Last night I had CNN on in the background and my attention was grabbed by an ad for Kazakhstan. I stopped my reading and started paying attention – was this a new Borat commercial? I had a chance to see Borat at ComiCon and chose to drink instead, a decision I halfway regret now, especially since it seems like Fox won’t be letting me see the movie until the week of release. But as for this ad – as far as I can tell it was an honest to God ad for Kazakhstan. If it was real, I am sure it was launched in response to Borat madness, which recently saw the character trying to invite “Premier George Walter Bush” to a screening of his movie.
Borat is, of course, the same guy as Ali G – British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Everything I have heard about the film – whose official title is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – is that it is almost impossibly funny, and much of that humor comes from unsuspecting civilians reacting to Borat’s strange cultural proclivities, which includes quite a bit of anti-semitism. One segment of the film has Borat leading a country and western bar in a rousing song from the old country called Throw the Jew Down the Well.
The Anti-Defamation League is concerned about this. They aren’t concerned that Sacha Baron Cohen is anti-semitic – he’s Jewish. It seems that they’re worried that you’re far too stupid to get the joke.
"The premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film featuring his farcical character ‘Borat’ has raised anew concerns among some in the Jewish community about the character’s notoriously boastful expressions of anti-Semitism and stereotyping of others," the ADL said in a press release. "When approaching this film, one has to understand that there is absolutely no intent on the part of the filmmakers to offend, and no malevolence on the part of Sacha Baron Cohen, who is himself proudly Jewish. We hope that everyone who chooses to see the film understands Mr. Cohen’s comedic technique, which is to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear.
"We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”
It’s nice of them to put the bit in there that THEY get it, but what irks me is the idea that not everyone else will get it. look, I’m a liberal and I believe that sometimes people need to be saved from their own worst impulses. I think seat belt laws are a great idea, for example. But I hate the idea that an artist should be second guessing himself because some people in the audience don’t get it.
What’s funny is that this is the prevalent Hollywood belief system anyway (I guess it’s not that funny if you’re one of those people who believes that a cabal of Jews runs Hollywood, though. You would just see this as consistency, I suppose) – movies are afraid to be smart. When’s the last time when you saw a movie where the characters were actually very smart people and had very smart discussions? This past weekend I was reading Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies II and he makes the observation that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is one of the few movies that would dare to have a joke that hinges on Marshall McLuhan.
The assumption is that most Americans are dead stupid, and that they wouldn’t be interested in a movie where characters had a conversation about Rimbaud, or that they’re too stupid to understand when a racist joke is meant to be ironic. And maybe that’s true. God knows the weekly box office charts offer strong evidence in that direction. But is the answer to keep dumbing it down?
I don’t mind when the ADL comes out against something they perceive to be anti-semitic, even if I don’t agree with them. It’s their job, and a healthy society isn’t afraid of that kind of debate. But when they’re warning about a movie that even they recognize is anything but anti-semitic, things have gone too far. And it’s easy to target the middlebrow comedies like Borat, but what this does is make it that much less likely that a mainstream film would try to do anything other than straight-ahead formula nonsense.
We’re letting the dummies win.