Thursday, October 19, 2006


Those familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen's three alter-egos on Da Ali G Show know that his Borat character is an ingenious creation-- but after the movie comes out, it'll be a historic one. There are some questions worth asking about the immorality of portraying a lewd Kazakhstani with any number of cultural and ideological embellishments-- I see the ADL's point when they complain about Borat's anti-semitic remarks, and Kazakhstan itself is feeling reasonably annoyed about being used as a backdrop for sleazy idiosyncracies. I'll stay out of that debate for now, since I can't honestly disavow myself of the notion that Borat is impeccably hilarious. Ethical standards of any sort are irrelevant; if you don't crack up once during an Ali G episode, your funny bone is fractured. There lies the brilliance: Leni Riefenstahl may have deified Hitler, but I doubt she could've made anyone laugh at his jokes. Even the Germans.

As always, the media is struggling to place this virtually unprecedented performance art within an established form, and the most readily accessible comparison has been Andy Kaufman. This works because both men have uncannily upheld thier strange characters during extenuating circumstances that try to force them back to whoever they were to begin with, and their hypnotic effect on befuddled audiences is equally potent. But while Kaufman's bits tended toward the surreal, Baron Cohen rides along a smooth rail of social satire, exposing anachronistic racism that undubitably continues to thrive around the country.

Truly embodying the Other-- what this idealist Western civilization unconciously percieves as a savage, bigoted outsider-- Baron Cohen is an excellent practitioner of the method that New Wave documentarian Jean Rouch called "reverse anthropology." Borat is a reflection of all the irrational hate and fear that should've vanished from the country at least half a century ago, but probably never will (quoth Avenue Q: "Everyone's a little bit racist"). That makes him either a prophet of the apocalypse or an ideal catalyst for change-- and box office gold, however you skew it.


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