Saturday, November 11, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

A lot of the talk about the fictional Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, one of British social satirist Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedic alter egos, centers around who Baron Cohen is lampooning when he puts on Borat’s cheap suit, stiff smile, and bushy mustache and lumbers forth to meet an unsuspecting world. Is Baron Cohen making fun of Kazakh backwardness, as an offended Kazakh government initially assumed, or of American hypocrisy, as the Kazakhs recently claimed to have realized?

Baron Cohen started filming Borat and his comedic cousins -- Ali G, a faux Jamaican-spouting wannabe gangster and TV talk show host, and Bruno, a simpering fashion reporter -- for British TV. His recent shift to the U.S. seems to be more about expanding his market than aiming at a new satiric target, since the essence of his act remains unchanged. In his wonderfully funny and unpreachily insightful new movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, as in his British and HBO TV shows, he puts one of his blissfully unself-aware characters in front of a camera and let us watch while other people react to his ignorance, bigotry, and socially inappropriate behavior.

All three of Baron Cohen’s creations are reporters, which gives them an excuse to grill – and, not incidentally, film – unsuspecting subjects. Ali G, who was the comedian’s most famous character until Borat blitzed the box office last weekend, scored the most impressive gets of the three, interviewing pundits, pols, and other public figures like former UN leader Boutros Boustros-Ghali and CBS curmudgeon Andy Rooney. A surburban white kid trying to “act black,” Ali G is a laughable figure, with his carefully cultivated patois, his bling, and his baggy yellow track suit. But the main humor in his skits comes from watching the powerful people he interviews patiently field his clueless questions. When Ali asked Pat Buchanan if he thought Saddam Hussein had ever made “weapons of mass destruction or whatever, or, as they is called, BLTs,” Buchanan replied: “Yes. At one time, he was using BLTs on the Kurds in the north.”

But the humor is just the sugar-coating on Ali G’s act, which helps us down some bitter truths. Ali G’s ignorance, paired with his interviewees’ almost saintly patience, provides a running commentary on how gangsta culture cripples its adherents and how mainstream culture plays along, consigning these mostly nonwhite, mostly poor kids to the ghetto of subterranean expectations. It’s here – in his ability to flush out the racism, sexism, classism, and other dirty secrets hiding behind PC politeness and social norms – that Baron Cohen’s real intentions shine through, I suspect. His characters create awkward situations and then just keep pushing until they break through the social veneers of the people they interact with. In the process, the things that are said and done –- both by Baron Cohen and by the people he talks to -- are often painfully funny, even shocking, as only a repressed truth can be.

A bigoted, socially tone-deaf, yet lovable innocent, Borat is a stranger in a strange land, perpetually trying to learn how we Americans do things while boasting about his beloved homeland. Unlike Ali G, he almost always interacts with regular people, who tend to be less polished and guarded than the cultural elites Ali G interviews. In Borat, a cross-country road trip provides just enough narrative arc to keep the movie from feeling like a series of skits while giving Borat an excuse to drop in on a motley assortment of people and groups from New York to California. In the process, he often gets into emotionally charged situations.

Addressing the fans at a Virginia rodeo, in a cowboy hat and American flag shirt, Borat gets a roar of approval when he says his country supports “your war of terror.” The cheers get a little quieter after he adds: “May George W. Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman and child in Iraq,” but the crowd is still with him -- until he begins singing the national anthem, substituting lyrics about the greatness of Kazakhstan. Bloodthirsty boos drown him out as he’s hustled out of the ring toward his car where, according to the production notes, “a group of irate rodeo hands on horseback surrounded the filmmakers’ van, demanding that they be lynched.”

A tiny, eight-person crew, including Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, the co-creator of Seinfeld and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm, traveled around this country and in Romania, where a gypsy village doubled as Borat’s hometown, to film Borat. Staying small and light on their feet allowed them to maintain a sense of intimacy while filming real people in relatively small spaces, like the RV that picks up Borat when he loses the ice cream truck he’s been traveling in and starts hitchhiking.

The drunken South Carolina fraternity boys in that van, who rant about “hos” and “minorities,” come out of their encounter with Borat with their metaphoric pants around their ankles. They’re hardly alone. Others include the sales-focused car salesman who blithely answers Borat’s question about how fast he’d have to drive to kill gypsies, the rodeo organizer who advises Borat to shave the mustache that makes him look like “a dad-gum Muslim” so he can look like “an Eye-talian or something,” and the humorless local TV newscaster who interviews Borat under the illusion that he’s a Kazakh journalist passing through town.

There’s also a lot of black humor based on Borat’s homophobia and anti-Semitism, which – like his misogynism – is echoed by a disturbing number of the people he encounters. But not every joke in Borat labors in the service of some larger truth.

There are purely absurd bits, including a lot of jokes about bodily functions and an over-the-top naked wrestling match between Borat and his obese producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), which starts in their hotel room and winds up in a mortgage brokers’ conference, after an uncomfortable interlude in a crowded elevator. The filmmakers have fun with their format, creating wonderfully shoddy credit sequences that mirror the no-tech look of Soviet-era TV and taking those tired soundtrack staples, “Everybody’s Talking at Me” and “Born to be Wild,” out for one more giddy spin. And Davitian earns a shout-out for his oddly endearing turn as Borat’s unkempt, near-hysterical producer (the language he’s babbling, in case you were wondering, is Armenian.)

Maybe the Kazakh government is right after all. With their footage of nationalistic rodeo fans, disenfranchised African-Americans, and a Supreme Court justice telling a group of blissed-out Pentecostals at a camp meeting that they’re part of “a Christian nation,” Baron Cohen and his collaborators may have intended Borat to be a statement about America. But what sticks with me most are all the times when this movie made me laugh out loud, suspended somewhere between amused at amazed, at the things a gifted social satirist can get regular people to say and do on camera.

Written for TimeOFF

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