Television

Curb Your Kazakh Enthusiasm

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I know it's far too late to start weighing in on Borat, but I just realized that one name has been mysteriously absent from every editorial I've seen on the subject. Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen stars in the film; yes, he co-wrote it; yes, he created the character that set the movie in motion. But at the risk of sounding like a musty old auteurist, surely it means something that the picture was directed by Larry Charles?

So far, Charles has evaded the sort of critical scrutiny that other directors receive as a matter of course—he is, to borrow the title of one of his films, masked and anonymous. Virtually every major project he has been associated with has another figure attached to it who's more easily identified as its author: Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, even Bob Dylan. (I'm not sure how Masked & Anonymous fits into Charles' oeuvre, but it might be worth noting that Dylan, like Cohen, is Jewish—and that the film includes a scene where he sings "Dixie.")

I enjoyed Borat, but I thought it was a victim of its hype: So many people claimed it exposed the bigotry allegedly beating beneath the skin of Middle America that its near-complete failure to deliver on those terms was bound to hurt it. If this were simply a matter of clueless critics writing nonsense, I wouldn't hold it against the film, but Cohen and his colleagues are guilty, at the very least, of misdirection. Why else make a point of setting the dinner-party scene on Secession Drive, or the shop-wrecking scene in a store that carries Confederate memorabilia, if not to hint that you're revealing some terrible truth about Red America?

That said, there's a lot more to this movie than what Philip Weiss calls "Red-State blackface." In a much-quoted essay for Slate, Christopher Hitchens pointed out that "among the 'cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan' is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse," failing repeatedly to rise to Cohen's bait. For Hitchens, this was a sign that "the joke…may well be on the prankster." But who's to say that wasn't the joke? Maybe Borat isn't a particularly political film after all. Maybe it's the world's crudest comedy of manners.

Maybe, in other words, it's a typical Larry Charles production. Charles cut his teeth writing for Seinfeld and directing Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV shows that find most of their humor in the absurdities of everyday social conventions. Curb, in particular, feels like an inverted Borat. Both are semi-improvised comedies about the adventures of a socially awkward jackass. It's just that in Curb, the jackass is laid back, cynical, easily embarrassed, and intently aware of the informal social rules that surround him. In Borat, the jackass is frenetic, naive, impossible to embarrass, and completely oblivious to every social more.

Borat is a movie in which a man at a formal dinner can hand his hostess a bag of feces and be greeted, not with a knee to the groin, but with a friendly lesson on the use of indoor plumbing. I could imagine the same thing happening on Curb Your Enthusiasm, except that there it would be Larry David who has to give the lesson—and who then spends half an hour trying to arrange a set of circumstances that would let him give someone a sack of shit.

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  1. The politeness of Borat’s victims is certainly one of his recurring jokes. For example, the second victim in this video:
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=foE8LH9W20A

  2. “””Why else make a point of setting the dinner-party scene on Secession Drive, or the shop-wrecking scene in a store that carries Confederate memorabilia, if not to hint that you’re revealing some terrible truth about Red America?”””

    Red America? What are we a communist state now, or does Jesse think Borat is going after the Republicans?

  3. The exposure of red state America is, and always has been, just one of the arrows in Borat’s quiver. When the media started playing up that angle in advance of the movie’s release, I fell for it and thought that Cohen had emphasized that part of schtick for the film. When I saw the film, I realized he hadn’t. Indeed, it was the same (in my opinion, hilarious) Borat formula as on the Ali G show.

    Borat is, essentially, a fish out of water joke, very well done. Now, Bruno…THAT character is all about getting people to say stupid things on camera.

  4. Christopher Hitchens pointed out that “among the ‘cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan’ is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse,” failing repeatedly to rise to Cohen’s bait.

    I can only picture Cohen pulling his Borat act in France. Now that would be a cinematic spectacle.

  5. I agree with Dennis. I saw it as a fish out of water comedy. For the most part, the people that he encountered were just being polite to the clearly out of place guy, although I suspect that at least some of them were in fact actors.

  6. Given that any director with a sense of his own reputation would have insisted that Alan Smithee take credit for “Masked & Anonymous,” maybe that’s why Larry Charles isn’t getting any critical notice over “Borat.”

    Maybe it’s the world’s crudest comedy of manners.

    Indeed so.

  7. I agree with Jonah Goldberg. This New Yorker piece is the best takedown of Borat I have seen.

    http://www.newyorker.com/shouts/content/articles/061204sh_shouts

    The better parts.

    “GANGSTA” SECTION: The scene where Borat says something intentionally offensive to the inner-city black guys-where is that scene? I have been unable to find it. Here I definitely suggest a reshoot. In the attachment, I have provided a list of common racial slurs that Sacha could try out on “the brothers,” just to see what they do to him. My thought is, that seems to be the ethos of the rest of the film-i.e., Sacha saying/doing the most offensive things possible, in order to elicit a reaction-so I sense a little inconsistency here. Thoughts?

    GAY PRIDE PARADE SECTION: Ditto here. Where are the gays insulted? Have noted, from perusing other sections of film, that chief targets of satire seem to be clueless middle-class whites, so a suggestion: Cull through Gay Pride footage to I.D. some clueless middle-class white gays, ask them embarrassing personal questions-e.g., Borat could quiz na?vely about details of anal sex, etc. What a riot!

    Basically Borat picks on the easy targets. I thought his original act where he interviewed public figures as a faux journalist was a lot better since the victims of the act were gadflies, politicians and activists who were asking to be made fun of.

  8. The real stab in the dinner party scene was that the bag of feces was excusable, but having dessert with a black prostitute was not.

  9. I think the prostitute wasn’t so much inexcusable but rather the last straw.

  10. Yeah, I think you’re overthinking that scene, CTD. Much more likely that it was the last straw or the fact that Borat had (as far as they knew) solicited a prostitute.

  11. We don’t even know that it was the arrival of the woman that caused the scene. Cohen is not above creative editing, and may well have done something else to make them call the cops (which is my suspicion) then edited it to make it look like the prostitute was the cause. I noticed when I watched the film that there was a certain amount of time lost between the introduction of the prostitute and the ejection (camera is inside near the dinner table; cut to it well outdoors in the process of running away). How much footage landed on the floor? Why was it cut?
    Which, if I’d been viewing this as a documentary would have made me very suspicious.

  12. Given that Larry Charles himself is allegedly visible among the subway patrons in one of the New York scenes, I suspect there’s a lot more than that to be suspicious about. A documentary this isn’t.

    Also, Pamela Anderson was reportedly in on the joke in her segment from the start.

  13. Um, sorry, but this is Hitchens. For Hitchens, reality must conform to his politics as needed. Right now, it is imperative that right-wing anti-semitism and indeed all blemishes of right-wing bigotry not exist. Plus, Borat made fun of the War on Terror. Therefore, in Hitchensworld, everything about the movie must be a lie, a cruel trick. Americans only happily smile and clap along and sing at “Throw the jews down the Well” because they are trying to be so polite. Likewise, a Texan hunter agrees with Borat that he wishes he could hunt Jews as well as extinct species because he’s trying to make small talk (sure those clips weren’t in the movie, but they are a sampling of Borat adventures in general).

    Hitchens got caught fabricating all sorts of things about Jefferson in his latest work too, and lets not forget that he’s still the poster child for the “there were WMD damnit I stand by my characterization of Hans Blix as a tyrant” school of nuttiness. Face it: once 9/11 happened, his grasp of reality fell out the window.


  14. Hitchens got caught fabricating all sorts of things about Jefferson in his latest work too,

    What’s the source for this?

  15. “I think the prostitute wasn’t so much inexcusable but rather the last straw.”

    I would need to watch it again to determine how it was edited, but I think the look on the face of the hostess was far more telling than anything else in the scene. She was upset about who he had invited into her house. Might be the result of carefuly editing, but I don’t think so.

  16. Hitchens new work attempts to argue that Jefferson was an atheist, but of course this argument requires simply not mentioning or dealing with most of Jefferson’s writings to the contrary and wild tangents based on statements about Jefferson saying he neither looked forward nor dreaded death.

  17. I spent some delightful hours last week with Dyssembayev Kenzhebay of Almaty ,and some other Kazakh film makers doing the academic rounds.

    He’s thinking of doing a docudramatic swing through midamerica to interview Sasha Cohen’s long suffering hosts forimprove cultural understanding of Geek driveby filmings and maybe land interview with translator on Conan.

    Is inviting capitalist producers to contact me on his behalfs if reading Libertarian bloggeral.

  18. Plunge – Haven’t read the book, so I’m genuinely curious – does Hitchens argue that Jefferson was an atheist or that he was a deist? The latter is often backed up by a number of anti-church Jefferson statements and seems to be accurate.

  19. Maybe it’s the world’s crudest comedy of manners.

    Maybe?

    The over-analysis of this movie is a hilarious bonus to the actual movie itself.

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