Borat has broken, and it’s star, Sacha Baron Cohen, is now in the ascendancy. Without much thinking about it, I assumed this guy was another trickster figure in a long line of trickster figures (John Belushi, Jim Carrey, Tom Green, Dave Chappelle…).
Borat was screened this summer for the likes of Garry Shandling, George Meyer, Judd Apatow, and Larry David.
When the movie ended and the lights came up, everyone realized they had just seen something totally original, perhaps even revolutionary. Capturing the sense of collective astonishment, Meyer turned to Apatow and said, "I feel like something just played me Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time." (EW, as below)
"Totally original"! ""Revolutionary"? What a good way to get our attention. Post modern cultures, as Baudrillard would say, keep things in circulation, creating novelty out of precedent. By this account, originality is impossible.
So what happened? What’s new? Rottenberg speculates that Cohen offers us satire that never acknowledges itself. Borat never once gives the audience an ironic wink, no "get a load of this" respite. This could be true, but I don’t remember Tom Green ever acknowledging his satire, at least in the early years.
It could be that Cohen is more daring than other tricksters. His Ali G character could be read as racist. Borat is unmistakably anti-semitic. Borat holds the nation of Kazakhstan up to ridicule, a character assassination of vast proportions. But this is a difference of degree, not kind. Many comedians are rule breaking. To say that Cohenis more rule breaking does not, cannot, sustain a claim to originality.
Perhaps what matters is a daring of another kind. The filming of Borat took star and crew into peril. Director Larry Charles says,
We walked into extremely hostile situations that we then exacerbated into incredibly hostile situations. (EW, as below)
Well, maybe. This exercise in comedic ambush looks as if targets were chosen with the advice of Michael Moore (i.e., all targets are the favorite liberal ones). Unless you are prepared to subject your own world to satire and ridicule, it’s not really courageous comedy. (When you make fun of your own, there is no place to hide.)
Strickly speaking, the expert here is Leora Kornfeld and if she would grace us with a study of Borat I would be proud to host it. In the meantime, may I offer this suggestion?
Borat is about boundaries. We live in a time of porous boundaries. If you will forgive a moment of self reference, here’s something I posted in 2004.
Selves, groups, institutions, nations, cultures are all now more porous and less bounded than they used to be. Once we were like silos. Now we are now more like bird cages: positively breezy in our willingness to admit influences from outside. (lightly edited, McCracken, as below)
In a culture with diminished boundaries, some are consumed by the spirit of adventure. Is there anything I cannot say or do? Is there anyone I may not be?
Borat is the last moment in a longstanding cultural development, one that takes on new power and definition from the avant garde of the 20th century. Artists and poets (the predecessor of our comedian) looks to see what sensibilities may be scandalized. French painters and their successors the American beat writers lay seige to several of the pieities and clarities of bourgeois culture. And it worked. Eventually the movement was embraced even by the middle class. Once unmistakeable ideas are now marked not by boundaries but quotation marks.
Enter Borat. This character comes to offer a last test, a mopping up exercise. Are there any boundaries left? Well, in certain social circles (both conservative and radical), there will always be boundaries left. (It is interesting to see how often these groups devote themselves almost entirely to what the boundaries are. Much Punk discourse is about Punk boundaries.) Borat is the last enemy of our fixity. He is the new champion of our fluidity. Borat is proof that we can go anywhere and be anyone…or, at least, that there are no cultural categories or prohibitions left to constrain us.
I like the fact that Cohen is never interviewed except in character. I think this says that the Ali G./Borat exercise is not about him. And this makes him profoundly different from another rule breaking exemplar, the now downright tedious Madonna, for whom each successive manifestation and the larger transformational exercise is most distinctly about her.
As proof of Borat, I offer Monk. Borat will go anywhere, beard anyone, say anything, however much it makes us cringe. Monk (someone to whom I think I am a little closer in temperment) is a man squeamish about every kind of boundary and category confusion. While Borat plays the storm trooper, Monk wants nothing so much to stay home and wonder if that place mat is really, truly at right angles with the table on which it sits. Even tiny inconsistencies and imperfections are, for Monk, assaults on the senses, outrages against expectation, a tipping point from which chaos must surely follow. Such a character is inevitable when all placemats are matter out of place.
The structural properties of our culture are changing. We are becoming more fluid, more porous, more dynamic. It is inevitable that we should produce characters like Borat who delight testing the freedom this change brings. And characters like Monk who, like the rest of us, live in quiet horror.
Does this make Borat original? Not really. But he might be the last man in, the character for whom there are no longer any rites of passage, only rights of passage. And when he says and does things that are really impossibly rude, we cringe, but we don’t refuse him. We get what he’s doing. We know where he’s going. He is, after all, one of us.
McCracken, Grant. 2004. Culture Porousness. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. May 24, 2004. here.
Rottenberg, Josh. 2006. The Village
Idiot Genuis. Entertainment Weekly. October 20, 2006, pp. 31-38. (Quotes are from pages 34 and 38 respectively.)