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Borat’s Buffoonery

Among readers of the Forward, I may be the last on the block to see Sacha Baron Cohen’s film, “Borat”; in Israel it started showing only two weeks ago. Actually, I had been waiting for it impatiently. After all, how many box office hits are there that have Hebrew as their secret language?

All the reviews of “Borat” I had read had promised me I’d be in stitches, not just because I was going to see a work of comic genius but also because I was going to see it as an insider, a member of a privileged group that could understand what Cohen was saying when he pretended to be speaking Kazakh by talking Hebrew. As The Associated Press reported when the movie first hit the screens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israelis “begin giggling from the opening scene, when Borat departs his hometown in Kazakhstan for the ‘U.S. and A.,’ assuring a one-armed man in fake Kazakh: ‘Don’t worry, I will buy you a new hand in America.’”

To tell the truth, there was precious little giggling in the Israeli audience I was in, even when Cohen, who spent a year in Israel on a kibbutz, used the wrong gender for the Hebrew word for “hand,” yad, and treated it as grammatically masculine by saying yad h.adash instead of yad h.adasha in the feminine. Although this is a mistake that no Israeli tot would make, it didn’t strike anyone as very funny.

But neither did the rest of the Hebrew in the movie. We Israeli viewers were not, it turned out, being let in on any private jokes between Cohen and us; nothing was being said for our benefit behind the goyim’s backs. Indeed, part of the time it was being said behind our backs, too, because Cohen, perhaps in his eagerness to appear to be speaking naturally, uttered his Hebrew lines so quickly and swallowed so many of their words that it was often hard to make them out. And what one did make out was no different from the English lines: crude, unfunny, and generally so puerile that I could hardly could believe I was watching the same movie that Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, among many other wowed reviewers, had called a “brilliant” and “brainy… social satire.”

Brilliant? Brainy? How much brains do you need to act the role of a primitive Kazakh journalist telling — this time in quite correct Hebrew — your traveling sidekick, who is for some obscure reason in the act of cleaning your anus, “Just wipe me, don’t jerk me off?” On the whole, the level of humor in “Borat” impressed me as being slightly below that of a bunk of 9-year-olds in a summer camp. If you’ve ever been to summer camp, or even just been a 9-year-old, you’ll know what I mean. Remember how every reference to urine or feces made you howl? How every forbidden word for a body part or something done with it seemed hilarious? How every joke related to the fact that men and women had such parts was the acme of comedy? That, in a nutshell, is what the “brilliance” of which Borat consists.

Yes, I know: It’s a satire on uptight Americans who never went through the 9-year-old stage and have made up for it in middle age by becoming bigots, chauvinists and antisemites. But although it’s no doubt possible to find such people if one looks hard enough for them, just as it may be possible to find Kazakhs who never have seen a flush toilet and kiss every man they meet, making fun of them in the primitive way that Cohen does, let alone absurdly suggesting that they are representative figures, is hardly a major comic achievement. If I were a Kazakh, I would have every justification for feeling that the main bigot in “Borat” was Cohen himself. So would I if I were American.

It’s been said that “Borat” should upset Jews because it makes a joke of antisemitism in both its European and American versions. This is, in my opinion, true, but not because one mustn’t laugh at antisemites; what one mustn’t do, rather, is so underestimate their intelligence that one treats them as buffoonlike Neanderthals. Thinking that your enemies are infinitely dumber than you are is a sure way of seeing to it that they will ultimately get the better of you.

Toward the end of the film, there is a scene in which Borat, determined to elope with the American movie star he is in love with by carrying her off in a sack, tells us of his plans by saying in Hebrew, “Ani et’h.aten ota,” “I’ll marry her.” Since the verb le-hit’haten, “to marry,” is a reflexive one (in Hebrew, you “marry yourself with” a man or woman), he should have said “Ani et’haten ita.” No one in the audience laughed at this gaffe, either. It would have been in poor taste to do so. And poor taste, I’m sorry to say, is all that “Borat” gives us to laugh at.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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