Not Very Nice

The Borat movie: They botched the joke.

Can’t stand to read another word about Borat? Feeling coerced by the crushing weight of the publicity-industrial complex and its you-must-laugh-or-die Borat blitz?

Believe me, I don’t blame you, but stick with me a while—I’d like to offer a different if somewhat personal perspective: the Two Borat Theory.

Call me a Borat snob. I was a huge fan of the brilliantly oblivious, appealingly clueless Kazakh “newsman” character when he appeared on segments of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show on HBO. So, there’s that Borat; let’s call him Borat One.

But then there’s the heavy-handed, frat-boy, butt-head Borat, the dumbed-down buffoon Borat of Borat the movie. The Jackass Borat. Let’s call him Borat Two. Yes, I laughed, you’ll laugh, it’s stupid-funny. Hey, I don’t have anything against stupid-funny. I’ve written columns in praise of stupid-funny films—Kingpin, Zoolander, even Dude, Where’s My Car. I’m down with Harold and Kumar. So, it’s no excess of Merchant/Ivoryism that feeds this feeling about Borat Two.

But to me the original Borat segments were more than stupid-funny; they were extremely smart-funny, occasionally even off-handedly profound, as the fake Kazakh newsman “personality” managed to tease out moments of appalling honesty from ordinary Americans with a light touch and brilliant comic timing that made it not about him, about Borat, being a clueless foreigner, but about us being clueless Americans. Not even clueless so much as naively blind to our own implicit smugness.

While Borat One gave you brilliant comic intelligence, Borat Two gives you ass-in-your-face (and I mean that literally) grossness from an aggressively, smugly dumb foreigner. Borat One had at least a touch of the sweetness of Andy Kaufman’s Latka, his “Foreign Man,” incarnation. Borat Two, alas, is more Yakov Smirnoff hammily exploiting his accent. They botched the joke.

What happened? If you ask me, it was the double-Larry whammy—the heavy hand of director Larry Charles (best known as a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasmdirector), the guy who managed to turn Bob Dylan’s appealingly elusive persona into a leaden, ham-handed, phony-profound parody of itself in the awful Masked and Anonymous. I don’t know how much Charles was personally responsible for turning Borat’s subtle touch into lead-pipe gag-worthiness (in both senses of the word), but the parallel is suggestive.

And I’m not sure how much that other Larry, Larry David, has influenced the new cruder take on anti-Semitism in Borat Two, but it certainly seems to suffer from something very like it.

To my mind, to an admitted Borat snob’s mind, something has been lost. Lost in transition. Lost in turning Borat from the blissfully ignorant naif on HBO who teases out genuinely disturbing elements in American culture, into the slow-witted, ham-handed moron in a film whose main purpose seems to be to look down its nose at America with a Hollywood sneer.

Just to give you an example of the difference, let’s consider the most controversial element in the almost unanimously adulatory prerelease press campaign: the treatment of anti-Semitism (always comedy gold) in the Original Borat and in Borat the movie. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had expressed concern about the movie’s treatment of the subject.

Problem was, Foxman was making the wrong complaint: It’s not defamation, it’s retardation. It’s not the presence of the anti-Semitic content in the movie, it’s the dimwitted treatment of it. There were moments of anti-Semitic content (or the portrayal of anti-Semitic attitudes) in Borat One, occasionally crude.

But there was one moment in a Borat One segment I thought was one of the most subtle, brilliant, disturbing, chilling, problematic, thought-provoking moments I’ve seen on stage or screen: the “Throw the Jew Down the Well” episode.

I’m recalling this scene from memory. I only saw it once. I read somewhere it had been withdrawn from rotation in HBO’s past episode “on demand” bank. (And there was even some question of whether it would be included in the Borat “album.”) And yet it’s not unknown (no less than 50,000 Google hits for Borat + “Throw the Jew Down the Well”—).

And people who have seen it can’t stop talking about it. It’s become popular with anti-Semites and anti-anti-Semites for what it may or may not say. Well, not the song, because the song is pretty unambiguous unless meant to be taken ironically, in which case it is ambiguous. I’m ambiguous about its ambiguity.

I’ve got the lyrics for your consideration, but I should set the scene first. The actual scene has become a dream or nightmarelike memory. There’s Borat in some kind of country-western bar or club where there’s live entertainment and the locals are all sitting around being friendly to the grinning foreigner, Borat, in the polyester suit, who says he’d like to sing a traditional folksong from Kazakhstan.

He begins to sing a long folk song whose first verse misleadingly deals with the problem of “transport.” But then this is what follows:

In my country there is problem
And the problem is the Jew
They take everybody money
And they will not give back [chorus] Throw the Jew down the well
So the country can be free
You must grab him by his horns
And then we’ll give a big party

He keeps repeating the chorus and asking the crowd to join in on a hearty “Throw the Jew down the well” chorus reprise.

There is a certain amount of wonder at what the hell he’s doing, but the real suspense, the real news, is the reaction of the crowd. At first, they’re hesitant, then they all begin to join in the chorus: “Throw the Jew down the well”—all but a very few.

It’s one of those moments that raise several possibilities:

1) If you scratch the surface of the average American, you find someone who’s capable of encouraging murderous anti-Semitism.

2) Americans are so friendly and nonxenophobic that they’ll go out of their way to play along with a foreigner even if they wouldn’t in their wildest dreams throw a Jew down a well. They’re just being good sports about the kooky outsider so he’ll feel at home. Maybe it’s anti-Semitism, but it’s not deep-seated Streicher/Goebbels anti-Semitism, is it? It’s more get-along, go-along anti-Semitism. (Like the anti-Semitism in Roth’s The Plot Against America.)

3) Maybe it’s get-along, go-along, friendly-to-foreigners anti-Semitism. But under the right circumstances, a substratum of this sort of jovial sing-along anti-Semitism can be transformed into something uglier.

It raises the question of American exceptionalism. When good-natured Americans jovially sing about murdering a Jew, is it different from, say, people jovially singing the same song in Germany or Poland, where Jews were murdered?

Is it true the way certain wary or paranoid uncles would talk at family gatherings: You’ll see, it’ll happen here, too? I used to resist such arguments—if you could call them that—on the grounds that America was different, a society without the millennia of murder in its history.

I don’t have answers to these questions, but they’re real questions, worth thinking about and talking about. It’s not clear where Borat’s creator stands on this. Yes, we’ve all been told by the 5,000 Borat profiles that have been written as of this writing, Sacha Baron Cohen is a practicing Jewfrom an Orthodox family. As Ali G. would say, “Respek.”

The usual corollary derived from this is that he himself can’t be anti-Semitic, but I wonder if there’s another corollary: This is a practicing Orthodox Jew’s vision of the world, even of the most Jew-friendly nation in the world: “They all hate us even if they try to disguise it, but you can find it right beneath the surface.”

It can’t quite be said that he’s sending up this view, because the footage one sees in Borat One episodes doesn’t seem contrived or forced, but rather something true about those people and those words: “Throw the Jew down the well.” Although how you define what that truth means may be a matter of contention.

So, must I, a nonpracticing non-Orthodox Jew who nonetheless edited a 500-page anthology on questions of anti-Semitism (Those Who Forget the Past, 2004) take this into account in the way I look at my fellow Americans?

I don’t think so, or at least I don’t want to think so, but it gave me a deeper understanding of the kind of suspicious feeling expressed by black (and some white) writers who have argued that just because racial discrimination is outlawed by statute doesn’t mean racism is no longer a factor to be considered and the playing field of life is all evened out. 

In any case, there’s a lot of food for thought in one throwaway sketch. Now let’s look at the idiotic way anti-Semitism is treated in Borat Two, Borat the movie. 

There is one signature scene, the equivalent of Borat One’s “Throw the Jew down the well.” In Kazakhstan, depicted as a cartoonish fantasy of Jew-hating white trash, Borat boasts of his town holiday, “the running of the Jews,” which we are shown.

The “holiday” consists of a Pamplona-style festival in which two giant puppet-headed Jewish caricatures are chased through the streets and bashed about while pursuing the lure of some money. Meanwhile, the female Jew puppethead hatches a giant egg, and the youth of the village are encouraged to destroy the “Jew chick” before it hatches. 

There is something sickening about watching the children and teenagers viciously beating the egg with sticks, but what exactly is the take-away from this scene? Is this the true face of the anti-Semitism to be feared in the world, a world in which a near-nuclear nation promises to wipe 5 million Jews off the map? Or does this belittle anti-Semitism as the province of powerless, backward dimwits?

The genuinely troubling and disturbing anti-Semitism of Borat One is transposed to a cloud-cuckoo-land Kazakhstan, where it is caricatured to the point of irrelevance. It doesn’t satirize the obviousness of anti-Semites; it implicitly caricatures concern about anti-Semitism. The Larry David influence here, perhaps. I’m not actually sure what the Larry David attitude toward the threat of anti-Semitism is—it could be admirably complex. But it seems as if he’s exploring what would happen if a Jew gave the world anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews, like the corrupt organ-donor broker in one episode. A greedy Jew taking money for organ donations is not too far from Shylock.

Borat One takes the question of anti-Semitism seriously even if it plays it for laughs. Borat Two takes it stupidly. 

Borat Two does manage to evoke moments of racial and religious bigotry from Americans, but it’s a bit more of a strain than the “throw the Jew down the well” sing-along’s scary naturalism. They get a car dealer to speak casually about running over Gypsies, a rodeo crowd member to speak approvingly of lynching gays, and a drunken frat boy to start a riff that leads from “whites are a minority” to “Jews are in control.” The portrait of America doesn’t seem representative but selective, designed with disdain. 

But then, everything in this film is dumbed down—both Borat and the ordinary people ridiculed in the movie. Maybe it had to be done to blow up the sketch to feature length, but maybe sometimes not everything needs to be blown up. 

Well, for us Borat snobs, there’s always the DVD of the HBO show to watch.