I sat down to write a simple review of The Dictator and found myself hesitating and thinking twice, thrice before writing anything at all. It’s difficult to comment on the film without being drawn into the highly complex territory of ‘Anti-semitism’.
I sat through the 90 mins of toilet humour (including rape jokes) trying to work out the film’s agenda. Conclusion? The film is a mashup, memetically all over the place by accident, on purpose, or accidentally on purpose. Probably the third option.
The sense of non-plussed bemusement rather than challenging confusion or outrage I experienced I put down to the film’s use of triplespeak: pretend to pretend that the ‘pretend’ agenda blasted all over it is just a joke.
Which, once you cancel out the pretending-not-tos, winds down to a fairly simple proposition: that the Middle East’s Only Democracy is streets ahead in terms of the politics of memes. Which, of course it is. I may be oversimplifying. I may have missed an ironic turn in the equations here.
The scene near the beginning – you will recognise it from the trailer at least – where The Dictator runs the 100m in his own Olympics, which he must win at pain of death to other competitors, is quite funny. As is the comic refrain of Aladeen making throat-cutting gestures to order so and so’s execution – for such ludicrous disagreements as getting in his way on the stairs. And other slapstickiness that other commentators have commented echoes Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy.
But Baron Cohen lives in a different era. The Dictator’s name is Aladeen, i.e. Allah deen, ‘faith in God’. Muslims will have to suck that one up or be seen as humourless anti-semites. Haha! Arabs will have to take leaves from Kazakhstan’s book on how to see the funny side of being portrayed as rapists and goat-fuckers. Women will have to schlerp it on being portrayed as bed fodder. Sexy Beast fans will observe Sir Ben’s Kingsley’s now irrefutable status as Prize Arsehole.
And anyone attuned to more intelligent (and more funny) humour a la Chris Morris, Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais etc etc will I think wonder who finds cock and jizz/ hotdog and mustard jokes funny. There is a weird, low-brow broadside to the film. As if it’s begging for someone to, Irvine Welsh style, haul up the sash window and shout out ‘THAT’S FUCKING SHITE!’
But it’s more complicated than that.
What are we to make of the “911 Scene” (pictured), where Aladeen (Baron Cohen) and Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), take a tourist helicopter ride, and pretend (i.e. pretend to pretend to pretend) to discuss a 911-style hijack in mock-Arabic that neither actor can quite keep from sliding into mock-Hebrew. The two languages are semitic after all. All those ‘kh’ sounds.
We could complain that Baron Cohen and Mantzoukas are openly mocking Arabs. Sure, there is much to be mocked about Arabs; there is much to be mocked about anyone and everyone. We could say the whole film mocks Arabs. Borat body-swerved being anti-Kazakh by ‘in fact mocking American midwestern anti-semitism.’ Does the same body-swerve work here? Is the mockery of Arabs in fact only pretend – the real mockery being of American paranoia about 9/11, as represented by the two American tourists in the helicopter? I can’t work it out.
I was also bemused the film’s climax, where Aladeen decries the film’s treaty to democratise the fictional dictatorship Wadiya as a smokescreen for corporate grab of its oil and other natural resources. There then follows a remarkable excursion into ‘leftist’ politics, viz:
- Imagining America as a dictatorship (Dick Cheney has been mentioned earlier among Khadaffi and Kim Jong Il as one of the world’s great dictators), and then
- Keeping 99% of wealth to the richest 1%
- Taxing the poor
- Filling prisons with “one particular racial group” [camera closes on an African man]
- Using the media to scare people into support for policies against their interests…
And at that point The Girl enters, allowing the device of Aladeen looking at her and declaring his love for Democracy, with all its imperfections.
Leftist credentials established via apparent criticism of the Invasion of Iraq, we rewind to the early scenes of the film, where we see Aladeen making his first public speech, announcing that Wadiya have enriched ‘weapons grade uranium’, and sniggering that it ‘is for peaceful purposes’. This scene can only be seen as a step firmly in favour of the current hardline stance towards Iran – most vociferously put by Israel, which, it says is entirely justified given Iran’s hardline towards it. The complexities are nutshelled by Aladeen’s line at the end of this speech: “…will be used only for purposes of medical research…and will certainly never be used to attack Is…Is…Oh boy.”
Here Baron Cohen pretends to body-swerve the furore that follows mention of Is****. Why did he have Aladeen ‘almost’ say it? (Why daren’t I mention it now?) Struggling a little with Peter Bradshaw’s uncritical review of the film, I arrived at one of the comments at the bottom of the page…
…actually I was only pretending to have done that.
In actual fact I arrived via google on ‘Peter Bradshaw’ at the CIFWatch web page. CIFWatch, for those who don’t know (I didn’t until now) is a website dedicated to monitoring the Guardian’s Comment Is Free pages. Its mission is stated on its masthead:
The particular page I arrived at singles out one particular response to Peter Bradshaw’s review:
Which CIFWatch dissect as follows:
Unpacking this comment (which has thus far garnered 39 ‘Recommends’):
- Conflating of Jews with Israelis: Cohen, a British Jew, is immediately tied to Israel. (Also, see this CW post about a similarly bigoted attack on Cohen by the Guardian’s Michael White.)
- Classic projection: The suggestion that Israel is an extreme anti-Arab, anti-Islamic country is a perfect moral inversion in light of the Arab world’s malign obsession with Jews and Israel, and endemic culture of antisemitism. It takes a lot of ideological conditioning to see the last 64 years as the Israeli/Jewish war against the Arab/Islamic world.
- Thinly veiled Nazi analogy: The reader sees a Jew mocking Arab dictators as somehow analogous to Germans mocking Jews in the years leading up to the Holocaust.
This off-topic, gratuitously anti-Zionist (and ad hominem) attack on Cohen has not been deleted by CiF moderators.
If you visit the Peter Bradshaw review and click through the comments to page 4 you now find:
So the comment has been removed. Why?
Perhaps the Nazi analogy was the straw that broke the camels back (Haha – joke, guys!) The ‘Classic Projection’ accusation – the absurd and abhorrent suggestion that Israel is anti-Arab (where in Gaza did ATTW get that idea?) is a piece of simple Doublethink not worthy of our attention here. Nor is the tacit admission of CIFWatch’s gratuitously Zionist stance in their final comment on the comment.
The first point is the interesting one: Conflating of Jews with Is****is. Baron Cohen is British and Jewish, and therefore tracing a route to Is…Is…Oh boy! Is an illegal move. We shan’t delve into Google search results to discover the countless rebuttals of criticism of Israeli policies – esp with regards the Palestinians – as “anti-semitic” – including by CIFWatchers.
No, we shall simply return to that masthead:
“…and the assault on Is****’s legitimacy…” I think makes the site’s connection from Jews to Is**** quite clear.
The quote from CP Scott simply baffles me. Is it another ironic twist? Who was CP Scott anyway? Wikipedia:
Charles Prestwich Scott (26 October 1846 – 1 January 1932) was a British journalist, publisher and politician. Born in Bath, Somerset, he was the editor of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) from 1872 until 1929 and its owner from 1907 until his death. He was also a Liberal Member of Parliament and pursued a progressive liberal agenda in the pages of the newspaper.
Hmmm… So a quote from a former editor of the Guardian, viz “the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard” appears in the masthead of a website dedicated to monitoring the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages. Whether CIFWatch had anything to do with the comment shown above being removed or not is of course speculation.
I hesitate to come to a conclusion.
The Is****i-P****tinian “issue” is well documented elsewhere.
Rather than appearing (or pretending) to outline any “agenda” on behalf of Is…Is… (any such thing is therefore Classic Projection on the reader’s part) I hope to have induced in the reader a certain confusion. A stumbling from proposition to proposition, from pro this to anti that and back again. This is the feeling that accompanied my viewing of The Dictator. I am tempted to say that the film is smokescreen, blurring vision of the complex terrain of the Middle East. But that would only be Classic Projection on my part. I am finally tempted to say that, whatever agenda the film simulates, dissimulates or simply doesn’t have (Ha!), attempting to progress a politics of memes by attrition, by spinning doubly and trebly around them, is surely a hiding to nothing. But that would only be thinly veiled analogy.
The author disclaims knowledge, inference, deduction or any other form of cognitive production of any connection between the members of the movie industry mentioned above and the Middle East’s Only Democracy.
More on Triplespeak in my article on Rachel Corrie.