Ayn Rand/Objectivism Sightings
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Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson
Director: Larry Charles
Objectivism considers a given work of art as a concretization of the artist's metaphysical value judgments. Ayn Rand considered good art as fuel for the human spirit. By contrast, bad art drains the spirit of those who consume it. In his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff cites three broad standards by which to judge a given art work:
The very notion of art includes works of fiction and nonfiction. The Ayn Rand Institute published a transcription of Ayn Rand's lectures on how to write such works in The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. As expected, she discussed the three standards in one fashion or another throughout both books.
A person can judge a great deal about the state of a culture by what sorts of art, including documentary films, its members consider worthy of spending their hard earned dollars to view. Leonard Peikoff reviewed the 2000 fiction film Chocolat as a fine film that would rightly appeal to Objectivists. Ayn Rand herself penned the script for The Fountainhead and numerous other Hollywood fiction films.
As for nonfiction movies, films based on real events can also fuel the human spirit. The recent film The World's Fastest Indian offers one such example. While not technically a "documentary" it did show the best in human ability using real people as its working material. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life represents a truly Objectivist documentary film that meets all the criteria for good art.
Dastardly Dubious Documentary
This brings me to the subject of this review: Borat! Subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this "mockumentary" blends together fiction with nonfiction to create a disturbing cinematic experience. Its creator and star, Sacha Baron Cohen, had already created a notorious name for himself via the Home Box Office (HBO) channel through his various prank interviews on unsuspecting notables. Disguised as such colorful interviewers as "Ali G," a frustrated rap artist, and "Borat Sagdiyev," a Kazakhstani television reporter, Cohen managed to bring camp and crude humor to his discussions with unwary subjects. These ranged from fashion designer Max Starzewski to Chairman of the Arts Council of England Gerryl Robinson.
One can argue that the media needs to conduct such brief interviews under misleading circumstances not only to provide some much needed comic relief, but more importantly, to strip the fašade of respectability from people who do not in fact deserve our respect. Whether Ayn Rand would agree remains debatable. Certainly she opposed the idea of surprise parties as documented in Facets of Ayn Rand by Charles and Mary Ann Sures. When Ayn Rand's friends decided to spring such a party on her in celebration of her publication of Atlas Shrugged, she reacted with a long lecture about the virtue of honesty. However, she clearly saw value in life-affirming deceptions as exemplified in the various methods of the protagonists in her novels. So one can argue her views as either supportive or detractive of mock interviews made to expose the subject's vicious foibles.
The popularity of Cohen's gag documentaries and the unusual candor they provoked led Cohen and his cohorts to produce a motion picture documentary using the same techniques. To give the film a sense of continuity and purpose, they draped the various interviews over a plot line that led Borat from his home town in Kazakhstan to New York City, down the east coast, through the deep south and southwest and finally ending in southern California. His motive for this great journey arises from his infatuation with Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. This arrangement leads inevitably to a mix of clearly unstaged scenes with clearly staged scenes. A great number of scenes remain that leave the audience wondering about their authenticity.
Unstaged scenes include interviews with politicians Bob Barr and Alan Keyes along with representatives of the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) and numerous others. In his usual fashion, Borat manages to startle and unsettle his subjects with provocative statements and questions. While sharing cheese with Barr, Borat states that he made it from his wife's breast milk, leading Barr to reveal a very sickened facial expression. But Borat also makes himself into the butt of his own jokes. While interviewing Keyes, Borat asks about why an aquaintance in the shower wanted to shove a rubber fist into Borat's behind. Keyes very matter of factly responds that the acquaintance most likely wanted to practice homosexual sodomy with Borat, leading Borat to adopt his own sickened expression. Objectivists who laugh at militant feminism will likely giggle when the VFA terminates their interview with Borat after he says that Kazakhstan's state scientists equated the size of a woman's brain with that of a pearl.
Perhaps the most memorable unstaged scene took place at a Pentecostal revival meeting. At least two political notables spoke at this event and openly declared the United States as a Christian nation. Borat actually participates in a personal salvation experience so that he can get a free bus trip to his final destination in California. Objectivists will appreciate this disturbing scene of open mysticism among otherwise rational people showing the irrational undercurrent of the Religious Right.
Staged scenes include a nude wrestling match between Borat and his producer in their hotel room, the purchase of an ice cream truck to make their transnational commute and several other scenes. These gave structure to the movie's plot. While no part of the movie explicitly distinguishes staged and unstaged scenes, a logical thinker would have great difficulty explaining these particular plot devices as totally impromptu.
Thus comes one of the main problems of this film. The average viewer will have trouble distinguishing fiction from nonfiction. The entire movie aims to create laughs through its exposure of the ugly hypocritical underbelly of America. The element of surprise on na´ve interviewees constitutes one of its distinguishing features. But when the viewer knows that the entire film mixes fiction with nonfiction, how does he intend to identify and distinguish the two?
Could Borat, in fact, have pulled the ultimate joke on the viewing public by duping them into accepting any of the interviews as real? Recent news stories have told of several of the alleged victims of the film filing defamation lawsuits. Can we believe these stories, or do they simply amount to publicity stunts to draw more attention to the movie? Critical thinkers need to ask themselves these sorts of questions.
Various Internet sources have stated that only the people portraying Borat, his producer, a Southern call girl and Pamela Anderson actually had full knowledge of the film gags. Whether we can believe these sources remains questionable. But even if these statements do in fact withstand scrutiny, other ethical questions arise.
For instance, in a specialty store retailing Confederate history items, Borat slips and falls several times and destroys over $400 worth of merchandise. He claims that he only has about half that much money on him to reimburse the owners. The owners finally tell Borat just to leave before he does more damage. If this actually happened, can viewers properly sanction Borat's purposeful destruction of private property for laughs? I hardly see how.
Many other scenes filled this movie and show all signs of impromptu execution. These range from a driving lesson to a car dealer test drive to a tour through an animal wildlife refuge. Again, how much of this the viewer can treat as genuine "reality cinema" remains questionable and thus undercuts the legitimacy of the film as an exposure of the seedier aspects of Americana.
As a piece of art, this movie fails on all three Objectivist standards:
I cannot honestly recommend watching this movie in the theater. If I ever felt tempted to suggest obtaining a bootleg copy of a film, I would do it here. That Cohen as Borat opted to tell bald faced lies to gain values he might not otherwise gain would suggest a massive retribution in kind. However, the film itself did not even deliver enough value to me to make me think of going to the trouble of such a bootleg. In any case, do not take my confession of temptation as a suggestion that you ought to bootleg this movie. In the end, respecting copyrights of even a vicious movie calls the trump card in ethics.
If you have an insatiable curiosity, wait until the film comes to DVD and you can get a good deal through your local rental store. Had I to live that day again, I would have watched The Santa Clause 3 instead. My dear wife had the good sense to watch that film while I wasted 84 minutes with Borat! At least I saved a little cash with the cheaper matinee ticket.