Sunday, November 05, 2006

Borat: Because everyone else has commented - why not me?

Imagine you’re riding in a hotel elevator and two men get on with you. One is short, obese and hairy. The other is tall, skinny and … hairy. Also, he’s holding a giant rubber fist. Oh, and they’re both naked.

Would you call the cops? Or would you just stare at the ceiling and hope you were going to wake up soon? Fortunately for Borat Sagdiyev, the man in his elevator chooses the latter course, and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan continues apace.

Simultaneously filthy, offensive, and choke-on-your-own-tongue funny, this mock doc starring Kazakh reporter Borat, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego, is a satire on a Swiftian level that leaves all other “fake news” in the dust.

Borat – smelly, racist and perpetually horny – leaves Kazakhstan to visit “U S and A” to learn what makes America great and bring some of that magic back to his homeland. Things get off to an excellent start, with him washing his tighty whities in Central Park and letting a chicken loose on the subway.

One night he sees a Baywatch rerun and falls in love with Pamela Anderson. He sets off for California, determined to marry her in the “traditional Kazakh way” – i.e., kidnapping her in a burlap sack. Along the way, his trip becomes ever more sad and surreal, with him wrecking an antique store, drinking with a bunch of frat boys and winding up in a Pentecostal revival meeting. And this is no tent set up in a parking lot somewhere; this is a big deal, attended by members of Congress and a federal court judge. The sight of Baron Cohen, who is Jewish, speaking in tongues as a hoarse-voiced preacher lays hands upon him is both hilarious and disturbing. One also wonders how many times he was arrested during the shoot.

Baron Cohen’s humour is brilliantly layered. On one level, Borat is just another in a long line of “funny foreigners” for us Westerners to laugh at. Making him from Kazakhstan was a brilliant move, because few Westerners know anything about Kazakhstan; they don’t need to feel ashamed for laughing at stereotypes, because they don’t know any. The Kazakhstan government has started a PR campaign to combat Borat; naturally, this only eggs Baron Cohen on.

But on another level, Baron Cohen appeals to the same audience that watches Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: young, smart adults who appreciate irony and Baron Cohen’s commitment to his characters (he rarely appears in public as himself). It’s easy to forget that The Daily Show used to be able to do stuff like this, albeit on a far smaller scale. And on this level it’s not just the fun of seeing powerful people hoodwinked: by presenting himself as a bigot, a misogynist and an anti-Semite, Baron Cohen gets his victims to reveal ugly things about themselves. In one scene, Borat goes into a gun store in the South and asks what the best gun would be to defend himself from a Jew. Without batting an eye, the owner plunks a Glock on the counter. In another scene, a rodeo organizer advises Borat to shave off his moustache so he’ll look less foreign. Here the laughs become extremely uncomfortable. You can legislate tolerance all you want, Baron Cohen seems to be saying, but you can’t regulate people’s minds.

Yet I walked away from the movie feeling otherwise. Yes, there were a few instances of frightening bigotry, and many, many instances of appalling ignorance. But Borat himself is generally welcomed with open arms, and even if what his victims “teach” him makes your skin crawl, you can’t get away from the fact that most of them are eager to help. This may be due only to their belief in the innate superiority of American culture: here’s an opportunity to help this poor, backward person become more like us! Part of it may be due to Southern hospitality: despite the supposed open-mindedness of the “blue states” the Southerners are far friendlier than, say, the Manhattanites.

But the fact remains that the Americans have far more cultural sensitivity than most other nations on the planet, and I like to think that this fact becomes another layer to the joke. You expect Borat to make the Americans look like idiots, and he does. But the joke is also on us: for the most part, the Yanks come out looking okay.


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