documentary), then I don't see where they have much of a legal leg to stand on. But then I am not a lawyer.

(Mental distress over their ruined reputations? I wonder what Maslow would have to say about that. Where's Kelly, anyway?)

10:04 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

It doesn't matter if you're "drunk" when you signed something. It's a question of whether you were too drunk to understand what it was you were signing. I think you'd have to be pretty damn drunk to win on that.

I wonder why he didn't just make up a fictitious former Soviet state, like "Torkistan" or "Flagistan" or something (forgive me if these are actually real--I, like many Americans, am somewhat ignorant in this regard). I think that would have avoided making at least a couple people happy, and I doubt he would have fooled any fewer people.

I'm not sure what legal theories these people are suing him on. Just because he makes you mad or makes you look bad is not enough to give you a claim.

11:59 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I think the only way Borat could make his shtick work is to use a real country's name, but one no one has heard much about. I also don't think he worries about making the "subjects" of his comedic "experiments" mad. He worries about making us happy without totally grossing us out.

5:13 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

I wondered why that village in Romania was so poor (I mean, I know Romania is poorer than the US and most of Europe, but not that bad). The explanation finally came at the end - it's a Roma (Gypsy) village. Definitely because of discrimination and such. I do think that Cohen owes them more than what he gave them. As for how he depicted them, well, I'm not sure they really understand the form of satire he was engaging in (his intended audience wouldn't think ill of them for what they did in the film, in fact, I assumed that they were actors and in on the joke when I saw it).

4:14 PM


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