Thursday, November 09, 2006

Borat and the Joke Most Americans Won't Get No Matter How Hard They Laugh

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- Watching any film at the Princess Four, one of the last of the old time movie theaters in this part of the country, is an acquired taste. The ancient building predates the "cineplex" concept, a former single screen matinee house that once hosted the films of Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and Boris Karloff now chopped up into four tiny screening rooms to accommodate the kids who dig Van Wilder type flicks and the arthouse crowd simultaneously.

Films aren't presented in THX or Dolby Digital; viewers are treated to films presented in groundbreaking Stereo. The paint's peeling off the incandescent-lit sign outside, the bathrooms smell of six decades' worth of urinal mints, and the smell of unfiltered Pall Malls hangs in the fabric of the now smoke-free rooms.

But I didn't go to the movies to simply take in the atmosphere of yesteryear. I'd was there to be supposedly offended, to sit through one and a half hours of jokes aimed squarely at a portion of my ancestry, to supposedly get angry at some British comedian for poking fun at killing Roma (Gypsies - and yeah, I'm, according to one account, at least an 1/8th) and Southerners.

A friend told me I should see the film. She wanted my input. She felt guilty for laughing a jokes about other peoples' cultures. She was pissed, too, because the comedian in question had caused her grandmother, a proud Kazakh who'd immigrated to the U.S. after the Second World War, to break down in tears at a recent get-together when she learned of this Borat character.

* * * *

The friend told me abut her viewing experience in one of those huge, modern multiplexes. She'd gone with a group of coworkers to catch the film's opening. The crowd she'd experienced was a stereotypically diverse urban California crowd - she remembered seeing a line full of representatives from Asian and African cultures, WASPish New Agers intermingled with Hindus in Lamb of God tee shirts.

Going to the movies in Oxford Fucking Ohio is a completely different experience. As one of the least diverse college communities in America, Oxford is a land where anyone without blonde hair and blue/green eyes could qualify as a minority, a place where I've heard words like "nigger," "chink," and "faggot" used more readily by college students than I heard in Louisiana or Virginia.

While waiting to buy my ticket to see this Sacha Baron Cohen guy do his thing, I listened to the audience banter around me.

A group of undergraduate males, dressed in overpriced clothes designed to make them look like COPS rejects fresh from the meth lab, were making fun of a friend who'd blacked out the previous night and recently learned that he'd accidentally fucked a girl without a condom rumored to have the Clap.

Another group in front of me, all dressed like extras from a Panic! at the Disco video, were discussing how their worship of Saint Sylvia Fucking Plath, how they hated the Greek system poseurs who had hijacked their scene, and who were (loudly) worried they'd get caught sneaking malt liquor into the theater.

I was one of three people over 24 in line to buy a ticket for this fucking movie. The people working at the theater represented the only black contingent, the few international students, a group of Chinese girls (Peking region, I'm guessing, given the accent) in line to watch some Christmas-based comedy, filling out the remainder of the diverse crowd.

I'd heard that Borat! included a scene involving something called the Running of the Jew, an imaginary Kazakh village festival.

For some reason, I was hoping - praying - that the flick didn't give the whitest of the WASP Higher Ed kids any ideas.

After all, this is a land where some of the nation's most affluent, sheltered progeny once enjoyed an annual block party called "Ghetto Fest," an even that unrealistically glamourized inner-city life in ways only those who've never seen urban decay could. And given some of the comments I've overheard concerning student peer-pressure racism (examples 1 and 2), I wouldn't put it past some idiot to come up with a similar, nonfiction event...

* * * *

Borat! is a film the vast majority of Americans would probably consider offensive - but not in the way most people would think.

Sure, every Jewish and Central Asian immigrant stereotype is played up to serve as a backdrop for childish humor. And, sure, most Americans have probably never seen anyone wave a fist-shaped dildo around, much less anyone chase a fat man around a convention center with one in the middle of a professional conference.

The offensive part, when one looks beyond the politically correct, is that Americans are finally forced to look at the same joke a good part of the rest of the world has been making for much of the last decade.

American culture isn't merely the vehicle for the film's sick jokes. While the theater where I watched Borat! was full of laughter, there were also scenes - like one involving a fraternity member drunkenly agreeing to participate in a "Kazakh" drinking game involving one's penis and the insertion of a baby mouse - that led to hushed "how dare he?" comments.

Kazakhstan thinks Sacha Baron Cohen makes their country look bad? Try being the global equivalent of the funny part of a "Yo' country so stupid..." joke. Americans are the butt of the joke.

Hey, I didn't see former high-ranking Kazakh legislators meeting with an actor posing as a foreign documentarian, eating ceremonial cheese supposedly made of breastmilk. But I did see former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) struggle to swallow the boob cheese, a gag reflex he apparently shares with the former blowjob-giving interns he once tried to use to topple a presidency.

And I didn't see some mustachioed caricature of "generic male Eastern European tourist" demonstrate the paper-thin fortitude of a women's rights group's membership, simply by challenging their views with obviously pulled-from-the-ass fictional studies and facts, either.

* * * *

The sight of a feminist storming off camera, unwilling to even try to defend her stance in the face of obvious on-camera ridicule, sent a message to women in Lesser Developed Nations, one I've heard echoed in real life by women from countries where Borat's fictionalized ideas are not so harmless, where fighting for equal rights requires more than just lip service from American soapbox goddesses.

That message?

Don't count on American women's rights advocates to bring about real change in your country, because they are prone to pout and retreat the first time one of your male leaders compares a woman's intelligence to that of a squirrel. Or maybe they'll hold a press conference about it. Or "raise awareness" by preaching to the choir. But put up a fight? Nah.

I can't take credit for the critique of American women's rights activists - I'm paraphrasing a quote I once overheard. The whole scene reminded me of an argument I witnessed in a coffee shop years ago in college. Two female students, one from a southern African nation and the other a white urban American, were arguing about the validity of the Second-Wave Feminism in Africa. From what I remember, the white American found the African woman's write-off of this woman's works offensive and wanted to argue academic theory, mixing continents and cultures freely.

The African woman laughed and reminded the American that, well, being famous for infiltrating the Playboy Club isn't exactly in the same league as staring down the AK-47s of local warlords and corrupt government officials...

Pamela Anderson - Pamela FRIGGIN' Anderson - ends up being the most intelligent woman in the film, primarily for agreeing to play along with an obvious satire. By demonstrating the fine line between the American objectification of female celebrities and the type of rituals still practiced in some parts of rural Central Asia (something I believe may have been completely accidental), the former Baywatch star may have done more for "promoting awareness" of the plight of some of the world's women than a thousand activists ever could.

I can't even claim that Anderson is the most intelligent American woman in the film - she's originally from Canada. For some reason, I think she and the central African woman I once met might want to form a "Saving American Women from Wanting to Save All Women with Cultural Bias" group.

The female viewers sitting next to me laughed at the feminists, but the sight of a woman being shoved into a "bridal sack" wasn't funny to them. One exclaimed that nobody really stalks and abducts women for marriage in the 21st century, even in the world of Boratistan.

Oh no...never happens, ladies. That's why the United Nations General Assembly adopted this little gem back in 1964. They thought some guy might make a movie about it four decades later ... sure.

I wonder how many of those women were actually inspired to do a little research on such not-so-funny things, simply because a Playboy Playmate agreed to pretend to be abducted as a bride?

Hell, it made me think. One blog reader asked me to pull articles, so bothered by the depiction that she and her roommates spent the night after viewing the film's opening drinking wine and discussing that scene.

The feminist group member who stormed off screen? Yeah...maybe she should hire Anderson's publicist. Or maybe just continue to pretend to fume while she basks in the newfound media light, perhaps?

Nah. She's got artwork to sell. Leave the brilliant feminist strategy to Canadian immigrants once linked to both David Hasselhof and Tommy Lee's penis.

* * * *

And then there's, well, Mr. Jesus.

The film's portrayal of American Christianity borders on blasphemy, sure. But it's not the film's creators who create the blasphemy - the U.S. does just fine, all by its lonesome.

Watching as a group of cultural elitists/Southern Presbyterians call the cops on a guy for inviting a prostitute to dinnerparty was both funny and ironic. Kinda made me feel sad that I never took that piss in the punch bowl at at least one of those silly cotillion things when I was a kid.

But watching a fake conversion at a Pentecostal in Texas, watching politicians stump for votes amongst the speaking-in-tongues faithful, was the most telling depiction of how this AmeriChrist version pitched by politicians and storefront preachers damages American society since Elmer Gantry mocked the fervor of Father Coughlin and Billy Sunday.

That, coupled with a gentleman from my home fucking state making all Virginians look like homophobic, racist rednecks, left a pit in my stomach.

Borat didn't have to do a thing. America did it to itself.

* * * *

Leaving the Princess Four, I watched the crowd carefully. I studied the facial expressions of people, listened to their conversations.

Fraternity members laughed nervously as they discussed the scene that hit home for them. Two older women bickered about the blistering attack on the Womyn's Movement.

I called the friend back and gave her my review of Borat.

She didn't think my deep thoughts about such a film were too entertaining. She found she, too, had been thinking too much about such a silly movie.

I did tell her that, as a Southerner:

I probably should get back to my usual ritual of cornholing my sister in the outhouse while reading the Bible, flossing my one remaining tooth, or planning my next Klan Rally bake sale. And my dirty 1/8th gypsy blood was calling me to give Borat the Evil Eye, turn him into a fucking werewolf, and to steal the firstborn children of the film's producers.

Stupid Gypsy Hunters and their Anti-Southern attacks. I shall now go spread the Plague and make bad moonshine while playing Dixie on a violin, put curses upon them from my tent while watching Hee-Haw...

Go ahead and laugh. You know you want to - stereotypes are funny.

She laughed. Sometimes, it's the bluntness of humor's sledgehammer that cuts through the shit faster than the delicate tweezers of political correctness.

It's when those stereotypes are reflections of the truth, living testimonials to the everyday bullshit image of a nation or group, that they become no laughing matter.

# # #


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, J. Glad someone else sees the movie the same way! Hands down one of the funniest movies I've seen in ages ... the "joke's on you" type never do seem to fail.

(Of course, in Canada we usually pick up on humor where the US is the butt of the joke - we pretty much invented it, the good neighbours that we are.)

Speaking of the US, and butts of jokes, I've drafted a list of some career opportunities for the recently unemployed Rummy. His talents should take him far in his post-administration days. ;-)

Later bro,

CW said...

Oh, my eyes!!!! That picture was almost lifesized in my RSS reader!

sassinak said...

hey i moved by the way... ( now) but i'm still using my blogger profile for comments

anyway i hadn't even heard of this movie adn now i can't actually decide if i want to see it. this is the first i've heard of it and it sort of seems like the kind of embarassing that i find basically unbearable to watch.

but yes, sometimes the funny way is the only way to say it at all...

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Like CW, the picture was huge on my reader. It scared the beejezus out of me. This is a great post overall. Like Sassinak, sounds like something I may find unbearable to watch. But maybe when the DVD comes out. Anyhow, best, and keep on blogging.

xmichra said...

never heard of the movie.. but anything that can produce the comment "Saving American Women from Wanting to Save All Women with Cultural Bias" group.. i have got to go see that!! And our litte Pammy was... GOOD?? wow.

cooper said...

I haven't seen the film, we were going to go tonight but the group of people hanging at my apartment - which include a women from Liberia and one from Turkey, who both laugh at American feminists and do not think them useful - decided to stay in and read blogs - so they could laugh more.... which they did of course.

A good friend of mine - a frat boy actually - saw it, he told me that the truth hurts and this film was painfully brilliant.

I may check it out not sure it's my cup pa.

Anonymous said...

I just thought I would point out that you are an arrogant and ignorant asshole. Sasha Cohen baited his subjects and peiced the film together to simply make Americans look stupid. Pam Anderson more important to the Women's Movement than Gloria Steinem? Please. That's stupid and reflects your obvious gloating over an ambuse interview meant to intentionally berate a women's organization.

Smurf said...

Well, I never saw the movie. I hadn't heard of it and I definitely know I have no desire to see it. I heard "crash" was a good movie, but man... I didn't really like it all that much either.

Its interesting how much people can vary on opinions of stereotypes. Sure, immitations of stereotypes can be funny, but when that stereotype being expressed is an honest opinion of a group of people, I really hate that. I really hate when individuals are snuffed out by a stereotype. You are probably right that someone must be strong enough to stand out and not let that stereotype sit.

HuneeB said...

one thing...I really could have gone my entire life without seeing that picture.