Idol Chatter

I guess every discussion of Borat–the character brought to life by Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and the film featuring that character–has to begin with that pivotal moment in country-western anti-Semitism, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” We could discuss, as has been discussed over and over again, whether such a song–and such a character–encourages anti-Semitism, is in poor taste, or is one of the most nuanced, brilliant characters to grace the comedy scene.

Or, as is clearly possible from this weekend’s box office take–$26.4 million in only 837 theaters–perhaps all of the above are true.

This film will never be confused with the quiet lushness and tragic silent tones of an Ang Lee production. But anyone expecting that probably won’t see the movie to begin with. This film is mean to appeal to a certain kind of sense of humor and to personalities who find the balls-out, in your face humor as hilarious as they find it shocking. From the “running of the Jew” to a Pentecostal service, from a humor coach–who illustrates that identifying humor and being funny are not the same–to a cringeworthily hilarious dinner party scene that would have killed Miss Manners with shock, from drunken frat boys to rodeo riders, no one is safe from the ridicule of the purportedly Kazakh journalist who is known as Borat. And in the opinion of this reviewer, that’s a good thing.

In some ways, the film is a fish-out-of-water exercise, wrapped up in a road movie, and sprinkled with improv and with multiple real languages (like Hebrew and, according to one viewer, a mix of Hungarian and Romanian) playing the role of the “Kazakh” language. With a foreigner holding a mirror up to reflect our own culture and behavior, we see that we are not always viewed in the most flattering light. Seeing the world through Borat’s eyes gives us all a window into what we look like to people of other cultures, and what people of other cultures see when they see us. We see him brave the NYC subway and think that the hotel elevator is his hotel room; we witness the seductive powers of television as Borat discovers “Baywatch,” to journey-altering results.

Borat’s ignorance of the world at large also illustrates the relativity of what is culturally acceptable–while in Kazakhstan, he might be proud that his sister is “#4 prostitute in all the land,” in America he learns that it is not considered in line with dinner etiquette to invite a prostitute to dinner or to [spoiler alert] try to bridenap Pamela Anderson at an Orange County memorabilia signing.

That Borat got the patrons at the bar to sing his anti-Semitic song (a scene which is not in the movie) or that he views an elderly Jewish couple as a terrifying threat to his existence is more of a reflection of what ignorance brings than it is of hatred and bigotry. For instance, Borat visits a gun store and asks which gun is best for shooting Jews. The store owner only hesitates a moment before answering “a 9 mm or a .45.” In another example that doesn’t have to do with Jews, when Borat tries to kiss a guy at the rodeo, the guy explains that only the gays do that. Borat responds that in his country they round up the gays and put them in prison. Rodeo Guy says, “That’s what we’re trying to do here, too.”

I often wonder if, as a Jew, I feel better or worse about the fact that such things are coming from a comedian who has been heralded, pre-Borat, as a proud Jew. I think that I’d feel worse if such a character were played by a non-Jew, even if he said the same thing. This leads to a whole other discussion about the line between what’s funny and what’s offensive, between what’s lampooning and what’s hatemongering. Can I laugh at anti-Semitic or homophobic comments, even if they are offered within a framework of satire?

I saw the movie on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, during the first show available after the Jewish Sabbath. The theater was filled with Jews who booed the “Apocalypto” trailer as soon as the words “a film by Mel Gibson” flashed onscreen. (Borat would have been very nervous.) But another friend of mine saw it in a different neighborhood, and he reports having been one of only a few Jews in the audience. He loved the movie, too, but before entering the theater, he came across a group of non-Jewish kids sitting outside playing guitar, and singing all the words to “Throw the Jew Down the Well”–and all of a sudden, he wasn’t so sure how he felt about whether putting a character like Borat out there was a good idea after all.

Even though it was clearly meant as satire, there’s always someone who’s going to reappropriate or reinterpret it in the opposite manner from which it was intended. And if such catchphrases are popularized in the youth culture without any context or explanation, it might lay a foundation for believing that the song is legitimate not just as comedic entertainment, but as a personal philosophy.

These issues are disturbing, but what’s disturbing us is not Borat or Sacha Baron Cohen. It is the fact that there are people around us who hate and fear what they do not know personally, and that the bigotry and intolerance is closer than we think.

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