By Leo Goldsmith
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Dir. Larry Charles, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox
Provocation, in case you hadn’t noticed, is the comedic instrument of the moment. One needn’t look much further than Chappelle’s Show, The Family Guy, and Scary Movie 4 for a crash-course in contemporary comedy, in which racial slurs, incest, drug use, violence, and all manner of bodily functions are not only the reified fair-game of humor, but the norm. Last summer, it was Wedding Crashers’ guilt-free, homophobic panty-raid; this summer, it was Jackass Number Two’s feast of horse shit and semen. This is the cheerful by-product of post-irony: now that every taboo has been normalized and embraced, we can all have a good chuckle. Well, maybe not all of us. As popular as this reopened comic treasure chest is with that monolithic target market of young white males, it seems that jokes about negroes and coprophagy still raise some hackles across the political spectrum, from Laura Bush to Tipper Gore, Michael Medved to Armond White.
Enter Borat Sagdiyev, Central Asian TV journalist, sent with his rotund, hirsute producer, Azamat Bagatov, to our shores by his country’s Ministry of Information in order to document the cultural distance between the mighty U.S. and A. and his backward nation of Kazakhstan. At times, this distance is shockingly vast; at others, uncomfortably close. As suggested by Borat’s creator, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, our hero’s home country is a sort of Neolithic, bizzaro-world version of the actual Kazakhstan, a nation whose primary export is potassium, where a successful career in prostitution is the highest status one can hope for one’s sister, observed holidays include the annual “Running of the Jew,” and wine is made from fermented horse’s urine. Like all of his imagined fellow countrymen, Borat is a misogynist, anti-Semite, gypsy-baiter, pervert, jingoist, and—in case there’s anything I’ve left out—all-around vulgarian. In short, everything a 15-year old boy could hope for and more.
Actually, quite a lot more. Sure, Baron Cohen’s comedy has a warm fondness for the lowest common denominator, and as Talladega Nights and his teaming with Jay Roach and Todd Phillips indicate, he’s now an officially naturalized citizen of Hollywood’s blockbuster comedy establishment. But Borat’s provocation cuts a few inches deeper than Ricky Bobby’s toothless gumming of the red states, hitting the American South squarely and mercilessly below the Bible Belt. As brazenly unsubtle as Baron Cohen’s film can be, entrapping unsuspecting yokels, politicians, and ordinary folk alike in a series of increasingly profane circumstances and moral quandaries, Borat’s “cultural learnings of America” are educational indeed. Re-translated through Baron Cohen’s sociological looking glass, the film’s subtitle suggests that the oily, sex-crazed TV journalist’s travelogue might actually make benefit hypocritical, xenophobic, patronizing nation of the United States.
Perhaps it takes a foreigner’s eyes (or lens) to see one’s own country in a newly illuminating light, but Borat’s touristic sensibility and his oddly winning and innocent frame of reference make “War of Terror”-era America seem an alien landscape. Borat leaves his ramshackle home village of Kuczek (actually a Romanian gypsy village) in a horse-drawn Yugo and soon lands in the middle of Times Square, attended by Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”, a coy Midnight Cowboy reference suggestive of the type of cultural and especially sexual moré-shattering to come. Soon he is gallivanting across the country in a decrepit ice-cream truck (he couldn’t afford the pussy-magnet Hummer), and encouraging a spectrum of reactions, from threats of violence from New Yorkers to the pity and indulgence of the aging Southern belles on Secession Drive to the complete empathy of, yes, white frat boys.
This raises the question of who the primary target of Baron Cohen’s satirical pike actually is. At first glance, it would seem to be anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path: feminists, driving instructors, rodeo cowboys, Pamela Anderson fans, and any innocent bystander along the way. But Baron Cohen’s ridicule is perhaps less egalitarian. Of course, there’s quite a bit of laughter at the expense of Borat’s supposed home country, though not nearly so much as to warrant the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s American PR tour last month. (Presumably, there’s a sharp satire to be made of Kazakhstan’s real-life political corruption and human rights violations, but this is not it.) But Baron Cohen’s favorite quarry is the American Conservative, polite and helpful in his intention, puritanical in his ethos, and supercilious in his desire to help those with less intelligence, civilization, and moral rectitude than himself. Borat’s comedy of cruelty inspires a good deal of squirming throughout, but Baron Cohen nearly always makes one believe that his victims deserve their treatment, if only for their extreme self-seriousness and their gullible willingness to believe that such primitive, socially retarded people as Borat actually exist overseas.
If all of this seems abusive and cynical, the work of a sociopathic smarty-pants (or, worse yet, a foreign hipster), it’s worth noting that even this reaction of horror is an intentional part of Baron Cohen’s goading. Many of Borat’s victims are shockingly compliant with his crudity, but others’ reactions are not terribly far from what our own might be, and uncomfortable self-comparisons are what Borat is all about. Indeed, many of the best scenes in the film involve the least repellent of Americans—like a group of black youths on Martin Luther King Blvd., USA, who try to give Borat some fashion advice, or the hapless hotel guest who stares politely ahead to avert the gaze of the two naked men sharing an elevator with him. To confound our reactions further, the film’s sense of reality is as topsy-turvy as its moral tenor: some sequences are clearly staged and scripted, others obviously improvisatory, but most of the film exists in an equivocal reality-TV limbo, in which the boundaries of truth and fiction are hopelessly indistinct. And it is this device that holds one’s attention throughout: even more than in his HBO series Da Ali G Show, one is left with a constant confusion at just how Baron Cohen achieves his ends, evading lawsuits and incarceration in the process. The film’s credits coyly conceal all but the most obvious sources of the film’s alternative reality, maintaining the same bogus Cyrillic typeface (with badly superimposed English translations) right up until the last frame, a rating from the Kazakhstani equivalent of the MPAA restricting the film’s viewership to people over the age of three.
In this way, Baron Cohen, a scrupulous method actor and almost monomaniacal performer, never drops character to laugh along with the proceedings or to point a derisive finger at his subjects. Borat’s creator is disconcertingly serious about being Borat, even in interviews and appearances promoting the film, and so his personal intent or political point remains nebulous throughout. Insofar as the butt of the Borat joke remains free-floating and adaptable, striking indiscriminately, it represents a good deal more than a juvenile challenge to the stomachs and delicate sensibilities of the prudish. That Jackass’ Bam Margera will take a dildo in the ass for his art may seem a brave gesture of endurance to some, but Borat’s is a profanity more profound. Offering up a straw man of barbarity, ignorance, and foreignness for well-meaning Americans to chastise and proselytize to, Borat is a force of political provocation less on the level of the cuddly Archie Bunker and more on that of Pasolini’s libertines in Salò and Waters’s “filthiest people alive” in Pink Flamingos. He’s an embodiment of a provocation that, by intent, is unassimilable, a nasty, indigestible nugget that sticks in one’s throat, demarcating what are—or what ought to be—the moral limits of our world.