Thursday, February 22, 2007

Why did the Borat movie suck so much?

I first met Ali-G when I was a high school senior; my friend's freshman college roommate was British, and he had tapes of Ali-G's low budget show in the UK. Needless to say, it was wonderful stuff, and pretty soon after that (or maybe already?) Ali-G caught on in America. Ali-G had already invented Borat by then (though I don't think he'd invented the other character--Bruno, the gay eastern European). The genius of the Ali-G characters, it always seemed to me, was that, in their faux-ignorance, they managed to get their guests to say unbelievably stupid things. There is one Borat episode, for instance, in which Borat shoots the shit with southern wine tasters, and gets one to admit that the abolition slavery was "not good for him" (about 4:30 minutes in). This man, of course, would never have said these things to a white man, and so we get to see two types of racism in one. There is also Borat's brilliant "throw the jews down the well" song, which he took up in an American town, and got the listeners to sing along.

So this joke--which I always took to be the central joke of all three Ali-G characters--is very funny indeed, and actually doesn't even get old. So a Borat movie? I was into it! But there's one problem: when Borat moved to a feature film, the joke changed. All of the sudden, the joke was less at the expense of others (though there were some brilliant instances of this too) and more at the expense of Kazakhstan. Borat the movie has many fictional scenes, in which we see Borat in his homeland, with his friend, or alone--in other words, many scenes in which the joke is distinctly NOT on suckers who believe that foreign people are stupid and who say appalling things to Borat. The new joke goes something like this: Borat is a gay Eastern European guy, who is also an anti-Semite. But I don't like Sasha Cohen because he's good at mimicking gay, anti-Semitic foreigners. Seeing Borat do the "running of the Jews" in Kazakhstan was fine, but it wasn't what I paid for. I paid to see Borat make reactionaries look stupid! (and not just by pooping in a bag and showing it to them--make them say dumb stuff like you used to!) Anyone can mock foreigners; I could just go read Jonah Goldberg, the National Review columnist who makes a living writing this kind of stuff--in fact, I think Goldberg might have written some of the gay wrestling fights between Borat and his producer. All of the sudden, a gag that has always seemed very novel to me now seemed so...banal. And leaving the film, I felt stupid for arguing (as I often did) that the government of Kazakhstan "didn't get the joke." Yet again, maybe I was the one who didn't get it.

1 comment:

Betty & Bimbo said...

Thanks for posting this, Magwitch. Betty and Bimbo shared your kind of "eh" feeling about the laughs packed, or packaged, in the Borat film.

Another major element from the TV show missing in the movie was improvisation. As any of his characters, SBC is a great improvisor, and the movie seemed more structured around runaway chicken and poop gags rather than letting the Borat run free. We thought the funniest scenes in the movie were the ones in which SBC had to think quickly and respond off-the-cuff - like in the humor lesson, or the driving lesson. I guess we'd disagree with you slightly and say that the best Borat moments aren't necessarily when he gets people to say stupid things, but just when he gets them involved, talking to him and honestly responding. The nicest, most patient people actually make the best objects in the Borat movie - think of the woman who helped hapless Borat with his poop, or the humor coach. The deeper he can draw people into the scene, the more funnier it usually is. Part of this is because a deep scene can't just be based around a gag, but requires improvisation.

What were the British shows like?