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Borat: The man & the movie

The man

By Sheryl Glubok | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted December 1, 2006

By now you’ve heard about the basics of the sensation known as Borat, so if you’re looking for a review, read elsewhere (see below). What interests me is why Borat, a fake Kazakhstani journalist created by the Cambridge educated, Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, has so captivated our country.

I saw the film after it had already become the number one film at the box office, raking in $23 million on just 890 screens. For comparison, the number two film that week was Tim Allen’s Santa Clause III, which made less and appeared on more than 3,000 screens.

I was already familiar with Cohen from Da Ali G Show on HBO where Borat had made his U.S. debut in 2003. Undeniably, Cohen has a knack for creating politically incorrect personalities (who somehow manage to have their own television shows?), and for interviewing folks who believe they are talking to a legitimate (of sorts) journalist. Either that or people are so anxious to get on television they’ll talk to anybody about anything, which is a distinct possibility.

While the show had many cringe-inducing moments, as well as funny ones, what made it bearable was the fact that each segment was short, an interview of five to 10 minutes, and, unlike the film, there were no forced attempts at a narrative throughline. Also, one had three different characters to watch. In addition to Borat, there was Ali G, a dumb as a doornail, middle-class British youth who adopts all things hip-hop, and Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion reporter. As Ali G, it was wonderful to watch how Cohen would slowly and piteously fluster the pompous, the strident, and all those who take themselves too seriously, such as Brent Scowcroft, Sam Donaldson, and Ralph Nader.

Borat, however, should come with a warning: Watching this film may be bad for your psyche, or at least your image of humankind as a species worth saving. He may be evolutionists’ best weapon — what intelligent design? I don’t mean Borat the character either; he’s playing at being dumb brilliantly. I’m referring to the people he interviews who believe foreigners could actually be this racist, sexist, misogynist, and dim. Or maybe we’re are just too polite and tolerant (of foreign visitors anyway, god help you if you’re in this country illegally).

Who said comedy was supposed to be funny? The groundbreaking comedians admired most are those who smashed through social barriers, poking a fat thumb in our cultural taboos, and then had the audacity to rub our faces in it. You laughed because if you didn’t you would cry.

Although he’s most often compared to Andy Kaufman, I think of him more along the lines of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, comedians who roughly yanked the wool off of our eyes about racial realities and priggishness. For these comedians, a good night meant you were banned; for Cohen it means running for his life. I’ve heard that the police were called 50 times during the production of the movie.

It could be said that every age gets the comedian it deserves. So before we condemn him for cruelty or shout unfair play, we should first take a hard look at what he reveals about us, and this is why I think we are obsessed with him.

Yes, sometimes a drunk, white, Southern, frat boy might mourn the demise of slavery (sic a time when he didn’t have to compete with everyone else to be top dog); a midwestern rodeo-goer might actually believe it would be best to blow up the entire Middle East rather than understand Islamic culture; and a posh city hotel might throw out a heavily-accented foreigner who has adopted black street lingo (and fashion sense) for not fitting in with its customer profile.

Even the anti-Semitic behavior Borat exhibits is based on centuries-old beliefs that Jews shift shapes, care only about money, and might try to poison you with a pastrami sandwich.

While we should be offended by Borat, the character, I would argue we should not be offended by Cohen, the comedian with the guts to put his life on the line to expose what we’d like to believe doesn’t exist — racism, sexism, all the ism’s. He is merely the performance artist as scientist, and we are his lab rats.

The movie

By Rob Williams | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Irrepressible satirist and television comedian Sacha Baron Cohen makes the jump to the silver screen in his film debut, and what a debut it is.

The premise of Borat finds Cohen playing an overly affable, ignorantly fun-loving, and completely uninhibited Kazakhstani tourist — Borat Sagdiyev — sent to the United States, “the greatest country in the world,” to learn cultural lessons for his home nation of Kazakhstan. He and his assistant decide to make a documentary film about their travel experiences, allowing U.S. theatergoers to reap the wisdom gleaned (such as it is) from his experiences.

Within minutes of the film’s opening, Borat travels from his small and impoverished Kazakhstani town to the Big Apple. When he is not busy offending and amusing real-life citizens with his infantile humor — including the anti-Semitic, racist, phallic, and potty varieties — Borat falls in lust with Baywatch babe C.J. Parker (Pamela Anderson), visually resplendent in her “red water panties.” After receiving word that his cranky Kazakhstani wife has died after threatening his penis with harm if he cheats on her, Borat celebrates by deciding to undertake a cross-country journey to California to seek out the bodacious Parker. Along the way, our Old World protagonist participates in a Gay Pride parade (breaking his anus, he says, in the process), interviews presidential candidate and “chocolate face” Alan Keyes, and visits a Western rodeo inhabited by conservative Republicans of the rural/rodeo variety, along with having other assorted sundry experiences.

The (occasional) brilliance of this film is found in the way in which Cohen, undercover in satirical disguise as Borat, manages to bring to the surface various faux pas and foibles as he travels across the country. We, the audience, laugh and squirm uncomfortably, and wonder just how far Cohen can push his unsuspecting participants to reveal their own flaws and shortcomings. At the same time, Cohen’s Borat adopts prejudices of his own, channeling his mock anti-Semitism and pro-U.S. sentiment into grist for his narrative mill. When he attends a southern rodeo, for example, and shouts out his hope that “George Bush will drink the blood of every Iraqi man, woman, and child,” his audience looks a bit confused, and then boos him down when he sings the Kazakhstan national anthem to the tune of the U.S. version. In another moment, Borat and his obese producer mix it up in a hotel room brawl — completely naked — that spills over into the rest of the establishment. The scene, needless to say, is not easy to watch.

There are strange moments of real poignancy, too, that surface at the oddest times throughout the film. See Borat, on a night out at the “Brandin’ Iron” with an overweight prostitute, awkwardly consummate their time together at the front door of her little home with a sweet sort of early morning conversation. And Borat’s conversation with three drunken white college students in an RV, while disturbing, also reveals something about how lost we may be as a society.

From a narrative point of view, Cohen’s Borat raises other dilemmas, too. Is posing as someone one simply to make fun (and make a profit) off of others all that hip? What to do about the Romanian villagers Cohen uses in his film to portray the villagers who actually do live lives of near abject poverty and are now offended that Cohen pokes crude fun of their authentic lives in his attempts to stereotype and satirize? Sure, they got paid $6 a day, but have you no decency, Cohen?

Cohen’s defenders may argue that, in his own inimitable way, the satirist holds a mirror up to U.S. (and global) culture and finds it wonderfully and disturbingly messy, even as he rudely mocks the very people he is attempting, perhaps, to understand.

Perhaps.

Ultimately, I suppose, it is up to Borat’s audience to decide for themselves.

Historian, musician, and media educator Rob Williams lives in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Read, listen and watch at www.robwilliamsmedia.com.