[2 November 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Borrowing from Andy Kaufman, John Waters, and Steve-O, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan delights in irreverence and abuse. From the “Running of the Jew” and the chiding of the feminists, this faux documentary spews all manner of offenses. None, however, is especially surprising. Less subversive than blearily observant, it tracks the cross-country antics of Kazakh TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen), along the way making a familiar point, that laughing at ignorance constitutes its own kind of bliss.
Boisterous and self-congratulatory, Borat had an impact even before its opening, when the government of the actual Kazakhstan pre-responded with a series of beauteous pro-tourism ads. (Such concern with the nation’s “image” essentially made Cohen and company’s point: who exactly was going to be dissuaded from visiting by exposure to Borat?) The movie’s version of Borat’s home (shot in Romania) is slightly less appealing than the Kazakh promo reels: in order to establish his credentials as a citizen of a backwards land, he leads you on a rudimentary “where I’m from” tour, pointing left and right to indicate the local highlights, including the grizzled mechanic who doubles as abortionist and a glimpse at “ladies while they make toilet.” Men buy their wives (Borat boasts that when he purchased his, at age 12, “her vageen worked well,” though just three years later, it “hung like the sleeve of wizard”) and everyone is happily anti-Semitic.
Sent forth to discover the secrets of success in “the glorious country U-S-and-A,” Borat and his lumpy, camera-shy producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) land in Manhattan with all kinds of good will. Prepping his star for his first interviews, Azamat blow-dries his balls, then checks his “back pussy” (declaring it “not bad, moist”). A montage of close encounters shows the lanky-limbed Borat galumphing through traffic, jerking off in front of a window display (that is, performing exactly as the display invites him to do), and “making toilet” on the green in front of Trump Tower. All the while, passersby do their best not to look while looking, revealing yet another aspect of U.S. pop culture: allowed and not allowed at the same time, it’s a hypocritical jamboree.
Borat’s efforts to make new “friends” lead to comedic outrage by unsuspecting civilians: when he spills the contents of his suitcase—a live chicken—into a crowded subway car, he clambers about, warning, “Watch out! He bite!” Another effort out on the sidewalk leads to near violence, when a man exclaims, “You kiss me and I’ll pop you in the fucking balls!” Unbothered by such self-expression (as it mirrors his own), Borat glories as well in his hotel room, thrilled by what seems to him abject luxury. After washing his face in the sparkling clean toilet bowl (and so soliciting predictable audience groans), he leans back in a plush chair and announces, “I’m king in the castle! I’m king in the castle!” It’s a charming moment, demonstrating perfectly his perpetual dislocation and sense of belonging. This combination is what makes Borat so seductive, that he believes himself unconditionally even as you watch Cohen conjuring him. He’s reality TV Writ Gargantuan, sucking all nearby observers into his vortex of simultaneous critique and celebration.
Appropriately, Borat finds the apex of his love for America on a TV rerun: spotting Pamela Anderson in her Baywatch days, he’s smitten (the point underlined by “Every Breath You Take” imposed on the soundtrack), Borat decides he must leave New York for Los Angeles to “have a sexy time” with this goddess, whom he describes as having “teeth as white as pearls and the asshole of a seven-year-old.” The road trip is initiated by Borat’s fear of flying (he worries that the Jews will “repeat their attack of 9/11”), and its tone set when they are unable to afford the shiny SUV Borat wants equipped with the “pussy magnet” he’s heard so much about. They settle for a rickety ice cream truck.
They document each step of the trip, including a couple of meetings with DC officials, namely, Bob Barr (whom Borat gifts with cheese made from milk from his wife’s “teat”) and Alan Keyes (a “genuine chocolate face,” Borat marvels, just before he describes his previous evening with Gay Pride revelers, soliciting Keyes’ opinion as to what it means: “Are you telling me that the man who tried to put a rubber fist into my anus was a homosexual?”). At a West Virginia rodeo, Borat converses with an aging cowboy who suggests not only that he shave his mustache so he doesn’t look like a “terrorist,” but also that he avoid his new friends, the gay cowboys (“Stay away from them that kiss”). The rodeo audience approves of Borat—decked out in red, white, and blue fringe and a cowboy hat—when he lauds “America’s war of terror” and hopes for its victory (“May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq”). But the crowd finally becomes uncomfortable when he hijacks the U.S. national anthem in order to praise Kazakhstan, “the greatest nation in the world.” Waste and devastation, fine. Use of the term “best,” not so good.
At times, it’s not so easy to tell when Borat’s targets are performing for the camera, and where that begins and ends: how self-conscious are these folks, so eager to be on camera, so willing to put up with his mayhem? Riding in a Winnebago with crew of South Carolina frat boys, Borat is delighted to hear that they believe slavery should be restored and women should be considered property. At a Pentecostal church, he’s perfectly pleased to go spastic just like them—falling to his knees, speaking in tongues—if it means Jesus will “like” him too.
These and other encounters suggest that Borat and Borat take aim at easy targets. Most viewers of the film won’t see themselves in his interlocutors and interview subjects, whether the expert on etiquette who suggests he not show photos of his son’s penis at dinner, or Confederate memorabilia shop owner who watches him fall all over the merchandise, like a “bull in a china shop.” These are very regular jokes, with ugly American punch lines, exacerbated by Borat’s faux foreignness. (Even less funny is the extended naked-boy wrestling sequence between Azamat and Borat, literally “staged” for a mortgage brokers’ banquet: yes, excessive body displays elicit embarrassment from earnest people in suits, and so what?)
Other encounters suggest those involved are at least somewhat aware of his strangeness, though they don’t recognize their own. While attending a genteel dinner party (where one guest notes that the “cultural differences are just vast”), he disrupts dessert by inviting the brazen, black prostitute Luenell (played the professional comedian of the same name). Horrified, his Southern white hosts (they live on Secession Drive) hurry him out the door. But by his journey’s end, Borat realizes the true worth of this ample-bosomed, big-hearted, short-shortsed woman. While she helps Borat expose the intolerance of the hoity-toities, the stereotypical character Luenelle nonetheless marks his satire’s limits. Like Borat himself, she’s a joke as well as a means to target others. But unlike Borat, she doesn’t have her own movie.