Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hey Douchebag! "Hitchens Hearts Borat" Edition

(Warning: Borat spoilers ahead)

If Christopher Hitchens were to dine with a Southern, Christian family that lived on Secession Drive, how long do you think he’d last before being asked to leave? I ask because Hitchens has written an odd, scattershot essay about Borat for Slate. That means it’s time for another installment of “Hey Douchebag!

Ever the contrarian (or reactionary, I can’t decide which), Hitchens doesn’t like Borat. But it’s where Hitchens begins that signals just how off his piece is: he makes a lot of hay about a bad summary of the movie in a review in The New Statesman (subscriber only). He begins with the bad table-of-contents listing (not likely to have been written by the reviewer), “Sacha Baron Cohen’s exposure of crass Americana.” Like any headline, that one does an injustice to both the movie and the review. Neither the film nor Ryan Gilbey, the reviewer in question, is interested solely in “crass Americana.” Hitchens, of course, cannot deny the volume or variety of American crassness in the movie (the homophobe who tells Borat to shave his mustache because he looks like a Muslim and terrorist; the frat boys who extol bad behavior with women, then go on to support slavery; the Pentacostals who speak in tongues and “save” Borat; the incredibly long line of people waiting with books, magazines, and life-sized reproductions of Pamela Anderson’s character in Barb Wire, who all want their memorabilia signed by her). Given how troubling the acknowledgement of so much crassness would be to his thesis, he ignores it.

Gilbey’s offending paragraph is, as Hitchens points out, inaccurate, especially in Gilbey’s odd (though not entirely inaccurate) use of the word “compliance” to describe how storeowners respond to Borat. But instead of acknowledging that Borat receives at times compliance and at times resistance (though it’s actually no surprise that a gun owner wouldn’t sell a “Kazakh” a gun with a camera trained on him), Hitchens focuses on “the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse.” He then catalogs the good manners of those who come into contact with Borat and acknowledges the normalcy of those who threaten Borat on the subway. But here’s what Hitchens (and many other reviewers) have missed: Borat isn’t just satirizing the “attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the 'stan” (Hitchens) or “crass Americana”: he’s also (and maybe most importantly) exposing how Americans use decorum and politesse to obscure their narrowmindedness (and worse).

Let’s take the example of the formal dinner Borat attends in Birmingham, which Hitchens returns to as a prime example of the pedantic hospitality and politesse of Americans. We’re introduced to the diners by way of a street sign, the above-mentioned Secession Drive. On this street that stands as a stark reminder of the South’s enduring legacy of the Civil War, they tolerate his behavior admirably. (It’s worth noting they knew they were on camera and signed waivers.) But they speak to him and of him in the most condescending way. When Borat compliments a woman on her “erotic physique,” the pastor in the group says with the slow nod of patronizing, “That’s correct. That’s a very good observation.” And when Borat is out of the room, a woman speaks of how easy it would be to “Americanize” Borat. Hitchens summarizes that moment as when they “agree what a nice young American he might make,” a summary that elides just how patronizing that moment is.

Borat’s vulgarity and crassness escalates in each scene not to elicit the vulgarity and crassness of some Americans (though he succeeds in that), it escalates to show how we mask our crassness. That’s why scenes such as “The Running of the Jew” matter so much as counterpoint—many Americans imagine that we’ve moved well beyond crass racism, jingoism, and prejudice. The counterpoint of Borat’s crassness with the disturbing (and sometimes easily pierced) masks of Americans is what the movie is really all about.

That, and the opportunity to hear a fat man yell, “Eat my asshole!”


Wanda Ball said...

I'm waiting to see Borat. Then I'll read this!

AaronBarlow said...

All right, all right. What with this, your comments on Horowitz, and all... I've had to add you to the blogroll at my own blog One Flew East.

Anonymous said...

I do relate to Borat's visit to the South quite a lot. I come from a not so wealthy European background, and while not as "glum" looking, my grandmas house was a bit like Borats "Kasachstan" - and on my first couple of school camps all I had was two white underpants and had to wash them and hang them up. At the time, you could surely smell us coming every now and then, particularly grandma, and not once would it have occured to me that this should have been a "problem". That was when I was a kid and surely not today any more (nothing smelly at all, and we have the money to buy enough underwear and socks to change them every day) - but I relate to the Borat character quite personally.

Among other scenes in Borat, the Southern Dinner is not at all "just" "a hooker" coming in. If you watch this scene closely (and closely you should watch it), you will realize that this person is introduced and entering as a >friend<.

So, while I am white and of a Borat-style European background, my girlfriend at the time (some six years ago, in the Deep South, when I met her and we dated, it was in North Carolina) is a pretty dark skinned African American from a very well networked very intelligent family. When I had the one or other "open invitation" (such as: party; informal visit; ..) at the places of white "friends", and when I asked them whether I could bring my girlfriend (from whose name you could glean an African American ancestry), NOT EVEN AN ANSWER WAS RETURNED. And not once, but many times. As I learned from my girlfriend (we later married and still are), this is COMMON PRACTICE in the South. It is the COMMONLY PRACTICED RACISM down there and what I did learn was that cultural "code" would even provide for me to not even ask whether I could take my girlfriend along (GO FIGURE!). Even educated white "colleagues" reacted visibly disgusted seeing my - by any objective means - beautiful girlfriend (who was successfully selling her appearance in the media industry) with a way above average intelligence (we have that one on paper) which, as I found out, is the local way of living their purety racism. And the whole experience was not singular, or isolated - but it was an area-covering, all impressive experience. Conversely, the black family and friends were as friendly as I would expect family or friends to be, and it was a much better and friendly experience; so there IS a friendly and open America, and I should add that it is the BLACK AMERICA (and surely not the white one). From my perspective, this movie Borat *IS* far more representative than some people wish it would ever be.

The actions depicted in the movie clearly would allow the dinner host(s) to greet Borat's female friend differently (i.e., as another equally human person, for example) were they less prejudiced - yet the party is over the moment that woman shows up.

You have to be either entirely blind, or entirely dumb, lack insight or the readiness to admit your insight, or any combination thereof, to find "lame excuses" for the atttitude and behaviour displayed at that dinnner party.

This is one of the reasons to move away from the South and to spit back on each step on the way. And I am very happy it's now a box office hit in the movie theaters.

The black girl acting as Borat's friend could have dressed more formally - but I guarantee you that it would not have made the slightest difference had she worn Armani and 90 Karat Gold. Not one cent of a difference would that have made.

Turander Becht.