Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Borat and When Borat Came to Town/Carmen Meets Borat

2006’s Borat: Cultural Learings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (20th Century Fox, director, Larry David)—note that USSRish subtitle—is the most recent in a long line of mockumentaries. The mockumentary, the faux documentary, goes back at least to the noted marxist and surrealist auteur Luis Bunuel. Bunuel reacted to the documentary realism of famed documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, 1922, Moana, 1926, Man of Aran, 1934, Louisiana Story, 1948, and Tabu, 1931, co-directed with German auteur F.W. Murnau)—a documentary realism that was actually part fiction since Flaherty like Edward Curtis before him staged scenes in his documentaries and added fictional narrative elements to them by satirising and parodying the adventurer/ethnographic film subgenre to humourous effect in his documentary anti-documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pain (1933). In Las Hurdes Bunuel takes his camera into the poverty ridden Les Hurdes region of Spain and forces viewers to confront the ethnocentric arrogance and single voice paternalism he saw as inherent in the cinematic form including the cinematic form of documentaries. Bunuel’s deconstruction of ethnographic imperialism, by the way, would prove prophetic. Forty years after Les Hurdes anthropologists themselves would go all reflexive and ask whether their ethnographic discourse itself, because it was written in the objective voice of a Western ethnographer by a Western ethnographer, was itself imperialist.

Eventually others would follow in the parodic and satricial faux documentary footsteps of Bunuel. In 1967 director Jim McBride gave us David Holtzman's Diary, a mock documentary about several days in the life of a documentary filmmaker. In 1969 director Woody Allen's gave us his mockumentary about a small time criminal and his run of bad luck, Take the Money and Run (ABC). In 1978 Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, who did some hilarious faux mockumentaries for the Monty Python sketch show on the BBC including 1969's hilarious Hell's Grannies, gave us a mockumentary about a Beatles like group called the Rutles, All You Need is Cash. In 1984 Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner gave us, This is Spinal Tap (MGM), a mockumentary that follows a legendary but past their prime hard rock band on its hilarious, pretentious, pathetic, and perhaps final gig across America. One of the writers of This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest, went on to make a number of highly regarded improvisatory mockumentaries with a stock company of actors including Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003), which poked satiric and parodic fun at the theatre, dog shows, and folk music respectively.

Mockumentaries have not, in the post This is Spinal Tap era, been a monopoly of Christopher Guest and his mock doc stock company. Noted New Zealand directors Peter Jackson and Costa Botes made the mockumentary Forgotten Silver which satirized, sometimes savagely, Kiwi nationalism and gullibility in its tale of a forgotten New Zealand filmmaker who invented the tracking shot, colour film, and who shot film of the first man to fly, a New Zealander, the last seemingly corroborating something many Kiwis had long believed, that a New Zealander was the first man to fly. Forgotten Silver was taken by many Kiwis as the gospel truth when it was shown on TV NZ 1 in 1995. It was aided and abetted in this by one of New Zealand’s leading television and radio publications, The Listener, which played along with the joke by publishing an article in its pages which suggested that New Zealanders watch this wonderful documentary about an unknown Kiwi hero. Not every Kiwi found the joke humourous, however, as the film hit a tender spot in New Zealand culture, its ethnocentric nationalism, angering many in the process as the angry letters TV New Zealand received from disappointed viewers who wanted to believe the old myth that New Zealand was first in flight show. Many viewers wanted to believe in the faux filmmaker discovered in Forgotten Silver because they wanted to believe that his achievements were New Zealand’s achievements.

Satire and parody wasn’t only the province of mockumentaires. The “documentaries”, if you can call them that, of the American Michael Moore and the Briton Louis Theroux, who works in the documentary unit of the BBC, continued the Bunuelian tradition of satire through “documentary”. Moore’s Roger and Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and Sicko (2007), and his television shows TV Nation (NBC/BBC2, 1994-1995) and The Awful Truth (Channel 4/Bravo, 1999-2000) “documented” and simultaneously satirised and parodied everything from corporate tyranny and criminality, the American obsession with guns, the Bush presidency, American health care, American homophobia, and beyond. Theroux, who worked with Moore on The Awful Truth, in episodes of his Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends (BBC, 1998-2000) and in his BBC2 specials like The Most Hated Family in America>, “documented”, satirised, and self-righteously parodied everything from American right wing religion, American racists, American wrestling culture, American UFO nuts, and Westerners who went to Thailand looking for young brides. Theroux, by the way, in his When Louis Met… (BBC2, 2000-2002) series, met Jimmy, Jimmy Savile, and asked him about rumours of his penchant for young girls.

The latest in this long line of mockumentary satirists and parodists is the Brit Sacha Baron Cohen. The latest in a long line of Cambridge educated and Jewish actor-comedians, Cohen uses his characters of Borat, Brüno, Ali G, and the dictator Admiral General Aladeen to document, mock, and shock audiences of The 11 O’Clock Show (Channel 4, 1998-2000), Da Ali G Show (Channel 4, 2000, HBO, 2003-2006), and more recently on the big screen in Borat (20th Century Fox, 2006), Brüno (Universal, 2009), and The Dictator (Paramount, 2012). Like many of his mockumentary forebears Cohen uses his sketches to mock the sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and nationalist prejudices of those they chose to document. Whether those Cohen wants to mock share the prejudices of Borat, whether they are laughing at Borat and his political incorrectness, whether they are being patronising, or whether they are trying to maintain good manners, however, is a question worth asking and exploring.

Borat, which I watched recently, tells the tale of a Kazakh documentary filmmaker and his producer (Ken Davitan) who come to the United States to learn from America, "the greatest nation in the world", and take the lessons learned back to Kazakhstan. While in America, however, Borat falls in love with someone he sees while watching TV in his hotel room, C.J, Pamela Anderson, one of the faux breasted Baywatch babes on the American television show Baywatch (1989-1990, syndicated, 1991-2001). So its off to California to find her and marry her in Kazakh style—Borat as road movie mockumentary. Along the way Borat meets a driving instructor, interviews American politicians, goes to a rodeo where he enraptures than offends the audience in a speech that sounds a bit like Mark Twain's "War Prayer", is interviewed on a local news show, trains in the fine art of etiquette, stays at a bed and breakfast run by a Jewish couple, visits an antique shop run by a couple whose shop reflects their devotion to their idea of the Confederacy, and catches a lift from a group of University of South Carolina frat brothers. For those watching closely, by the way, it is clear that the journey as represented in the film is geographically and chronologically out of order.

Borat is funny, sometimes very funny, because it shows, a la Theroux,just how sexist, racist, homophobic, and nationalist, and bizarre some Americans are. But it also shows, as Christopher Hitchens noted in an article in Slate, just how patient many Americans are with Borat despite his limited English and his political incorrectness, none more so than the supermarket clerk who tells Borat when he asks again and again what this—cheese, butter, margarine and horsradish—what this is in a scene cut from the final film but which can be found as an extra on the DVD of Borat. One presumes that this scene was removed because it shows just how patient the supermarket clerk was in the face of Borat’s interminable questions about what each packet of cheese, butter, and margarine and didn't have the shock value of the other sketches. What patient supermarket clerk says about the American customer is always right retail mantra and the consumerisation of the US and the West, by the way, I find terrifying.

Some were apparently taken in by Cohen’s masquerade and weren’t, in retrospect, happy about it. Cohen was sued by a driving instructor from Baltimore that he went to in order to learn how to drive for misrepresentation. He was sued by two of the drunken, sex obsessed, and misogynous University of South Carolina frat boys he met on the road for defamation of character, a rather absurd charge since they clearly defamed themselves thanks to booze more than Borat. These controversies almost certainly added to Borat's box office receipts as controversy, free publicity, almost always does for a film.

Not everyone was apparently taken in by Borat. Pamela Sue Anderson apparently knew what she was getting in for and it may have cost her her marriage to the annoying Kid Rock. Nor did everyone find Borat’s joke humourous in the first place. Many in Kazakhstan found the depiction of their nation as a backward country of horses, horse drawn cars, prostitutes, abortionists, raging wives, and ethnocentric nationalist anthems—it touched nationalist nerves after all—offensive.

The village that masqueraded as Borat’s Kazakh hometown, Glod, Dâmboviţa, Romania, was not happy either. They sued Twentieth Century Fox and Cohen for misrepresenting the village as ignorant, incestuous, and a home to prostitutes and abortionists. Filmmaker Mercedes Stalenhoef tells this tale in her 2008 documentary When Borat Came to Town/Carmen Meets Borat (BBC/PBS) along with tale of the dreams and finally shattered dreams, of a 17 year old resident of Glod, Ionela Carmen, whose father, apparently one of the wealthiest residents of the village, travels to London along with three other villageers in order to sue Borat and 20th Century Fox for their depiction of Glod. The suit, as the film tells us, was another of these failed dreams. The suit was thrown out of court. It is these failed dreams, Carmen’s failed dream of getting out of Glod so she can live a life like that she sees in the Spanish telenovela she watches on television and Glod’s failed dreams of making lots of money from Borat, that makes When Borat Came to Town/Carmen Meets Borat so powerful and finally so pathetic. In the wake of the fall of communism, a fall Carmen’s father laments at one point in the documentary, the only hope rural Glod, and one imagines other places in rural Eastern Europe, seems to have is that it win the lottery by winning a suit against a Western conglomerate or that it will get a hand out from the West. Welcome to the modern world of corporate globalisation. In a way, Stalenhoef’s documentary with its depiction of rural Eastern European poverty and the despair and defeat it breeds takes us back to the serious part of Luis Bunuel's Las Hurdes. The more things change the more they stay the same. Poverty remains alive and well in the midst of greater and greater wealth of the few. And that, dear unreaders, is not funny.

I give Borat and When Borat Came to Town/Carmen Meets Borat three stars each. Recommended.

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