Monday, November 13, 2006

Octopus Killjoy

Yes, yes, everyone must now line up and take turns declaring how hilarious the "Borat" movie is, and how Sacha Baron Cohen is a comic genius. And it is true that parts of the movie are hilarious. Cohen is undeniably funny.

But I have one question: Would a "Borat" equivalent depicting an idiotic and "comic" Muslim-hating Jew -- say, a settler from the West Bank -- ever screen in any movie theater in the U.S.?

I don't think so. In fact, I am certain the answer is No. Such a character would rightly be denounced as anti-Semitic.

But Borat? He's hilarious.

(I am now prepared to hear how I just didn't "get it". And thanks to chanchow for opening this discussion.)

9 comments:

ivanomartin said...

I'm not sure I understand your point...

Octopus Grigori said...

A caricature of a guy from a Muslim country as a rabidly anti-Semitic, misogynistic idiot is perfectly acceptable, and hilarious, even. It's fine to suggest that in Kazakhstan there are "town rapists" and that they have a "Running of the Jew", that people have intercourse with their sisters, etc.

It's open season on certain groups, and not on others. (Consider which groups come off as idiotic or insane in the movie and which groups are shown only in a positive light.) I am saying that it would be unthinkable to me to ever see a movie where Jews and Jewish culture were similarly depicted: a town rapist in Jerusalem, a running of the Arab in Tel Aviv? That would surely be anti-Semitic, no?

And if that's true, then what is "Borat"? And here, perhaps, lies the brilliance of Cohen's set-up. Does Cohen ever come out and say Borat is Muslim? I don't think so. But will 99% of the viewers of the movie, hearing that Borat is from one of the "-stan" countries, assume that he is an anti-Semitic Muslim? I very much do think so. (I foresee disagreement with you here.)

But, again, I think our unthinking acceptance of anti-Muslim propaganda is so high that the offensiveness of Borat is absolutely invisible to most of us. We do not have, when dealing with Muslims, anything like the triggers that set off alarms when there is a hint of offense toward other groups. And while the movie is ostensibly about revealing the sickness of America, Cohen does so through the vehicle of a character who so entertaingly defames Kazakhstan and Muslims, while it is all couched in a way that renders it a "joke". How could anyone take offense?

I suggest the parallel of the Jewish Borat character to reveal, what I think, is the deep offensiveness of the Borat character, an offensiveness so many of us simply do not see because it is so easy, so generally acceptable, to mock and denigrate Muslims and Arabs, especially in these times.

The movie would simply not be so hilarious to us if the roles were switched.

ivanomartin said...

Your powers of prediction are profound.

How do you know that Borat is (or is supposed to be) Muslim? Is there a single reference in the movie or the TV skits to Islam?

On the contrary, I don't think Borat ever expresses religious beliefs in the movie and to the extent the movie adverts to them, it is only as some kind of 19th Century folk (voodoo?) religion in which he seeks the protection of a vial of Gypsy tears.

Let alone 99%, I challenge you to find even 1% of "Borat" viewers who believed Borat to be a Muslim caricature or even a Muslim character. I have been a fan of the character and the show for years and the thought never occurred to me until reading your post, as clarified by your comment. Moreover, I believe that while the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim, the country's population is pretty close to 50/50 Muslim/Christian (all the Jews have left to work for Dial Car).

Offensiveness aside, I agree that between a Muslim Borat talking about killing Jews and a Jewish Borat talking about killing Muslims, neither would be funny.

But frankly, you're tilting at windmills here.

Stop being offended by caricatures that don't exist and start being offended by bad films. (See your undying defense of Star Wars I.)

Octopus Grigori said...

What can I say? I see into the future.

Let alone 99%, I challenge you to find even 1% of "Borat" viewers who believed Borat to be a Muslim caricature or even a Muslim character. I have been a fan of the character and the show for years and the thought never occurred to me until reading your post, as clarified by your comment. Moreover, I believe that while the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim, the country's population is pretty close to 50/50 Muslim/Christian (all the Jews have left to work for Dial Car).

The country is majority Muslim, with Christian Orthodox not too far behind. The president is Muslim. As I said, I believe Cohen has very carefully chosen Kazakhstan. (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Londonistan, Taxistan, anyone?)

But, you know what, I am happy to take you up on your challenge because I feel pretty confident about what I am saying. I'm sorry, but it's just very difficult for me to believe that someone hearing that Borat is from Kazakhstan, with the anti-Semitism, the town rapist, and all the rest, in today's environment of Muslim-loathing and denigration, does not have Islam brought to mind immediately. I'll start polling people today and get back to you with my results.

See also this comment, which expresses the point I am trying to make, and which I guess we will have to disagree on:

Well, if [Cohen] had retained the originally Slavic background of the Borat character, how could he then have exploited contemporary Western Muslim-hatred, as he has so successfully done? The point was not just to use a country that is exotically distant, but one that is vaguely associated in the minds of his audience with a variety of Muslim stereotypes: misogyny and patriarchy, antisemitism, warlordism, lechery, backwardness and cruelty. His target audience is people who enjoy indulging simultaneously their conviction of superiority over Western antisemites and bigots, and their contempt and hatred of Muslims.

Posted by: Dan Kervick on November 4, 2006 03:15 PM

From Matthew Ygelesias.

See also from NYT movie review:

The title character of the show, Ali G, is a vaguely Muslim British idiot with a hip-hop persona, who was the subject of a rather tame, and unsuccessful, film in 2002, “Ali G Indahouse,” released straight to video in the United States.

With “Borat,” Mr. Baron Cohen — who shares screenplay credit with several others — decided to head straight for the most sensitive areas of politically incorrect global culture, and for the first time will be doing so for a mass audience, far beyond the sophisticated niche of HBO. The film is to be released by 20th Century Fox on Nov. 3 on more than 2,000 screens nationwide.

(Borat is not explicitly Muslim, but Kazakhstan has a large Sunni Muslim population along with a sizable contingent of Orthodox Christians.)


How funny that Cohen is so successful portraying idiotic and bigoted vaguely Muslim characters (and homosexuals).

ivanomartin said...

I assume you'll be hiring your peeps at Quinnipiac to conduct that poll--I look forward to reviewing the results.

Does it affect your theory at all that Cohen has been doing the Borat character since well before 9/11? Maybe not.

By the way, remember the bit where the rodeo guy tells Borat to shave off his moustache so he doesn't look Muslim? Does that really work if Borat is supposed to be Muslim?

Re the comment from Mr. Ygelesias (and that is pretty much the coolest last name I've ever read): I can't, frankly, see how a single word, gag, or scene of the film would have been different had Cohen "retained the originally Slavic background of the Borat character." And I'm not sure the character ever had such a background. Anyway, isn't a big point of the movie how isolationist Americans wouldn't really care if you're from Kazakhstan or Armenia or "Slavia"?

And Ali G "vaguely Muslim"? Strange for a white boy from a wealthy London suburb named Alistair Graham, but Ok, maybe
vaguely Muslim in a John Walker Lindh kind of way. So vague, I'd venture, that only Ms. Waxman can pick up on such nuance.

dn

ivanomartin said...

Incidentally, have there been *any* protests anywhere or critical statements anywhere from any Muslim groups? I haven't seen report of a single one (and a quick internet search yields nothing).

Oh, and that same quick internet research reveals that Kazakhstan has, in fact, a majority Christian population, although it is divided between a couple of different sects.

dn

Octopus Grigori said...

Sorry, really don't know where you're getting the "majority Christian" information.

CIA Fact Book:
Muslim 47%, Russian Orthodox 44%, Protestant 2%, other 7%

Wikipedia:
Muslim (47%)
Russian Orthodox (44%)
Protestant (2%)
other (7%)

Index Mundi
Muslim 47%, Russian Orthodox 44%, Protestant 2%, other 7%

ivanomartin said...

I read it somewhere in passing, but jeez, who cares?
dn

Toddy said...

I thought the real point of Borat was to make fun of ignorance by assuming it. "Throw The Jews Down The Well" as sung by true blue Americans with gusto.

I have not seen the movie and I will wait until video, but I bet there will be moments where I will laugh and then I will feel guilty for laughing.

I think thats the point. You can get a good, healthy guilty feeling going. Like when you look at photographs of wars and natural disasters and things.

Very much like John Berger's essay on the Violence of Photography I think.