November 22, 2006
I defy you to watch the movie and not cramp up from laughter. And by all means, continue laughing when the pundits say "Borat" reveals something dark, ugly or frightening about America. Taking "Borat" seriously is seriously ridiculous.
As the erstwhile Kazakh journalist Borat, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen travels across the United States, goading the common man and woman into shocking, sometimes hilarious, sometimes just shocking situations.
I saw it on a Monday night in Santa Monica, during the second sold-out show. There were unexpected comic moments that hit the audience like an amusement park plunge -- we all screamed as one. There were also unexpectedly touching moments of comic brilliance -- director Larry Charles did "Seinfeld" as well -- as close to a Charlie Chaplain movie as any film with sound.
There's also the racism and anti-Semitism. Part of the humor and shock in the movie is how easily it seems Borat can coax a heap of Jew-hating out of Middle America (well, mostly Southern Middle America).
At a gun store near Dallas, he asks the proprietor for the best gun for killing Jews, and gets an unblinking recommendation. Later he hitches a ride with some college frat boys, one of whom confides that the Jews are taking over the country.
There's also the infamous scene from Cohen's HBO series in which the journalist gets the patrons of a Tucson roadhouse to sing along with him the word to a "famous Kazakh folksong." The customers laugh and sing in giddy unison: "Throw the Jews down the well/So my country can be free."
The idea of setting people up to reveal their true selves on tape isn't new. First there was Allen Funt's "Candid Camera," a much kinder, gentler "Borat." Then Howard Stern, who has used the same technique on unsuspecting celebrities for years, and now Cohen.
Is it any coincidence the masters of this craft -- Funt, Stern and Cohen -- have been Jews?
The quintessential outsiders can't help but wonder what they are saying about us behind our backs. How tempting it is to get them to say it to our disguised faces. That's a technique as old as Jacob dressing up as Esau to fool Isaac, as clever as Shakespeare's Shylock, out to prove "a goodly apple rotten at the heart."
To many people, including Cohen himself, these vignettes point to something deeply wrong about America.
Cohen came out of his character closet this week to address his critics not as Borat, but as Cohen. He told Rolling Stone, "I think part of the movie shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it's hatred of African Americans or of Jews."
In a 2004 National Public Radio interview, he told Robert Siegel, "That's the really interesting thing with Borat. People really let down their guard with him.... They feel much more relaxed about having their outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out."
Commentators are already warning that such satire can unleash latent, ancient hatred. Robert Wistrich, head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Israel's Hebrew University, told the New York Times that, "using the stereotypes can actually perpetuate them. It doesn't matter that Jews are indulging in it. In fact, it can seem more deadly when it comes from a Jew."
Deadly? Please. Looking to learn something about American anti-Semitism from "Borat" is like trying to study medicine by watching "Patch Adams."
The movie is perhaps not as raw and revealing as Cohen, or anxious sociologists, want us to believe. As The Forward newspaper pointed out last year regarding the Tucson incident, the aired footage was a fraction of what was shot, and the bar's accountant -- herself a Jew -- claimed that everybody in the place was onto the comedian long before the sing-along.
What also doesn't appear in the final movie only reaffirms the point. On the Internet I found a Borat outtake in which he asks a Southern animal control officer if he can adopt a dog that will "attack Jews." "Jews are Jesus' children," the woman shoots back. The dog, she says "probably loves Jews."
The lesson of Borat isn't that Americans deep down hate Jews, it's that Americans should learn 1) never sign a blanket release form, and 2) never get in front of a video camera unless someone you trust is behind it, especially when you're plastered.
But the other lesson grows out of one astonishing, little-remarked upon fact: Borat speaks Hebrew. I sat there in the theater understanding every Kazakh word without the subtitles because Cohen, an observant Jew who lived for a year on a kibbutz, just spoke Hebrew most of the time. If Americans are too geographically challenged to know anything about the real Kazakhstan, they surely won't be able to tell Hebrew from Kazakh.
In one brilliant scene, Borat awakes in the home of two kindly old Jews to find a pair of cockroaches. Panicked that the Jews have shape-shifted, he throws dollar bills at them to shoo them away and screams at them in Kazakh; that is, in Hebrew.
So here's the truth about Jews in America in 2006: The No. 1 comedy of the year features a Jew playing a buffoonish anti-Semite who curses Jews in a language which real anti-Semites long ago left for dead.
That is seriously funny.