Last night, my wife and I took her younger brother and niece to see "Borat." The buzz has been tremendous, and though I had some reservations based on what I had heard, the kids were eager to watch the film and we were, well, willing.
I can think of only two other films that I found so viscerally upsetting: "Natural Born Killers" and "Pulp Fiction." I saw them both in the theater, and left both literally shaking with rage at the filmmakers. "Borat" joins these other two in a small category I have for Films I Did Not Merely Dislike But Actively Loathed. I'm quite confident I'm in a distinct minority among my friends and readers, but so be it; you can share your impressions in the comments.
I include Borat along with the above-mentioned Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino films for a simple reason: all three pictures were, from a creative standpoint, magnificent. I left the theater last night convinced of Sacha Baron Cohen's subversive talent; what I question is his apparent radical lack of sympathy for his fellow human beings. Look, I get the point he was trying to make; Cohen was eager to expose what he sees as the dark, bigoted, hypocritical underbelly of Red State America. (And man, was he selective in the targets of his satire -- he's every bit as much a propagandist as Michael Moore.) But while I can appreciate satire, I dislike it when it comes tinged with active cruelty. What I don't like about Sacha Cohen's hit picture is the same thing I don't like about Tarantino's films: while they are exceptionally watchable movies, they are shot through with a nastiness, a puerile sadism, that reminds me of little boys plucking insects' wings.
Did I laugh at Borat? Of course. But laughter is not an endorsement of the concept. If you made me sit through a ninety-minute porn flick, I'd probably get turned on -- and that physiological response would hardly be an endorsement of the film. I could watch a bad horror flick and "jump" at the scary bits, but my momentary fear wouldn't prove the quality of the movie. Laughing at some of the scenes in Borat was similar for me; it felt more like an uncontrollable reflex than an actual appreciation for the work itself.
What made me angriest, in the end, was Cohen's extraordinary arrogance. Like many immensely talented artists, he seems to view ordinary human beings as props rather than as his brothers and sisters. Deception, manipulation, public humiliation are all acceptable as long as the end product serves to make his rather obvious and banal point: human beings are awkward, judgmental, hypocritical, and flawed. I may be the only person who watched this film whose heart went out to the crowd at the rodeo, to the Chi Psi brothers in the RV, to the Southern dinner party, to -- particularly -- the Pentecostals. As nasty as some of the remarks were from the fraternity lads, for example, I found myself far more sympathetic to the objects of Cohen's derision than to the filmmaker himself. In the end, all of his subjects, for all their unpleasantness, displayed the gentle naivete and gullibility so characteristic of Americans. Cohen, for all of his impressive skill and his willingness to take risks, displayed something even uglier: a genuine hostility towards humanity.
To be sure, many great satirists have been misanthropes. Perhaps it's why I loathed Mencken and Karl Kraus when I read them in college. (For me, sincerity is the most underrated of modern virtues and ironic detachment a particularly tiresome vice.) Perhaps Cohen now has joined the ranks of the great misanthropic satirists. His talent is immense, his work undeniably provocative and funny. But I absolutely cannot get past the sadism and the heartlessness that seems shot through the fabric of his work, and I am still angry at him and his picture this morning.
Discuss in the comments.