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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An Inside Job

(NOTE: this will be a post about, in part, the movie Borat, and will discuss scenes you may not want spoiled if you have not seen the movie yet. So read no further until you've seen the movie, unless you don't care about that sort of thing, in which case do. But seriously, see the movie first.)

It should probably go without saying that commentators and critics have entirely missed the point of Borat. They saw the slapstick and the nudity and the poopy and called it gross-out humor; saw the Englishman making fun of rural Americans and called it cheap laughs; saw the Anti-Semitism and the ignorant (and presumably Muslim) foreigner and called it offensive.[1] And above all, they called it merely a comedy, funny, but not, you know, meaningful.

Putting Borat in terms of what it did not do is probably the best way to show just how impressive an achievement it is. Most of the things it addresses--racists, gun nuts, evangelical Christians, feminists--are such easy targets for outsiders that attacking them has become something of a cliche. They are easy targets in large part, of course, because they are so cheesy. These people have no taste. They have ridiculous outfits and say ridiculous things and are unafaid to look ridiculous in public. And so all you need to do is show up, stand outside their gatherings, and point a camera at them acting ridiculous and the audience will know how they are supposed to react. Your very gaze becomes the joke.

But Borat does not stand outside, which becomes clear when he attends a evangelical church service near the end of the film. There are some establishing shots of white people twirling around, which is always funny, but then the guy who's taken a dirty and dispirited Borat in brings him up front to accept Jesus, and when the preacher hits Borat in the head to heal him, Borat gets this look in his eyes like he doesn't know what to do. And he doesn't: Borat, like Cohen presumably, did not grow up with this culture, and does not know what is expected of him at this moment. But then he goes with it, and conjures a weirdly sexual ecstasy, all bucking hips and slithering tongue. He does not do this to make fun of them, or to disprove the presence of Jesus, as would be most people's instinct, but because he genuinely wants to be accepted by these people, to understand and be a part of this American tradition.

In other words, Borat gets inside. He does not stand on the perimeter and mock with his gaze, keeping everyone out of the joke. And since no one would willingly join him, he instead joins them; he walks into the joke and becomes part of it. This is precisely why Borat works so well. It does not attempt to find America, or to indict America, as you might expect a movie of this type to do. But neither does it celebrate America. Instead, its clear goal is to become bigger than America, and by doing so, contain it. It takes a foreigner's outsize image of what America is--this big, gaudy, self-confident place, a place without shame, a nation of perpetual grins--and attempts to merge that vision with the reality, to become one with it not by slipping in unnoticed, but by exaggerating it and internalizing it, making it part of your character, so you can encircle it completely with a hug. At the end of the movie, Borat finds Pamela Anderson--as perfect a symbol of America in all its mixed-blessing glory as we have at the present time--and attempts to put her in a sack, which is the movie in a nutshell. There's no attempt to fly under the radar here; instead of hiding from America, Borat tries to become America. He doesn't want to be an outsider, and so he continually thrusts himself inside.

This is why it's such a perfect political movie. Instead of creating fictional scenarios in which he can insert himself and create a comic meaning--which would of course be too easy, and make the meaning seem unreal itself--Borat is thrust into these real situations where he has to either work with their rules or ignore them completely. The process of finding out those rules is, of course, what produces the comedy. Borat--and please note here that I am explicitly talking about Borat the character, not any motivations that Cohen the creator might have had--genuinely thinks he is being as respectful as he should be with the feminists[2], and when he's at the rodeo, his escalating rhetoric about Bush and Iraq isn't a satirical attempt to provoke, but actually a rather careful probing of exactly what it is and isn't polite to say in praise of the President, whose power and strength Borat really respects. All in all, it's not so much the wrong way to go about it, it's just that Borat's image of America is so off-kilter that he fails to become part of it. Still, he's getting inside the joke and rooting around, trying to find a place where he fits, and it's that willingness to engage with his subjects rather than yell at them from outside that gives the film its power.

And that's why Borat is the Farenheit 9/11 of the 2006 elections. I couldn't say for sure that there was an intention on the behalf of Borat's filmmakers to influence the elections, as Moore made clear he wanted to do with the 2004 Presidential election, but Borat did come out the weekend before the 2006 midterms, and it was the #1 film at the box office that weekend. If there was a cultural influence for voters yesterday, Borat is the most likely candidate.

What's more, the Dems seem to have taken a particularly Borat-esque tack in their election strategy this year. One of their biggest problems so far this decade is that the left has been portrayed--and, in fact, has kinda acted like--the outsiders at an event they themselves are vaguely disgusted by, throwing criticisms at it, but refusing to engage with the American political scene on its own terms, stubbornly waiting for the gaudy participants to admit they were wrong and come back to the ones who see them for what they really are, i.e. stupid and violent and tacky. (And when they gingerly ventured into the fray, they couldn't hide their repulsion and came off looking very awkward, i.e. John Kerry hunting.) But now the Dems seem to have come down from their lofty position and are willing to work with the electorate on its own terms, to come inside America and keep a straight face. So they are running more conservative candidates in more conservative districts, even ones who aren't pro-choice (or say they aren't pro-choice), and so actually have a chance of getting elected. I mean, for god's sake, they actually ran a guy who looks like this:

Of course, Cohen's film and Moore's film differ in one crucial regard: where Farenheit 9/11 failed, Borat succeeded. In 2004, the GOP won, but in 2006, the Dems seem to have finally regained power. Sure, there were outside factors, mainly the GOP's cornucopia of scandals and the war in Iraq, that probably had more effect on the election's outcome, but outside favors are, by definition, ones the Dems can't control, and so there's no point learning the lesson of "hope the opposition diddles more boys." The lessons of Borat, however, may be of some use.

Comedies often don't get pegged as political unless they're not actually very funny, because only didactic things, ones that make their point abundantly clear, are considered political. But, again, Moore's film, one that was supposed to work by revealing truths and giving people knowledge they didn't have, with which they would surely have no choice but to vote Democrat--that film failed. This suggests that maybe the old saw that the truth will set you free neglects certain realities on the ground, like the one where people have the information already but simply don't accept it, or the one where the things the truth should make them do goes against their rules, or has been put that way, anyway.

Outwardly political art, like Moore's movie, are essentially issue ads, useful at times but not really sufficient. But political art like Borat, which demonstrated effective it can be to get inside the joke, works as a paradigm shift. It changes the narrative, maybe not explicitly, but it can certainly nudge things in that direction. And the truth is meaningless in the wrong narrative. If you want to change something, you can't hate it, or be disgusted by it. You have to be willing to dress up, keep a straight face no matter what, and manipulate the rules at hand until you can, with every good intention and measure of logic, show up to a dinner party with a bag full of your own shit.

[1] Although in at least one case, it's a funny-because-it's-true situation: people from the area Borat ostensibly hails from do seem to have a baffling and unabashed hatred of gypsies, presumably because they have actual contact with gypsies. The one person I knew who was of gypsy stock (hi Hawk!) was always pretty pissed off about anti-gypsy sentiment, but I think to Americans, making fun of gypsies is like making fun of wooly mammoths or something, funny because it's ridiculous.

[2] People have expressed their dislike of this particular scene as a low blow. I am going to see the movie again and will check this, but I am almost certain that while the two more middle-aged feminists were disgusted by his behavior, the older, more grandmotherly feminist actually seemed amused by the whole thing, like she recognized how blinkeredly over-the-top the sexism was and had seen enough of it in her lifetime to find it ridiculous rather than offensive.