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How Borat Has Wrecked the Modern Day Comedies
2006-11-14 13:16
by Scott Long
Notes:
Scott Long is now blogging at NSFWsports.com.
Will Carroll can still be found at Baseball Prospectus.

Sitting down at the local Cineplex, I awaited the much-hyped Borat movie. Since Borat is a comedy, I was bombarded with previews of other supposed movies set to make the ha-ha. "Let's Go to Prison" and "Balls of Fury" were 2 of the coming attractions and I didn't think one moment was funny in them. Tenacious D's "Pick of Destiny" had a couple moments and I am a big fan of their debut CD, but I'm concerned that this flick is happening a couple years too late. We will see.

So the main attraction began, with Borat giving a tour of his village in Kazakhstan and I can say that without a doubt it is the funniest beginning of any movie I've ever seen. I'm not going to go over each scene, as I'm not a film critic and I would hate to giveaway any surprises. Let me just offer up, GO SEE THIS MOVIE. Just like how shows such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Office" have made the TV situation comedy seem forced, Borat is a revolutionary film for the big screen, as it further exposed the formulaic premises that the previews I watched prior to it are built on.

I know some that have put critical jabs at the Borat film are big fans of Sacha Baron Cohen's work on the "Da Ali G. Show" and feel that the movie doesn't live up to this high standard. HBO recently re-aired the show and I DVR'ed them all, so I could refresh my memory on them. While Ali G. has a lot of wonderful moments, I never felt his British rap character had the warm humanity of Borat. Sure Borat says the vilest things, but he does it with a child-like naivety that is hard to condemn.

Cohen has created a character in Borat that takes qualities from comedians like Peter Sellers, Andy Kaufman and Lenny Bruce, but with the added bonus of being a Jewish man playing a Muslim. In the Muslim world where anti-Semitic propaganda is used as entertainment, the character of Borat exposes their bigotry. While there are plenty of racists in blue-state America, Borat spends much of his time in red-state America, as there are more places to go in the South to hit the comedic jackpot he is looking for. Cohen's character exposes how the most taboo subjects are often connected directly to our funny bones. It is an amazing tightrope that he walks and he brilliantly spends the whole film pushing us to our limits.

While I think many animated comedies like "The Simpsons" and "The Family Guy" are filled with great satire, I always point out to their biggest fans that these shows lack of reality make it much easier to pull off. Borat faces his targets head-on, making them players in his twisted Improv troupe. In my lifetime there have been different comedic movies that have pushed the comedic genre to a new level to which Borat can be added to.

I would begin with the early Woody Allen movies like "Sleeper" and "Bananas", which mixed intellectual concepts with slapstick moments on par with the Marx Brothers. The next wave was "Animal House" which led to other films that questioned authority. At around this same time the Abrahams/Zucker Airplane movies, which parodied genre films with a rapid joke pace, exposed the Hollywood formula approach. Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, which began with Spinal Tap brought a new realism that never existed before in comedy.

The best comedy films since then you could point out a strong influence by one of the above pictures listed. Cohen has made a film which takes elements of the mockumentary, but is as strongly influenced by a filmmaker like Michael Moore, who comes directly at his targets. Like Moore or "The Daily Show" (which took the template of Moore's TV Nation), it is fair to question the fairness in the way some are exploited by Cohen. Outside of a few exceptions, I don't look down upon the duped targets in Borat, as I know that most of us have prejudices that could be exposed if our souls were opened for public viewing.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" leaves all other film comedies in the dust, as it manages to put a magnifying glass to our world, while making us laugh so hard we gasp for air. I can't think of another movie that has ever accomplished it so strongly on both levels. Cohen's monumenental success with Borat will probably make it impossible to develop a sequel of its caliber, as his charlatan character is now out in the open. With the immense talent of Cohen, he will come up with other great characters, but Borat will be his crowning achievement. Congratulations Sacha, you have done something few can ever hope to achieve. Making a mass appeal movie that challenges the mind.

Comments
2006-11-14 18:53:34
1.   scareduck
It is rapidly becoming obvious that Sacha Baron Cohen is a profoundly cynical manipulator utterly devoid of empathy. The more I read about this "comedy", the less I ever want to see it. I was going to consign it to my Netflix queue, but this film may never get to DVD. Simply, there is an excellent legal case that the release forms he got his victims to sign were consented to under false pretenses, in which case, both Fox and Cohen personally will find themselves liable for not thousands but millions of dollars. No DVDs would ever be produced of such a film.

That, friends, is justice. So, too, will be the ultimate disposition of this film: unlike Charlie Chaplin's films, which still have audiences because of his immediately recognizeable humanity, this empty laff-riot will rather quickly fall into the "what were we thinking?" category of comedies, not unlike the endless parade of Adam Sandler masterpieces.

2006-11-14 20:18:34
2.   Telemachos
scareduck, have you watched any of "The Ali G" show (whether the Borat skits or not)? Without having seen anything, you can't pass objective judgement on the hilarity of the comedy or not (although you can probably determine whether YOU would find it funny). I'd also point out that there's practically zero chance of Fox releasing this movie if they thought there were any legal cracks. The absolute worst that might happen to Fox (from a legal perspective) might be to settle out of court -- but from what I've seen of the frat boys' lawsuit, I don't think it will hold up in court.

(You can debate the ethics of what the producers did as a separate matter, I suppose.)

2006-11-15 10:16:59
3.   Comrade Al
Borat = Andy Kauffman + Yakov Smirnoff. Nothing to see here; move along.
2006-11-15 10:22:44
4.   Benjamin Kabak
1 You raise an interesting point. Having first seen the movie and then read about the producers less-than-scrupulous actions, I've re-evaluated much of the movie, and it's certainly not nearly as funny to me as it was while I was watching it. Whether or not these lawsuits have any legal merit, it's clear that what Sacha Baron Cohen and his producers did was not too ethical.
2006-11-15 13:36:22
5.   Brent is a Dodger Fan
While I haven't seen the movie yet, I have seen Da Ali G Show, and the one part I can't get past about the points above (1, 4) is that while the release papers that the "victims" signed may have been misleading, I doubt that they provided any manipulation that would cause them to act like total idiots.

The law does not protect a person from stupidity. Stupid to sign a release form without understanding the terms, and even more stupid to act (on camera) as a fool, even while being duped. "I thought he was real" does not excuse the way one acts around Borat, it only makes one's actions more revealing.

I suppose one could make an ethical argument that filming a person under misleading pretenses, no matter what it reveals (comedic or sad), is reprehensible.

But I suppose you'll then have to go after Alan Fundt and Candid Camera, too.

2006-11-15 14:18:18
6.   scareduck
2 - I'd also point out that there's practically zero chance of Fox releasing this movie if they thought there were any legal cracks.

A friend of mine works for a film marketing company, and it is largely her job to see that the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed in the legal realm. What I have learned from her experience is that a great deal of the contractual obligations of film production is done essentially on a handshake and often little more. This suffices in most cases (though her firm in fact requires more), but

1) film production companies are often naive regarding (but nonetheless legally culpable for) the actions of their directors and writers.
2) ensuring that the backers aren't on the hook for some kind of misrepresentation is not as easy as it sounds.

2006-11-15 15:11:12
7.   Benjamin Kabak
5 Would you say the Jewish Bed and Breakfast owners - who live in Massachusetts, by the way - acted stupid?
2006-11-15 16:28:32
8.   Telemachos
What I have learned from her experience is that a great deal of the contractual obligations of film production is done essentially on a handshake and often little more. This suffices in most cases...

That's interesting (and actually, rather refreshing). I work in TV, and for the networks I deal with, it's the exact opposite: releases of every sort are insisted upon before footage being edited, and copies of all releases (categorized, alphabetized, etc) are delivered to the client with the final master tapes.

My guess is that HBO wouldn't allow any sort of fast-and-loose "just a handshake" deals on "The Ali G Show" and I can't imagine them not following similar procedures on this... especially given the nature of the production. But, of course, remarkably stupid things are done all the time by studios, production companies, and producers, so I guess we'll just have to see how it all pans out.

2006-11-15 16:30:23
9.   Telemachos
Gah. That should read: "... releases of every sort are insisted upon before the editing starts".
2006-11-16 11:03:17
10.   Yankee Fan In Boston
i haven't read the waivers, but from what i understand, the people in the film were told that they would be appearing in a film about a foreigner traveling across the US.

isn't that what the movie was? does the fact that he is playing a character change that?

it is quite possible and even probable that i am missing something here.

that said, i think the movie was hilarious and offensive... which is exactly what it aimed for. they weren't out to make a "citizen kane" or anything.

like most films, you might like it, or you might not. i'll leave the legal matters to those who are more knowledgable on such matters.

2006-11-16 14:27:04
11.   Brent is a Dodger Fan
7 I'll let you know after I see the movie. Perhaps tonight.
2006-11-16 16:01:49
12.   overkill94
1 Geez, what crawled up your butt?

Seriously though, it's not like he made them look bad in the editing booth, these were all real conversations he had with people and their responses. Whether they thought they'd be laughed at on the big screen is their own problem. Either way, I could care less about the lawsuits, this was a truly funny movie that is a landmark in cinema. The only way its reputation can be tarnished is if a bunch of people start copying the idea and making the original look passe.

2006-11-17 07:02:30
13.   scareduck
10 - i haven't read the waivers, but from what i understand, the people in the film were told that they would be appearing in a film about a foreigner traveling across the US.

... that was a documentary made for overseas markets.

12 - Geez, what crawled up your butt?

I guess fraud is funny in your book. Who among us has nothing we might be embarrassed to admit to in public? It says more about how antisocial our so-called comedians have become -- and how low the national taste (though I defer to Mencken on that score) -- than it does about some of his victims.

2006-11-17 07:38:43
14.   Brent is a Dodger Fan
Saw the movie last night. Had fun.

7 No, the Jewish B&B owners did not come across as stupid, nor did I think that they came across as anything other than gracious hosts.

Incidentally, so did the dinner party host, the one who is suing the film. The lengths she went to be culturally tolerant (until Borat really crossed the line), were extraordinary, and I think she came across as really patient and kind. I think my point was more aimed at the implications that there were people in the film who, more than being duped, were somehow humiliated or injured in the process.

And some people did come across looking very bad: the rodeo manager and the fraternity boys, mostly. So my point is: I don't think that having them sign a waiver and putting a camera in their face is inducement for them to act as they did, nor does it injure them. If they didn't want to look that way on film, it was stupid to act that way in front of a camera.

13 Fraud: "intentional deception resulting in injury to another person". Where's the injury? I cringed a bit in the antique shop, since it looked like the shop owner sustained an injury of sorts. I also felt bad for the convention-goers who had to see Borat and Azamat's wrestling match.

But mostly, it seemed a pastiche of parody and harmless, offensive fun.

2006-11-19 21:31:26
15.   Schteeve
I just don't really think Cohen exposes anything that I didn't already know existed. Some Americans are ignorant bigots? You don't say!
2006-11-20 12:39:35
16.   Benaiah
13 - Your point is that we all have things we wish to hide and thus we are glad they aren't put in front of millions under false pretenses. However, this isn't a movie where victims of embarrassing circumstance are exploited, in that the people who really come off as idiots are extremely vocal racists and homophobes.

If for example someone had an embarassing birth defect or they were uncomfortable about their weight and then a TV producer had him or her show this characteristic to a national audience under the pretense that a) they would recieve free medical help and b) no one would see it and furthermore they were held up to ridicule- then I could you reacting in the way you have. Many people have pranks pulled on them, but the only people who come off really badly only do so because they are really bad people. One of those people actually isn't suing because he doesn't think he said anything all that bad and basically agrees with his portrayal (as someone who wants to kill all homosexuals).

In the end I think you sound like a person protesting Dogma or The Last Temptation of Christ without seeing them. If you haven't seen the movie how can you be sure that "fraud" has taken place? If I was in the movie I would certainly be tempted to sue just because maybe there will be a big payday at the end of the rainbow... but I hope there isn't.

2006-11-20 12:42:00
17.   Benaiah
15 - And it is one thing to think to yourself that their are probably a lot of ignorant people in America and it is another animal altogether to film people saying what those frat boys said. Plus, beyond being very political and controversial, the movie is hilarious.

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