Monday, November 06, 2006

Cultural Learnings of America

As I've mentioned before, Jeff and I thank our lucky stars almost every weekend for the Roxy, the charmingly shabby movie theatre in Nurnberg that runs films in the original version. That means in English for most Hollywood movies, instead of dubbed in German by a rotating stable of voiceover actors so that Brad Pitt has the same German voice as, say, Dustin Hoffman. Usually we watch these movies weeks after their American release dates, in a teeny shoebox theatre with a single audio speaker and a maximum of five or six other patrons. And we're darn glad to have the opportunity. Also, they sell beer and Pringles at the concession stand.

I spent a few moments of "Borat" wondering exactly how the Roxy had nabbed a copy on opening weekend. I mused for a second about how on earth the Brad/Dustin voiceover guy is going to say "I make the sexy time with mother-in-law" in a fake Kazakh accent, auf Deutsch. These thoughts were banished in less than a minute, since it took roughly 47 seconds until the sight of my man Borat in his bad suit, open-mouth kissing his sister, distracted me.

I was familiar with da Ali G Show, so I was prepared for multilayered cultural skewering. Sacha Baron Cohen has, apparently, few personal boundaries, and due to this characteristic combined with his sharp satiric mind and an American public that does nothing so well as preen for the cameras, his formula rarely fails. Jeff tends to relate so closely with characters on reality TV and documentaries that he can barely watch. He spent most of Borat hunched down in his chair, peering through the fingers of one hand, laughing uncontrollably. I imagine that's just the reaction that Cohen wants, and he got it from us. We still catch each other, days later, chuckling to ourselves. Then one of us says to the other, "Who is this lady you have shrunk?" We also realize now that HBO (where Ali G aired in the USA) does apparently have a few TV censorship guidelines, and they've all been stripped away (get it? STRIPPED?!) for Borat's cinema debut.

Afterward, I read Stephanie Zacaharek's review at, and I recalled a twinge of melancholy as I left the theatre. I thought the movie was brilliant, but the moments of unkindess within it struck me. Part of the genius of Cohen's humor (like that of the Daily Show and Stephen Colbert) is that the audience never knows just how much the rubes onscreen have been told about his characters. Most believe he's a real foreign journalist, and they attempt to welcome him with their best manners. He simply allows them to dig their own comic graves, but in a few cases, he takes the jokes too far. Of course that's also what makes him great. He's willing to do anything (and once you've seen his reaction to the Victoria's Secret window display on Fifth Avenue, you'll agree) for his art.

Now that Borat has conquered the weekend box-office, I imagine the movie will attract a bunch of viewers who have never heard of Sacha Baron Cohen, or Ali G, but who've read a blurb that calls this the "funniest movie of the year," so they decide to see it instead of The Santa Clause 3. I'm glad I am not the movie theatre manager who has to explain satire to angry mobs and that yes, that's what passes for entertainment these days. And I'm also glad for the Roxy, and for the miracle that brought us Borat on a rainy opening weekend in November.

I wonder when Cohen will get famous enough that he won't be able to pull off these interviews. I imagine he'll have to retire Borat for a while, but he employs the brilliant tactic of almost never making public appearances as himself, thus protecting his characters. Here is a (fairly old but still funny) rare interview with Sacha Baron Cohen, as himself, on The Daily Show.


Nicole said...

Thanks for posting that Sacha Baron Cohen interview. I've been following his career for years, but it's true that he almost never allows interviews outside of his character. It's nice to see what he actually looks like.

Blythe said...

He's surprisingly handsome. Or maybe that's just relative to how he looks in character. He and John Stewart on the same stage crank up the nerdy/smart/funny/handsome factor past the boiling point...