Borat - a review (of sorts)
I finally did it - I went and saw Borat. Against my better judgement, I might add. What possessed me to fight my instincts and go watch it? Well, peer pressure (from friends back home who fear they won't get to see it themselves) and curiosity (because of the rave reviews it got in practically every reliable newspaper/magazine here).
I went off, hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Was Sacha Baron Cohen going to come up with anything more inventive than his staple "lets pull a fast one on this presumed religious bigot"? In all honesty, I can't say he really did manage to come up with anything surprising. Sure, there were some funny bits - but I found myself laughing mostly because I had paid money to laugh - I expected to have a good time.
The only surprising thing I took away from the experience, was the reactions of the audience around me. After all, 'Borat' is as much a spoof on Kazakhstan (or Romania, depending on how you look at it), as it is a critique of contemporary America and its people. So, why was everyone laughing?
A few weeks ago, while watching the Bill Maher show, Maher and his guests were discussing the implications of the Senate elections. Did the Democratic victory imply that the US was not as conservative as everyone thought it was? Or did it point to a liberalism inherent in the country, that was finally making its presence felt? It seems like a terribly fine point to debate over, but the point was made (even if there was no consensus on what the election ultimately meant).
As I heard the chuckles and guffaws around me that evening, I asked myself the same question. Of course, anyone who willingly went for the movie was open to being scandalized and laughed at. I couldn't help but feel, however, that maybe these popcorn munching, coke-sipping Californians around me were, somehow... not quite in on the joke.
Indeed, what is comic or funny? How does comedy work? I was asked these questions years ago, by my decidedly humourless Belgian French teacher, who was trying to deconstruct 'La Cage Aux Folles' (the Bird-Cage). She made the observation that comedy strives to push its audience's buttons, prodding us to laugh at ourselves, while ostensibly, laughing at something outside of ourselves.
Could this explain the hype generated in the US about 'Borat'? Was watching the movie some kind of cathartic experience for liberal, open-minded Americans, many of whom habitually claim to feel embarrassed (and even ashamed) of their citizenship? Or does 'Borat' operate on a sense of camaraderie, its audience distancing itself from identification with Borat's 'victims' just long enough to laugh and jeer at 'their' foolishness?
Perhaps the answer is a combination of all of these factors. Perhaps Americans are more liberal than we give them credit for. Perhaps we are all, American or not, implicated in some larger scheme of Cohen's.