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March 16, 2007

Evenings Out

Click here for the best of the Ten Percent Cinema at the
Cleveland International Film Festival.


Cohen’s first turn as Ali G is out on DVD, and his gay fashionista may be the next movie

“This interview is over!”

Sacha Baron Cohen may be the one media personality who has heard that phrase the most in his various guises.

Before Borat the film took America by storm this past fall, there was Da Ali G Show, a co-production of BBC and HBO, which brought the zany antics of one of the sharpest comedic minds of our times to U.S. audiences.

Now, the first and second seasons of Da Ali G Show are available in a box set that is must-see comedy. Cohen, in his various guises, interviews people--the famous, the marginally well-known and just regular folk--about serious and mundane issues. These interviews bring out the best and worst in humans.

The artist behind these crazy and obnoxious characters is a rather shy, soft-spoken university graduate from England. Cohen, who was about to become a lawyer, decided to give himself some time to succeed in the world of entertainment. The loss to the legal world is gladly our gift and gain.

Here’s the skinny of Cohen’s three alter egos. There’s Ali G, a hip-hop, gangsta wannabe who tries to pass as black, speaks a dialect all his own including the all-purpose exclamation “Booyakasha,” and thinks he is god’s gift to women.

Then there’s Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev, who comes to America to report back to his country about things in the U.S. of A.

Finally, there’s gay Austrian lifestyle reporter Bruno, who is a fashionista with a fabulous lisp and swish to boot.

All of Cohen’s personas are based in stereotypes--the gangsta decked out in blinding bling and wearing haute couture leisure wear speaking in broken English with hints of misogyny everywhere; the bumbling country-bumpkin from Eastern Europe with his completely out of style suit and facial hair spewing anti-Semitism like a cheerleader shouts cheers; and the blonde-tipped, lisping, effete Austrian with low-riding pants revealing his thong and his midriff-baring T-shirts three sizes too small.

Yet, the brilliance of Cohen is not to peddle stereotypes but to disarm us with them into revealing our true ugliness and ignorance in all their unvarnished glory. So when Borat tells his interviewees that in his country, men grab each others’ genitals as a form of greeting, what is shocking is not the false stereotype he sets up but that most of them actually believe it.

Ignorance was never this honestly revealed, nor so stupidly reveled in by its owners.

The other genius of Cohen’s strategy is that by being racist, sexist and homophobic he reveals our own racism, sexism and homophobia. When Borat makes a racist or anti-Semitic remark to a hunter from the South, he disarms the poor schmuck into launching into a racist, anti-Semitic rant himself. Or when one of his personas says something mildly homophobic, the others around think this is permission to be homophobic in return.

Sometimes the strategy is quite the opposite. In season two Bruno tells us, “Being gay is the new coolest thing, so that’s why I’ve come to the gayest part of America: Alabama.”

The ensuing journey through the homophobic swampland of Southern America is just too brilliant to be true. Bruno, like some friends of mine, begins with the assumption that everyone is gay or bisexual, or should be. His subjects don’t find that funny and this makes their homophobia come through in spades.

He interviews a gun dealer at a gun show who threatens dire physical harm if Bruno ever implies again that the dealer is gay. It is side-splittingly funny and yet deathly dangerous.

That’s the hallmark of a lot of Cohen’s comedy: hilarity tinged with danger. There are parts that are painfully funny and one cringes with embarrassment for both his personas and his interviewees. Yet, we laugh and squirm only because Cohen is able to cut through all the muck and get at the truths about our flaws and phobias.

Here are some of the more fabulous moments on the DVD collection:

When Borat asks to touch a butch Texan on the crotch, the earnest Southerner explains, “That ain’t the custom around here.” But the man gives in. The poor fellow actually believes that foreigners do this. He’s twice the fool.

Borat decides to share photos of his wife to a couple he meets at a rodeo. Behind the clothed Polaroids of his rather large wife are X-rated images of her spread-eagle, naked on a bed. The couple is a bit shocked but make no real issue, thinking once again that foreigners are a bit strange. Their jingoism is written all over their faces.

Ali G interviews Reagan spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who eventually puts all polite pretenses aside and exclaims, “This guy is an idiot!” So does Andy Rooney, who keeps trying to correct Ali G’s “ghetto slang.” It is hilarious and Rooney’s curmudgeonly pomposity is exposed for all its  vileness, tinged with a sort of racial superiority.

Pat Buchanan, former U.N Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Bush environmental maven Christine Todd Whitman, full-of-himself James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio and Ralph Nader are all made to rap educational messages to Ali G’s youth audiences. It can’t get any more hilarious or politically satirical than this.

During an official tour of the United Nations, Ali G asks a U.N. official, “With full respect, why do you give crap countries a vote?”

Bruno literally gate-crashes a fashion show and somehow manages to walk down the ramp in what passes as fashion. His antics on the runway as the designer takes his bow are side-splittingly funny.

On spring break, Bruno catches up with a bunch of frat boys living in a trailer on the beach. First he gets one to get into his wrestling gear and teach him those rather intimate grapples. It begs the questions: Why is the frat boy carrying his wrestling singlet on vacation, and how is he clueless about the homoerotic nature of his own sport and Bruno’s rather overt insinuations?

Finally, when Bruno gets them all to moon the audience and thanks them on behalf of all the gay audiences in Austria, one of the duped frat boys goes nuts.

What is so marvelous about Cohen’s different characters is that they are never mean or nasty. They are often sweet, kind and even vulnerable.

To say that Cohen is a comedic, acting and political genius would be an understatement. It was a travesty that he was not nominated as Best Actor for this year’s Oscars for his absolutely brilliant turn as Borat. Like on the Ali G DVDs, in the film Cohen proves not only his sheer skill at creating a character from scratch but also his improvisational genius and his ability to stay in character no matter how difficult the situation. Reportedly, while shooting the film, he even stayed in character when the police were called on him and the film crew.

There has been no artist in recent memory who has made the skewering of our culture and its power brokers this much fun. Cohen’s satire cuts deep and it is not only grand entertainment, but it is also necessary, relevant and imperative to our times and understanding ourselves better. Cohen will be studied for years, not only as to his importance as an artist and entertainer, but also to his relevance as a social, political and cultural critic with inimitable insight and savvy.

The four-DVD set is filled with extras and other features that further allow us to revel in the genius of Cohen.

The only sad thing is that since Cohen’s alter egos rely on their anonymity, the more fame they get the less likely he is to dupe people into doing these interviews. Whereas most people need fame to continue their careers, Cohen’s fame will mean the end of Borat, Bruno and Ali G.

Cohen  has said that to make another Borat film or TV show has become all but impossible given the humongous popularity of the movie. Incidentally, a movie studio has reportedly paid Cohen upwards of $40 million to do a Bruno feature film. Fans and students of Cohen like myself, can’t wait.

The inimitable Borat often ends his segments, sweetly and adoringly, with, “Do you like me? I like you.”

Well, Sacha, I don’t like you. I love you!





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