Carnival or Lent?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Fight Between Carnival and Lent in 1559. A busy panoramic scene, the main action takes place in the foreground of a town square. The picture broadly breaks into two halves (imagine a vertical line running top to bottom). Just left of centre is the personification of Carnival corpulent in red trousers on a barrel brandishing a pig’s head skewered on a spit. Just right of centre is the personification of Lent gaunt and lean on a blue chair blue holding a paddle with two fish. They appear to be engaging in a joust.

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On Borat

Members of a group or nation become trapped within their own cultural worldview unless they find a way to transcend their own discourse. But it is fiendishly difficult to be both inside a situation and transcend it. Satire is an attempt to enable those locked into group-think to step outside themselves and imagine how their culture looks from a distanced vantage point. This is comedy that finds detachment from a subject and provides a viewpoint as if from the outside. Satire tricks us into seeing familiar things as if for the first time. It is a means by which a culture from the inside gets outside its own perspective.

Step forward Borat.

The moustachioed, grey-suited, mankini-wearing, pigeon-English mangling, Kazakhstani TV journalist Borat Sagdiyev, and his heavy human-hairball producer Azamat Bagatov, slipped in 2006 stealthily across the border into the United States. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan purports to be a film that explains American culture to the Kazakhstans. Instead they made a film that explains American culture to the Americans. 

Borat a fictional character intruded into a real world, holds conversations with real people who don’t know that he is counterfeiting. The conceit is: the film shows clueless provincial hicks who could learn something from a different culture. Borat is a bumbling, crass, offensive, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, incest-loving, rape-excusing idiot. Played by British, Cambridge-educated actor-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, he is the disguised, counterfeiting, witty, all-licenced Fool.

Ministry of Interior have decide to send me to US and A, greatest country in a world, to learn a lessons for Kazakhstan”. This is no inter-cultural encounter between representatives of a nation; this is engagement by those who boost their own sense of cultural superiority by electing to believe the caricature of the backward, idiotic foreigner. Borat’s interlocutors smile broadly and patiently explain, as if talking to a child, while resolutely shielding their disdain. Borat deploys Socratic dialogue to penetrate their prejudice cloaked behind coded language and soft tones. He is the well-intentioned, dim, patient, harmless eiron who, playing stupid, asks increasingly outrageous and obnoxious questions. The irony-free participants are lulled then skewered on the lacerating satire of his guileless guile.

To the gun shop owner: “What is the best gun for hunting Jews?” “That’s the 9mm or the .45”

To the car salesman: “What car will attract a woman with shave down below” “That will be the Corvette” 

To the frat boys from South Carolina University in the RV: “Do you have slaves?” “I wish”.

To the rodeo manager: “In Kazakhstan we hang gays” “That is what we are trying to do here”

To the audience at the Rodeo: “May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq” Cheers.

There are foolish people on display, but it is not the Fool. There are cultural mores being decoded here, but they are not Kazakhstani.

Diogenes the Cynic set out to expose herd morality and reveal people were ashamed of the wrong things in life. Borat takes a Diogenesian approach to scatology. We see him defecating in front of Trump Tower, handing out cheese made from the milk of his wife’s teat, masturbating on the sidewalk outside a Victoria’s Secret store, washing his face in the toilet bowl of a hotel, presenting at a dinner party a doggy-bag of his own excrement. When he and Azamat wrestle naked at a formal mortgage brokers’ convention/dinner disrupting the prize giving, they are detained by security. But it was the sub prime mortgage scandal that led to a world recession four years later. Who should be more ashamed? It is not the brandishing of the bag of faeces at the Southern dinner that leads to Borat’s expulsion from the party but the arrival of a black friend: “there is no way you can stay for dessert”. Who should be more ashamed? Diogenes used his scatology to unmask the bad manners of the polis inverting the social order: by not concealing what others regarded as shameful he exposed the shame lurking at the heart of time-honoured things.

In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) Maria Bakalova, playing Borat’s 15 year-old daughter Tutar, provides the Fool function of the film (Borat is now too famous to operate clandestinely in America). Tutar’s scatology is deplored while misogyny flourishes. A plastic surgeon accepts he would have sexually assaulted Tutar had her father not been there; a woman teaches Tutar how to secure a sugar-daddy: ‘as a woman you have to be weak’; a father at the Macon Debutant’s Ball agrees a price with Borat for Tutar; a woman in a shop contentedly picks a dress from the ‘no means yes section’; a Christian pastor at the Carolina Women’s Health Center turns a blind eye to criminal incest; a creepy 76 year-old Rudy Giuliani comes on to Tutar in a hotel room. But when Tutar opens a beer bottle with her anus, shows her pubic hair in public, proudly opens her legs at the debutant ball revealing her menstrual blood or gushes forth about her recent masturbation at a meeting of a Republican’s woman’s club (‘we don’t talk about that in public’), her audience are appalled. Civility and bigotry are shown to march hand in hand. The sexual availability of women for men is encouraged while the functioning of a woman’s body reviled. Who should be more ashamed?

Borat in the 2006 film signs up for some comedy lessons from humour coach Patrick Haggerty. Mr Haggerty subduedly explains to Borat that Americans would not find funny the story of the rape of Borat’s sister by their caged retarded brother Bilo after she taunts him with her vagina. Except in Borat’s troubling telling it is. Mr Haggerty demonstrates how to time a ‘not’ joke while making it toe-curlingly unfunny. Only in Borat’s mistiming does it become comic. There is a comedian in the room, and it’s not Mr Haggerty.

Borat’s Kazakhstan does not exist. The language, rituals, people, music and customs depicted in the film are a complete falsehood. Borat speaks Hebrew- Polish to Azamat who speaks Armenian to Borat; in the second film Tutar speaks Bulgarian. The Kazakhstan village scenes were filmed in Romania, the folk music is by a Serbo-Croat composer. The offensive opening scenes of incest, prostitution, rape and child terrorism play to the stereotype of a caricature of the post-Soviet foreigner from state-run media with a squawking chicken in his suitcase. 

At about the time of the film’s release in 2006 an unsuspecting Kazakhstan president came to the United States to visit George W. Bush. A four page advert taken out in the New York Times, and another on CNN, to coincide with the visit was pounced upon by Borat. He called a press conference outside the Kazakhstan embassy in Washington DC: “recent advertisements on television and in media about my nation of Kazakhstan, saying that women are treated equally, and that all religions are tolerated – these are disgusting fabrications…part of a propaganda campaign against our country by evil nitwits Uzbekistan…I must further say on behalf of my government, that if Uzbekistan do not desist from funding these attacks…then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapults”.

Borat’s positing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as adversaries is a parody of the hatred of the US towards Iraq. When Borat, wearing an American flag shirt, sings the Kazakhstan national anthem (words by Baron Cohen) to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner about Kazakhstan being the greatest country in the world things turn confusing. The rodeo Cowboy hat-wearing crowd’s cheers turn to boos, a horse falls down throwing its rider and Borat has to flee to avoid a lynching. One of the problems with setting a moral value on patriotism is that it never extends to other people’s.

When Baron Cohen did the rounds promoting the film he refused to come out of character. David Letterman on The Tonight Show and Jay Leno had to pretend they were asking questions of a real Kazakh journalist knowing he was an actor. They were unable to successfully negotiate the irony. Leno: “What do you say to claims that your film was racist, homophobic and misogynist?” Borat: “Thank you”. 

Borat: “Please come to see my movie, if not success, I will be execute”. When a Kazakh US embassy spokesman, Roman Vassilenko, sought to correct some of the film’s errors (Kazakhstan is not the Number 1 exporter of potassium; neither archery nor rape are popular pastimes) Borat denounced him as an Uzbek imposter. When the Kazakhstani government asserted the right to take legal action against Baron Cohen, Borat supported them in their decision to “sue this Jew”. Over-dignified Kazakh officials removed the website from the internet, and Borat came out in defence of the country “Kazakhstan is as civilised as any other country in the world. Women can now travel on the inside of the bus, homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats, and the age of consent has been raised to eight years old. Please, captains of industry, I invite you to come to Kazakhstan, where we have incredible natural resources, hard-working labour, and some of the cleanest prostitutes in whole of central Asia.

At a screening Borat explained that the Kazakh censors had nearly banned the film because of anti-Semitism but then decided that there was just enough. Like Swift (in W.B. Yates’s words) Baron Cohen is always just round the next corner.

In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Borat finds that the bigots he dallied with fourteen years before are now running the country. The flat-footed among them have not learnt anything from Borat’s serpentine stratagems. Rudi Guliani: “At not time before, during, or after the interview was I ever inappropriate. If Sacha Baron Cohen implies otherwise he is a stone-cold liar”. Borat: “What was innocent sexy-time encounter between a consenting man and my 15 year-old daughter has been turned into something disgusting via fake news media”. At least the Kazakhstanis have in the intervening years learnt one lesson to Make Benefit of Glorious Nation. Instead of complaining about the second film they have initiated a tourist campaign using the tag line ‘Very Nice’.

Borat is a fictional character loose in real America whose stupidity is reversed by comic brio onto others. He sidles up to and then tramples upon sacred cultural taboos. The characters on display are clueless, and it isn’t the man playing Borat. He is a homophobe who kisses men, an anti-Semite played by a Jewish actor, a dimwit who is the wittiest person in the room. There is a socially backward culture on display here peopled by credulous, xenophobes and naive yokels, and it isn’t Kazakhstan. Borat is ignorant, misogynist, anti-semitic, racist and homophobic, and he finds that he fits right in. Baron Cohen’s wolf in sheep’s clothing executes a scalding merciless Swiftian satire that comprehends an American culture that misunderstands itself. 

The film shows clueless provincial hicks who could learn something from a different culture.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

During the Covid-19 lockdown my family each evening has been watching a film together. Last week included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), inspiring me to re-read the novel it was based on, published in 1962, and led to this blogpost.

One flew east, one flew west, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Cuckoos have a practice of laying an egg in another bird’s nest. The newly hatched cuckoo chick throws out the other eggs and live chicks and by this act of displacement asserts power and control. Cuckoo’s nest is slang for the madhouse, and female genitalia. Continue reading


Cold Comfort Farm

Flora Poste, the heroine of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932), is a bright, flippant, unsentimental, bossy, manipulative, brisk young woman who descends upon a nest of her rustic cousins at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. The Starkadders are unkempt, amorous, ebullient, uneducated, temperamental wild, poetical, beautiful, territorial, and brutish. They say things like:

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Absurdism, Film

Woman in the Dunes

In the 1964 film Woman in the Dunes a man spends seven years trapped in a sand pit. That summary and the film’s running time of two hours and twenty minutes may put some viewers off, but that would be a mistake. This is a beautiful film with a mesmerising minimalist soundtrack, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, that became a Japanese New Wave classic. Andrei Tarkovsky included it in his list of the best ten films ever made. Like Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel the premise may be balmy, but the consequences that flow from it takes us to the heart of what it means to be human.

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Absurdism, Books

On Samuel Beckett

Hamm: The whole thing is comical, I grant you that.

Beckett’s play Endgame (1957) has no story, no plot development, is set in an depleted world of four characters confined to a room with two small windows out of which, because they are too high, it is impossible to see. Hamm is blind, paralytic, cannot stand and in constant physical pain. Nagg and Nell have no legs and are confined to dustbins; they indicate a desire to kiss and touch each other (they are married) but their bins are too far apart for that. Clov can walk and so is keeping the others alive but he is unable to sit down. Even the toy dog lacks a leg. The only dramatic tension comes from Hamm’s insistence that Clov leave him alone while making his exit impossible, and Clov’s repeated failed attempts to leave Hamm. Hamm provides Clov’s food and shelter and Clov stands in for Hamm’s legs and eyesight, but each is antagonistic. They are locked together by an adversarial dependence. Continue reading

Absurdism, Books

On P. G. Wodehouse

In P. G. Wodehouse’s comic world language is king. He delights with a verbal abundance of fantastical specificity. Take some of his fluid, hyperbolic similes:

She looked like a tomato struggling for self expression.
He withered like an electric fan.
He wilted like a salted snail.
She looked like an aunt who had just bitten into a bad oyster.
He vanished abruptly, like an eel going into mud.
He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.

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Absurdism, Art, Marcel Duchamp

What is art?

In my last post about Diogenes the question was raised: is stealing, embalming and displaying a dead tramp art? Tilda Swinton in a glass case, a video of David Beckham asleep, sound installation, performance art, embalmed sharks, embroidered tents and unmade beds, modern artists have repeatedly challenged what it is that can be regarded as art. What counts as art? How do we judge its value? Who is in a position to tell us what is good? These are among the vexed questions of aesthetics.

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Absurdism, Art, Rhetoric


Edwin McKenzie, of no fixed abode, was painted many times by the artist Robert Lenkiewicz, between the late sixties and early eighties. Because he lived as a vagrant in a circular container overlooking a rubbish tip in Plymouth Lenkiewicz renamed him Diogenes, after the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. Diogenes’s philosophy was “live while you can and live in clover, when you’m dead, you’m dead all over”. He was born in 1912 and claimed that he had smoked a pipe since he was twelve, was a former lightweight boxer, designed and built the Plymouth Civic Centre, had won the Derby twice and the Grand National once, had played for Arsenal, and built the Tamar Bridge. Diogenes stood sentinel at a desk at the door to the artist’s studio demanding 10p for entry claiming the title ‘secretary’. When Diogenes died in a Plymouth hospital in 1984 Lenkiewicz and several of his children surreptitiously gained entry to the hospital morgue, wrapped the corpse in a winding sheet and stole it away. He was embalmed the next day, encased in transparent resin and remained under the bed of Lenkiewicz’s son for some weeks while he was revising for his A’ levels at an adjacent desk.

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