Tuesday, April 10, 2007

So am I paying attention to subtext or do I just have no sense of humor?
Mr Cassandra and I attempted to watch Borat this weekend. We made it about 30 minutes in before giving up and turning it off.
Here’s the thing. I get what the joke is supposed to be with this movie – we’re not really being racist by openly mocking this dude from Kazakhstan, we’re just making an ironic comment on America’s ignorance about the rest of the world! For lo, we are very very clever! And he himself is Jewish and makes jokes about Jewish people and therefore it can’t possibly be offensive!
I’m not sure that I buy that, actually. I’m not sure that just because the creator is a Jewish man and the character he plays is an anti-Semite that gives him a get-out-of-racism-free card when it comes to mocking Kazakhs.
Then there’s the element which isn’t so much about race as it is about class and culture. Kazakhstan is poor. Really poor. And there are lots of historical reasons for that, many of them having to do with decisions made by the leaders of the former Soviet Union. The widespread poverty there has jack shit to do with who Kazakhs are as people. Am I the only one here who thinks that mocking poverty is in rather poor taste?
Kazakhstan is also predominantly Muslim, with the secondary religion being Russian Orthodox. Not only am I not convinced that there’s not some religious bigotry going on here, I’m also not convinced that it is at all politically advisable for a bunch of American intellectuals to have proclaimed their adoration for a movie that reinforces the idea that people in a country that is largely Muslim are uneducated buffoons. I have a friend who grew up in a small town near Moscow and I remember her saying when this movie came out how uncomfortable the online blurbs about it she saw made her, because she grew up surrounded by jokes about Kazakhs and other people from Central Asia and to her this sounded just like that. Her comment was part of the reason I didn’t go see the movie when it came out. But a work buddy lent it to Mr Cassandra, so…
Honestly, the movie made me really uncomfortable. Not only was it not very funny, I sat there watching it with the same kind of queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I get when I see people on the news making comments about Muslims as a group, or when my mother-in-law tells racist jokes. One’s gut is often a better judge than one’s intellect, I’ve found, and in this case my intellect was telling me “well other people didn’t seem to find it offensive so maybe I’m overreacting” but my gut was saying “oh hell no, get this shit off of my TV right now!”.
The gut won. But now I’m wondering…did anyone else have the same reaction to this movie? Of all the reviews I saw the only complaints seemed to be that it was too slow and too long, and that some people were offended by the way it portrayed white-bread mainstream America. Nobody that I saw even mentioned that it might be, well, kind of racist. Not to mention snottily classist and condescending.
So, am I just a humorless harpy? Is there some meta-joke here that I’m missing? Or did anyone else get that nasty pit of the stomach there’s something wrong with this picture feeling?

And another thing…why the hell is it still considered OK to make fun of people for being poor? Or for being “unsophisticated”? And do people really not see that “oh look those people from X country are so unsophisticated, tee hee” is in itself racist? Add in the “Not like us, we’re SO beyond that” and you really look like a gigantic asshole.

26 comments:

FoolishOwl said...

I haven't seen the movie.

There was a big debate about it, however, in my socialist group's newspaper. It got an initial positive review, albeit with reservations, for supposedly exposing racist attitudes in the US. However, there were lots of letters complaining that the movie was irredeemably racist and shouldn't have gotten any positive regard.

Zan said...

I haven't seen it and I don't plan to. Because it just seemed...well, stupid and mean. I get that it's supposed to be all about exposing our biases. And I think that aim is a good one. But I just....I don't know. It seemed like a dumb movie to me, so I didn't see it. And maybe part of that is the fact that I grew up Southern and gods know, we're the ones that get the whole stupid, backwards, poor idiots thing in this country. Regardless of the fact that it's demonstrably NOT TRUE. Arg.

lilcollegegirl said...

I saw it and I felt that same thing, but possibly not just because of the racism. Part of it was when he was in that Romanian village and it was really obvious that they had no clue what was going on. And then there was the stupidity. If I wanted stupid, I could watch Jackass or something.

Veronica said...

Yeah, I saw the one about how upset the folks in Romania were. Totally made him look like an asshole.

humbition said...

As I recall, the Romanian village in question was a Romanian gypsy village. Romani, if one prefers. Having lived in southeastern Europe I am very aware of the downtrodden position of the Romani and the racism which is common against them throughout Europe -- they were victims of the Holocaust too, lest we forget.

I just cannot imagine watching this movie, and the idea that it is somehow against racism seems to me like some sort of America-centrism which doesn't understand what racism looks like elsewhere in the world.

Cassandra Says said...

The whole thing felt really mean-spirited to me, honestly. It felt as if someone sat down and said "OK, which groups of people can we get away with being openly malicious about?".
For some reason that I cannot figure out it seems to be considered OK to be openly mocking about people from the former Soviet Union, and the general public doesn't seem to consider that racist or offensive in any way. And I don't get it. When I finally saw the movie I was amazed that there wasn't more kickback when it came out.

Cassandra Says said...

humbition - Well, we do have a habit of getting everything ass-backwards here.
It does seem as if the only way you could see this movie as anti-racist is if your perspective was that the only thing that matters is how Americans see themselves, therefore a movie that shows examples of Americans being racist (and homophobic) is automatically a success. Which only "works" if you regard the way everyone who isn't a white middle class American feels as irrelevant.
BA's comments about Sofia Coppola Feminism are coming to mind here.

belledame222 said...

I saw the whole movie. I laughed at a lot of it at the time, although yeah, i thought the whole "let's make fun of Kazakhstan and our stereotype of third world countries, no one give enough of a shit about Kazakhstan to be worth worrying about anyway" thing was pretty offensive. but yeah, afterward finding out that he'd used a real Romanian village and the way in which they'd been jerked around--I lost any interest or liking for him. i am really tired of that sort of humor, i have to say. i mean, i did give him points for at least "going for it," as opposed to some of the more tepid "politically incorrect" funny funny guys (and a couple of gals) out there; but you know, I never really liked Andy Kaufman either.

Orwell's essay on Johnathan Swift comes to mind again, also.

belledame222 said...

that said, in a couple of cases--the fratboys in the car for instance--they really had no one but themselves to blame for looking like creeps, I don't think.

in others, though, you could really see him stretching, trying his best to get a "funny" reaction out of the unwitting straight man/woman my upping and upping and upping the ante. it irked.

belledame222 said...

and then the whole Pamela Anderson thing--okay, that did make me laugh; but the thing is, i'm pretty certain -she- was in on the gag, because he would've been sued from here to Christmas had he done it without giving her a heads up.

so, yeah, when you do that to cover your own ass but blithely use--that's right, it was a gypsy/Romani village, that shit's not funny at all, i had thought maybe those guys were actors when i first saw it--vulnerable people to make with the funny, guess what: you're not a "satirist," you're a bully. it's not steal from the poor and give to the rich, dumbass.

belledame222 said...

...the parts that did crack me up were his letting the chicken fly around the subway car--hey, it takes a lot to make New York subway riders to take notice of anything--and--oh, you probably didn't get that far. well, there's a relationship between him and his "agent," and at one point, they get in to this umm brawl where they end up chasing each other and fighting in the lobby of a very posh looking conference room.

Naked.

and um. very explicitly um -grappling.-

i did give him points for, um, balls.

the homoeroticism was sort of interesting, i thought. there were a lot of ways in which the movie was really unconscious--yep, U.S. centric and classist, sexist too i'd say--but in other ways it was oddly...refreshing. I can see why people liked it. I just had enough. and i hope karma bites him on the ass for the Romani village at least.

belledame222 said...

oh, and i should add, i terms of class:

later in the movie one of his more jaw-dropping shticks involves a very posh sort of...what was it? some sort of "learn manners through dining with ladies and gentlemen" thing, Southern of course. even there though he really stacked the deck, i thought; yeah, they came off as really racist (there's a gag at the end where there's a surprise guest of his), but before that he does and says things that would appall pretty much anybody. it was cheap.

Cassandra Says said...

Belle - Don't think I've ever read the Orwell essay. Do you have a link to an online version? Or remember what the title was?

Cassandra Says said...

Also, the really deliberate attempts to goad people into saying offensive things struck me as annoyingly contrived.

belledame222 said...

yeah it was often quite contrived.

the title is..."Politics versus Literature: an Examination of "Gulliver's Travels""

dunno if it's online; i know i quoted from it at length at least a couple of times; if i can just remember where...

belledame222 said...

okay, here was one:

“Happiness is notoriously difficult to describe, and pictures of a just and well-ordered society are seldom either attractive or convincing. Most creators of ‘favourable’ Utopias, however, are concerned to show what life could be like if it were lived more fully. Swift advocates a simple refusal of life…The dreary world of the Houyhnhnms was about as good a Utopia as Swift could construct, granting that he neither believed in a ‘next world’ nor could get any pleasure out of certain normal activities. But it is not really set up as something desirable in itself, but as the justification for another attack on humanity. The aim, as usual, is to humiliate Man by reminding him that he is weak and ridiculous, and above all that he stinks; and the ultimate motive, probably, is a kind of envy, the envy of the ghost for the living, of the man who knows he cannot be happy for the others who–so he fears–may be a little happier than himself. The political expression of such an outlook must be either reactionary or nihilistic, because the person who holds it will want to prevent society from developing in some direction in which his pessimism may be cheated.

…In his endless harping on disease, dirt and deformity, Swift is not actually inventing anything, he is merely leaving something out. Human behavior, too, especially in politics, is as he describes it, although it contains other more important factors which he refuses to admit. So far as we can see, both horror and pain are necessary to the continuance of life on this planet, and it is therefore open to pessimists like Swift to say: ‘If horror and pain must always be with us, how can life be significantly improved?’ His attitude is in effect the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a ‘next world’…It is, i am certain, a wrong attitude, and one which could have harmful effects upon behavior; but something in us responds to it, as it responds to the gloomy words of the burial service and the sweetish smell of corpses in a country church.”

–Orwell, “Politics vs. Literature”

Octogalore said...

I'll chime in on the "manipulative," "overrated," and "offensive" themes. I often have a different reaction to movies than the majority one, though... OK, I'll admit right now that I didn't much like "Fargo," either.

FoolishOwl said...

The debate I mentioned:

The review
Response #1
Response #2
Response #3

Arwen said...

Y'know, I kept getting uncomfortable, and then being okay, and getting uncomfortable, and being okay.

Sometimes, I tell myself to stop overthinking things. I have so many opinions. With this one, I must admit I couldn't handle processing it and I just shut down the critical thought centers. It seemed okay with other people I trust to be sensitive to the issues I'm sensitive to. So I found the parts I liked. Besides, I'm prejudiced: I don't like "I'm with stupid" movies, generally.

I did laugh out loud with the scene of him at the Rodeo, though.

Veronica said...

OMG. Fargo is my least favorite Coen movie. And, I love nearly everything else they've done, and I think Frances McDormand is adorable. But, I can honestly say that I just don't get that one. I don't get why it was such a big deal.

Cassandra Says said...

See, I can't do the brain-swtiching-off thing. I don't seem to have the switch. If something bothers me it will nag away at me and I can't focus on anything else.
I hate "I'm with stupid" movies, too. The only moments in this one where I wasn't offended I was really bored.

Cassandra Says said...

Belle - See, this is why I love Orwell. He cuts to the bone more efficiently than any other writer I can think of.

belledame222 said...

I liked Fargo; what I got from it was sort of the anti-Hannibal Lecter meme, i.e. that evil often is not only banal but downright stupid, often blackly hilariously so.

which doesn't make it any less evil.

it jibes with my own observations. shrug. also:

"Unguent. I need un-guent."

has become sort of a catchphrase for me

FoolishOwl said...

Belle, that quote from Orwell gets at something I've been trying to get at for a while. A big theme with me, at least the last couple of years, is accepting mortality.

Cassandra Says said...

FO - Can you explain what you mean by accepting morality?

FoolishOwl said...

I've been trying to think how to explain this, ever since I read the quote from Epicurus that moved me: roughly, that freedom begins with overcoming the fear of death, a fear that is taught by religion.

There's the classic trope of a man hearing a prophecy of his own death, and dismantling his life to hide from death, but dying just as predicted anyway.

Another aspect of it is that religion inculcates a sort of neurosis. It's obvious that everything that lives, dies, including you and I, that everything changes and there's no permanence. To become a whole person, you have to accept that and overcome the fear of it. If you instead pretend that there's an imaginary world where the really important things live forever, then you're not really maturing. You're trapped, imprisoned, in a neurotic fear of anything that reminds you of mortality.

I have a harder time explaining this part, but, there's a state of mind, more broadly, in which one keeps hoping that somehow if one makes the right choices or avoids all risk, nothing bad will ever happen. I'm thinking of the attitudes of some people at the height of the "fitness craze" in the 80s, or of some of the quotes from an article I was just reading about student activists at Columbia University, who wanted to be careful that their activism didn't impede their careers. If you assume you're eventually going to die, anyway, taking risks for things you care about or desire doesn't seem so unreasonable.