November 7, 2006

"Borat" and the witch hunt for inappropriate remarks

From my upcoming review in The American Conservative:

"Borat," we are advised by film critics, is an Important Message Movie because it portrays Kazakhs -- and Red State Americans -- as anti-Semites... Manohla Dargis, movie critic for the New York Times, assures us the semi-scripted movie "will freeze your blood," exposing hidden anti-Semitism when Borat says something casually anti-Semitic to an American Southerner who fails to gasp with appropriate horror or to immediately perform a citizen's arrest and bundle the visitor off to a cultural sensitivity re-education camp. In truth, Borat must have struck most Americans not in on the joke as a harmless boob or a dangerous lunatic. In either case, humoring him would be the sanest strategy for getting him to go away.

And here's an essay that methodically works through just about every incident in the movie where Borat interacts with (presumably) real Americans:

Movie Review: Borat Makes America Look Good

Written by Al Barger

Here, I want to zero in on just one specific aspect: How the unwitting Americans came out. What I saw on the screen doesn't seem to quite jibe with what I'm reading in many stories about it. I keep reading that Cohen made fools of the Americans, setting them up to expose their dark sides, their racism and homophobia, etc. For example, Entertainment Weekly says "the people Borat talks to become the symbolic heart of America - a place where intolerance is worn, increasingly, with pride." But that's mostly not what actually showed up on the screen, by my best instant analysis...

But in the actual practice, the Americans he tricked into being in his film mostly acquitted themselves very well. None of these Americans seemed malicious or vicious, or even hateful. They were all pretty nice, and very open hearted. [More]

Sacha Baron Cohen's film crew shot so many hours of footage as they traveled across America that they even got a clip of a rodeo horse with a rider carrying an American flag falling down by accident (how often does that happen?), yet they weren't able to come up with much in the way of the red meat bigotry that so many film critics were so desperately hoping to see that they simply imagined it was there.

As for the most notorious Borat segment from the old Ali G show, when he gets some members of an audience in a country-western bar to sing along with the purported Kazakh song "Throw the Jew Down the Well," a clip which has been the subject of countless thumbsucking essays about the Meaning of It All, such as this one by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate, a participant in the Slate "Fray" responded:

Regarding the enthusiastic redneck responses to Borat's Jew-well-throwing songs--don't read too much into it. It's at least partly a product of editing. This is not to so that the sing-along barflies were not racist--hell, they probably were--but part of the genius of the Borat character originates in the editing room. It's not like he just walked out there, launched into a Jew-hating song out of nowhere, and the latently anti-semitic crowds joined right in. There's an article from the local AZ paper floating around the interweb somewhere, interviewing one of the bar patrons caught on camera singing along, who explained that, contrary to the way it looks in the edited clip, Borat had warmed the crowd up for some time, was pretty clearly doing a comedy routine, and had sung a number of pre-Jew verses about throwing your mother down the well, throwing your sister down the well, etc.

I haven't been able to find the original article to confirm this, but it certainly sounds more plausible than the conventional wisdom about the clip.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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