November 14, 2006

Baron Cohen pushes all the right buttons with Borat

Around the middle of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Borat pulls into a bed-and-breakfast, and the man who opens the door is wearing a yarmulke. It was there that the crowd laughed differently than before. Although they had laughed their pants off to the scene where Borat covers “the running of the Jew,” the laugh with American Jewish innkeepers was more tenuous, almost suggesting that the crowd feared what he was going to do next.

With Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen plays off the racist leanings of everyone he encounters and creates an environment where people feel uncomfortable expressing their deepest prejudices. This has scared a lot of people, many of whom have put the blame for that fear on Cohen himself. Instead of blaming Cohen, however, we should praise him. He has exposed aspects of our society that no one wanted to see, and in doing so has caused us to question just how far we’ve really come in terms of racism.

Of course, when he thinks the innkeepers have transmogrified into cockroaches and throws money at the roaches to fight them off, the crowd laughed all the same. But the fact that they feared a Jewish joke—and still laughed at it—shows the intricacies of Cohen’s highly publicized take on racist humor. Unlike with the classless racist jokes that so many people tell under their breath, the real humor of Borat is not in his racism, but in how we react to that racism.

Certainly, the running of the Jews is acceptable because it’s an abstract concept of racism, but when we attach actual people to anti-Semitism, all of a sudden it’s a slightly less acceptable concept. Yet by putting anti-Semitism in the form of a hapless foreigner, he has created a character who allows people to expose their true prejudices by feeling more comfortable with racism so blatantly and obviously exposed. This applies to the audience of his movies as much as to Texas ranchers who express their support for the Final Solution.

Cohen’s genius lies in finding ways to point out our problems when our current society is set up to prevent exposure of any racist leaning. Not only has he exposed a hole in all the P.C. systems established to guard against racism, but he has virtually obliterated all those barriers and created, at least temporarily, a culture in which white Christians can sing “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” and Jews will sing right along with them.

This does not mean he has caused us to ignore the history of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, nor does it diminish their importance. But it does force us to put all our cards on the table; instead of hiding our racism as we’ve been trained to do, we can see how deep it runs. Sacha Baron Cohen may not cure American prejudice, but he shows us that we’re further away than we think from curing our prejudices and making people more comfortable talking about it openly, at least in the mutated form of a rude, obscene Kazakh.

That said, Cohen has picked his battles wisely: the fact that he is Jewish has allowed him to get away with more than he ever should, and by picking a culture no one knows about in Kazakhstan, he has used a convenient forum to show our prejudices. Most people, for instance, don’t realize that when he claims to be speaking Kazakh, he is speaking broken Hebrew. At this point, the most people know about Kazakhstan comes from Borat’s warped take on the country, exposing another side of American racism in our lack of knowledge about the outside world.

The fact is, Cohen is the last great con artist in our society. Americans have always been obsessed with con artists, and still are—Catch Me if You Can and Matchstick Men can attest to that. But in an age when the con artist has been essentially eliminated by Google, the success of Borat makes Cohen’s efforts all the more impressive.

But how exactly is Cohen a con artist?

It is clear that some of the crucial scenes in the film were staged. For example, the prostitute hired to escort Borat is a professional actress. Similarly, Azamat, Borat’s partner in crime, has appeared in the movie S.W.A.T. and the show Boston Legal. Also, Pamela Anderson, his ultimate target in Borat, was supposedly in on it too (although her security team wasn’t). But that debate misses the point. Sacha Baron Cohen is a con artist not because he cons important people into ridiculous interviews, but because we think he does. We think these interviews are legitimate, and we think important people are shocked to see Borat, even though a good many of the scenes probably are staged or cleverly edited. What matters, however, is that we love Borat for embarrassing unassuming people, and, for all intents and purposes, they appear to be duped before millions of viewers.

If there is one realm where the con artist still runs free, it’s marketing and PR. Americans don’t quite understand just how neatly packaged and top-down their ideas of what’s true really are. The Passion of the Christ succeeded more because we heard about the scandal than because we actually liked it. Sony marketers followed suit with The Da Vinci Code, building success by hyping a scandal. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has succeeded in the same way, but unlike with the previous two, Cohen will be the first to admit he’s taking advantage of the situation. In that sense, even though he’s still a con artist, he’s a more honest con artist than Mel Gibson or any film marketer. We all owe him a high-five because of it.