Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 11, 2007


Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm

Last night I watched “Borat”, now available from Netflix and all the other usual outlets.

Since there has been an ocean of words about the movie, I am not sure that I have that much to add but will try.

To start with, my wife and I are huge fans of Sasha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who plays Borat, Ali G and Bruno on a half-hour HBO show that is only available in reruns nowadays. Cohen seems to have abandoned television for movies. His next project will be based on his Bruno character, a gay Austrian television reporter who covers the fashion beat. Like his other avatars, this character has a knack for getting people to put their feet in their mouth. In a typical segment, he’ll get a fashion designer to render his opinion on what religion is “in” that year or not.

Ali G, of course, is the character who has adopted Black hip-hop mannerisms, while being obviously white. It has generated the most memorable comic episodes by far, although it is doubtful that Cohen will ever get any future mileage out of the character, since he is so well-known. In fact, he had to transport Ali G to the USA since he was so well-known in Great Britain. Here he is interviewing Noam Chomsky. Very funny and completely harmless.

The Borat character is the most controversial since he is given to blatant anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic outbursts. Since it is abundantly clear that the character is being used in the same way that Norman Lear used Archie Bunker, one wonders why one would feel compelled to attack Cohen for spreading hatred.

In an interesting article that appears in This Magazine, Pike Wright compares Sasha Cohen favorably to Sarah Silverman, another Jewish comedian who has achieved some notoriety for “political incorrectness”:

During an appearance on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2002, Silverman recounted how a friend had advised her to avoid jury duty by writing a racial slur on the selection form—“something really inappropriate, like ‘I hate Chinks.’” Instead, sugary-sweet Silverman explained how she wrote “I love Chinks” because she didn’t want to be considered a racist. An Asian-American media watchdog group protested the use of the slur until the network apologized. Silverman did not.

So does she really think it is OK to say Chink? Silverman never breaks character by smiling at her own outrageousness (as in, “Oh my, did I just say that aloud?”), so we’re left wondering who the real Silverman is. Unlike Cohen, her act intentionally cultivates this ambivalence. If we knew, we could decide if her act is full of racist jokes or full of jokes about racism. Couldn’t we?

I must confess to having spent no more than five minutes watching Silverman on her new Comedy Network show. I just didn’t find her funny at all. I have a feeling that her comedy is more about belittling racial minorities than attacking racism, from what I have seen. Her shtick seems influenced by SNL, where she worked until being fired. SNL spends an inordinate amount of time satirizing society’s underdogs nowadays, a clear departure from the show’s foundations.

My main complaint with “Borat” is that it sacrificed the TV show’s original premise for a rather opportunist bid for mainstream appeal. In adopting the “road movie” genre of National Lampoon’s “Vacation” or the ineffably stupid “Little Miss Sunshine”, it gave short shrift to the kind of comic interaction found in the HBO series. This is despite the fact that the HBO series would only include 8 minutes of Borat per episode. Those 8 minutes, however, gave Cohen much more time to develop his comic interaction with his patsies than in any particular scene in the film. Additionally, there is far too much material in the film that is staged, or that appears staged. And much of it is crude humor that comes across as a slightly more elevated version of MTV’s “Jackass”.

In keeping with the dumbed-down Hollywood approach, there is far more bathroom humor in the movie than found on the TV show. For example, in one scene Borat–a guest at a fancy dinner party–excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns, he presents his host with a plastic bag filled with his excrement. In the original skit that appeared on the HBO show, which obviously was the source of this scene in the movie, the entire 8 minutes is taken up with Borat getting his hosts to hoist themselves on their own petard by asking them questions about the Old South.

My guess is that director Larry Charles had a big influence on the content of the film. Charles was executive director of the Seinfeld show with Larry David and Seinfeld himself. He has a keen sense of mainstream tastes and was probably hired to direct the movie in a calculated bid to make Sasha Cohen a household name. Ironically, this kind of success will ultimately doom his career for the reasons cited above, but I imagine that Cohen will have so much money socked away that it won’t make any difference.

In his comments, Brian makes a point that I neglected to cover in my original posting: “It is Borat’s slight against Eastern Europeans that I find troubling.” This is an important point and something that I have thought about myself. To start with, I think that there is definitely a bias against Eastern Europeans in Great Britain that probably helped to enable the war in the Balkans. As Diana Johnstone observed, the Bosnian Muslims were considered “more like us” from the standpoint of Western European and British liberal sensibilities. With their blue eyes and their urban life-style, they seemed warm and fuzzy in comparison to the peasant Serbs, who came across as darker, more savage and more Eastern.

I am also sensitive to the use of a “Stan” as the butt of Cohen’s humor. All of these former Soviet Republics, especially Azerbaijan, have a heavy percentage of ethnic Turks. So in a sense, the stereotyping is not just Eastern European, it is Turkoman. Since I am married to a Turkish woman and have a strong affinity for Turkish culture, this does bother me a bit. Also, keep in mind that Mahir Çağrı, a Turk from Izmir, sued Cohen for essentially ripping off his website which is filled with malapropisms and crude overtures to European babes. Since I have definite plans to either move to Izmir at some point, or maintain a vacation apartment there, I didn’t appreciate this connection either, even if it was based on unfounded allegations.

After mulling it over, I came to the conclusion that Cohen’s “Kazakhstan” is so broadly comical that it is impossible to take seriously as a genuine assault on Eastern European or Turkoman ethnicity or culture. It is about as malevolent as Chico Marx’s representation of things Italian. Like a lot of Cohen’s humor, it has a kind of ironic self-referential character that defies easy pigeon-holing. Is he mocking East Europeans? Or is he mocking the stereotypes of East Europeans found in the West? I would accept that he is doing both things, but it is not the sort of thing that is likely to be used for reactionary purposes, like banning immigration, etc.

If you want examples of nasty British satire, I would refer you to the novels of Evelyn Waugh or V.S. Naipul. In their fiction, the natives inevitably come across as uncivilized and irrational. Furthermore, their works are taken much more seriously than “Borat” ever will be.



  1. I don’t buy the Archie Bunker comparison. Norman Lear portrayed Archie as an oddball. An aberration. He didn’t present Archie as an Everyman, as representing all Americans. It is Borat’s slight against Eastern Europeans that I find troubling. Worse I find it not funny. In an earlier blog entry you wrote sympathetically about Danny Hoch’s experience on the set of Seinfeld. What is the difference between “Raoul the Pool Guy with a spanish accent” and “Borat the new immigrant with the Kazakhi accent”? There is none.

    Humor is subjective, isn’t it? I don’t understand why Borat’s cruel (we’re laughing at you, and you don’t even know it), cynical humor leaves me straight-faced but Andrew “Dice” Clay’s racist and misogynistic humor leaves me in stitches. Maybe it’s because Andrew Clay Silverstein is a dumb jerk. But Sasha Baron Cohen is a Brit with some education and I expect something better from him.

    “It’s satire you idiot.” Yes, but all comics say that after their satire is called out as racist and unfunny. It’s getting old to these ears.

    Comment by Brian — March 12, 2007 @ 2:13 am

  2. Having (with little difficulty) resisted the urge to see the alleged satire “Borat,” may I suggest an antidote: “Idiocracy.” Mike Judge is a Swift-caliber genius. I have seen the future, and it drools.

    Comment by Carl Remick — March 12, 2007 @ 2:49 am

  3. Although Borat/Ali G/Bruno has made me laugh in the past, this story of the way people in the village of Glod, Romania say they were treated in the making of this film made me decide not to spend money on it:

    The quote that sticks in my memory:
    “The comedian insisted on travelling everywhere with bulky bodyguards, because, as one local said: ‘He seemed to think there were crooks among us.’

    While the rest of the crew based themselves in the motel, Baron Cohen stayed in a hotel in Sinaia, a nearby ski resort a world away from Glod’s grinding poverty. He would come to the village every morning to do ‘weird things’, such as bringing animals inside the run-down homes, or have the village children filmed holding weapons.”

    It’s clear who is controlling the means of production of this film, and it’s not the unsuspecting, relatively powerless villagers providing the raw material. If he can exploit these people in this manner, for me it calls into question his whole comedy enterprise.

    Comment by will — March 13, 2007 @ 5:45 am

  4. As Diana Johnstone observed, the Bosnian Muslims were considered “more like us” from the standpoint of Western European and British liberal sensibilities. With their blue eyes and their urban life-style, they seemed warm and fuzzy in comparison to the peasant Serbs, who came across as darker, more savage and more Eastern.

    This is an extremely unlikely claim. I doubt whether there was any differentiation between the two made by the British public except that which involved the word “Muslim”, which would not, I think, have been in the Bosnians’ favour.

    Comment by ejh — March 13, 2007 @ 2:08 pm

  5. If you want substantiation of this claim, rent the atrocious movie “Welcome to Sarajevo” that I reviewed here:


    Comment by louisproyect — March 13, 2007 @ 2:11 pm

  6. How would that substantiate the claim?

    Comment by ejh — March 13, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  7. Thing is, the war in Bosnia was presented as evil barbaric hordes overrunning a peaceful multiethnical society, you know, plucky Sarajevo still holding fast against the overwhelming military might of the Serb.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — March 14, 2007 @ 4:59 am

  8. Now the Unrepentent shows himself to be an expert on British opinion. March 5th he knew all about conditions in Ireland. What a world-traveler he must be!

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 14, 2007 @ 8:07 am

  9. Given both your Marxist/Trotskyist background and your interest in secular Jewish culture, I’m surprised at your failure to comment on what seemed to me to be the movie’s Jewish subtext. I saw the film almost a year ago so I’m not prepared to defend my take with specific evidence. However, from my perspective, for viewers in the supposed know, Cohen, only thinly disguised as Borat, is the quintessential itinerant, marginal, not quite ‘non-Jewish’ Jew deploying his superior intellect and guile to mock and ridicule (but not really challenge) the unwitting goyim on both sides of modernity and capitalism’s geopolitical divide. It’s a pale, distorted, and superficial echo of the analysis Deutscher articulated in an essay almost 50 years ago, a form of pseudo-subversion that even a right wing nebish like David Brooks could see through.

    Comment by burghardt — March 24, 2007 @ 3:14 am

  10. I am also sensitive to the use of a “Stan” as the butt of Cohen’s humor. All of these former Soviet Republics, especially Azerbaijan, have a heavy percentage of ethnic Turks. So in a sense, the stereotyping is not just Eastern European, it is Turkoman. Since I am married to a Turkish woman and have a strong affinity for Turkish culture, this does bother me a bit.

    Really? And if you were not married to a Turk that would make the stereotypes OK?

    Comment by Sam Smith — April 2, 2007 @ 5:18 am

  11. […] enough, I found that I made the same connection to Silverman in my review of “Borat” from March […]

    Pingback by Brüno « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 26, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

  12. “Butthurt” – Internet slang for ‘can’t take a joke’. Both Borat and Bruno offended you with it’s gross out scenes and pranks on people, and you gave both films a bad review. The whole film is about laughing at people who get angry or disgusted at the outlandish antics of Cohen, and part of the fun is that you can turn around in the crowd and see the exact same angry or disgusted reaction on the faces of people like you.

    Comment by Justin Time — September 17, 2009 @ 9:36 am

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