Sunday, November 5, 2006

Reel To Reel: Borat

A whole mess of international incidents.

How It Rates: **
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Pamela Anderson
Rated: R (should be NC-17!)
Red Flags: Graphic Sexual Jokes, Genital Nudity, Language & Scatalogical Humor

A strange foreigner with bad hair comes to your door, says he's making a documentary on American culture, asks if he can look around and makes some crude comment about your wife while knocking over the china cabinet. Part of you wants to laugh. Part of you wants to violate the Geneva convention. But before you can do anything, he and his camera crew are gone, and then you realize you've been had.

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays the title character, a dunderhead TV reporter from Kazakhstan travelling America to make a documentary on good-'ol-American culture. But forget Mom and apple pie, when you've got hip-hop and Baywatch. Borat develops a crush on Pamela Anderson and roadtrips to Los Angeles to hook up with her.

Nothing wrong with that premise. But Borat -- a blend of Punk'd, Jackass, and Fahrenheit 9/11 -- goes for laughs primarily by taking real, good-natured people, setting them up to believe they're doing a real interview with a real Kazak reporter, and shocking them unmercifully with racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and scatalogical gags. Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it doesn't. I found myself groaning and grimacing more than laughing at this picture, especially in one scene where Borat sits down for what is supposed to be a mannered Southern dinner and manages to offend everybody in the room. Another painful scene: watching a rodeo crowd recoil in horror as Borat sings a mock version of the Kazak national anthem -- which lauds the cleanliness of prostitutes, among other things -- to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner.

What's notable is that song follows a speech from Borat where he says to the crowd, "We support your war of terror!" to wild cheering and applause, and before that, a scene where a rodeo official tells Borat he looks like a terrorist. Borat is funny when it takes sly digs at America-first culture and lets the unsuspecting subjects make fools of themselves without provocation. I wish the film had more of those moments, a la Team America: World Police. That movie reeked of vileness but still had something to say.

Borat is on track to become a smash hit precisely because frathouse humor sells big. Note the success of the American Pie films, There's Something About Mary, Meet The Parents, and the aformentioned Jackass. Gross-out comedy has evolved into its own genre, like horror, where exploitation and doing the unthinkable drive the films. This is not to disparage the people who see them or laugh all the way to the bank making them. They are not Borat, nor would they dream of being him any more than they would dream of being Jason or Freddy.

Both critics and moviegoers are lavishing Borat with praise. They obviously didn't have the problem I did seeing innocent people mortified on screen. If Borat had knocked some people off their high horses, I probably wouldn't have minded. But these people weren't even sitting on a hobby horse.

Victim of Borat?

The most disheartening story I've heard so far surrounding Borat is what it did to TV news producer Dharma Arthur at WAPT in Jackson, Mississippi. She unknowingly booked Sacha Baron Cohen's character for a live interview on the noon newscast. He proceeded to turn the segment into a disaster, and the movie shows it all.

From Roger Friedman of Fox News:
Like all the others who were spoofed and conned, Arthur tells me she got a call from a publicist in July 2005 from something called One America Productions. Their Web site checked out, and Arthur welcomed “a little blond guy who looked college age” to her studio. He said they were shooting a documentary called “America: Behind the Propaganda” to show foreigners that Americans weren’t “evil.”

She had never seen “Da Ali G Show” on HBO nor had she ever heard of Borat. “I don’t have cable. I have two mortgages,” she said.

But Arthur did a little research. Thinking Borat was Muslim, she greeted him with deference. “Women aren’t supposed to touch men in public, so I didn’t make physical contact,” she said. She put Borat on the air with anchor Brad McMullan, she said, “and then things went haywire.

“He started acting crazy. For a minute I thought he was going to open his shirt and pull out a gun. I thought, oh dear, I’ve let a lunatic in.”

Arthur tried to abort the live interview and switch to a commercial, but there was a problem. “The equipment had frozen up. We tried to do it, but couldn’t.”

McMullan managed to end the interview, and Arthur — as you see in the movie — thought that was it. But as an intern escorted Borat out, he headed into the live weather segment and continued to upset the apple cart, so to speak. The weather guy pushed Borat off his set toward the female anchor, who was offstage. “She panicked slightly,” said Arthur.

“They kept it up until they were out of the station. His crew just looked on and said, 'He never goes out of character.' That’s when we knew it was a hoax.”
Arthur says she was moved from the noon to the 5pm newscast, and every one of her decisions was "questioned and second-guessed." But she remained employed at the station until March 2006, eight months after the interview. She's now working at a station in Florida but says she's barely above broke.

Arthur's tale is sad, but it's hard to lay blame on Borat's producers, WAPT's management, or Arthur herself. So much of this story is incomplete, and I have several questions.

1) How much background checking did Arthur do? If the producers never mentioned Borat by name, or the website she checked did not, she truly did get conned. If Borat's name did come up, a Google search would have quickly revealed the truth.

2) If WAPT management thought she committed an unforgivable journalism sin, why did they not fire her right away? And why did they move her to the 5pm newscast, a much higher-profile show? I know producers are hard to find in the TV news business, but I've known people who have gotten fired for less than this. Obviously she was still of value to her station.

3) Why did Arthur tolerate her status as persona non grata for eight months, besides needing a paycheck? I would have been finding an exit strategy. Perhaps she was, but we haven't heard it.

Hopefully, we'll learn the full story.

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