Larry Charles: Borat - Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

reviewed by Nancy Condee© 2007

 

Borat’s New Blackface

Borat may be a funny movie, but is it worth analyzing? Borat himself would answer “yes…PAUSE…not.” And, of course, he would be right in his own circuitous way. Anyone pretentious enough to analyze the film risks ending up the straight man in Borat’s next episode. Master of deadpan, literalist savant, Sacha Baron Cohen is a performance artist who manages to turn all our efforts at intellectual respectability, learnings, and inter-cultural understanding into carnival.

All the same, Borat manages to teach America more than America taught him: with his macaronic mixture of Polish, Hebrew, Russian, and nonsense (which stands in for Kazakh), Borat demonically helps Americans make sense of the former Soviet Union, the ex-socialist expanse from Brest to Vladivostok. “Sense,” of course, is the wrong word, since Borat’s sense is an outrageous set of fantasy distortions based in part on our own cold-war tropes, trivializing communism and the East more generally (a mixture of two parts Wendy’s commercial to one part Edward Said). Bad hygiene, commodity hunger, and an uninhibited disregard for the disenfranchised sum up the traits ascribed to the East, a make-do world tyrannized by poorly controlled bodily functions and consumer desire, assuming they are two different things.

Borat’s marginalized land stands in for the marginalized things we prefer to disown: anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, never mind rape, incest, and non-stop (so to speak) toilet humor. Assigned to Borat, these practices are no longer really ours; they are his, although—with a nudge and a wink—the US citizens of Borat’s faux-documentary signal their private sympathy for “Kazakh” prejudice of any stripe. And so the film is a chance to get outside ourselves, to see ourselves from the outside, not an easy task for an insular culture. We, of course, know that “Kazakh” is not Kazakh: the imaginary country stands in for nowhere, and therefore for here, that place we recognize in some ways as our own. Only the feminist encounter group remains humorlessly aloof. And only a very few—the elderly Jewish couple who try to feed him; the street kids he encounters when he gets lost—take interest in him without revealing the regressive prejudices seductively labeled “Kazakh.”

And so this is what’s most interesting to me: most of the unsuspecting Americans hijacked into Cohen’s film treat Borat with extraordinary generosity, patience, and good-hearted indulgence, traits that are utterly (if paradoxically) compatible—or so it would seem—with their racism, homophobia, misogyny, and religious intolerance. To be American is to learn somehow to exist in two incompatible worlds—let’s call them civil society and private life. And here, at the risk of profundity, is a certain wisdom in Cohen: is it that, in the US, civil society and private life are indeed so disconnected from each other? Is it precisely that disconnection that keeps us from laying hands on those with whom we disagree?

There is a Russian saying: scratch a Russian, find a Tatar. Borat’s appeal is that you can scratch him until your nails bleed: he is Borat. In a US culture of pseudo-redemption (scratch Pastor Ted, find Ted Haggard), Borat cannot be redeemed. He is monolithic; he is Borat. But Borat has a darker function as well. He encourages the unwitting to think that it is therefore we who are civilized, respectful of others, concerned with the rights of man. For a society that produced Abu Ghraib, this is, of course, a deeply reassuring thought.

Borat returns to Kazakhstan with Luenell, his new African-American wife-cum-prostitute (we will pass over the pun in silence). When she fits right in to his Kazakh village, we would like to raise the issue of a racist subtext, but after 90 minutes little shocks us anymore. Besides, it is unclear: does Luenell fit into Kazakh life or has Borat never really left, and already fits into ours? Having returned home, he is still here. While he turned out to be un-Americanizable, we have come to recognize that we ourselves have gone a little Borat: if nothing else, we paid good money to watch two ugly, naked men engage in what can only be described as accidental and simultaneous oral sex in a configuration we had not bargained for (a grotesque, black-humor replay, as Petre Petrov suggests, of the Abu Ghraib snapshots). In other words, we got our money’s worth, whether we meant to or not.

Americans love the violation of borders; we don’t need more proof of that. Violating the borders of theatrical gentility, Borat delivers the best of low-end cinema: its grandmother and grandfather are burlesque and vaudeville; further back in the family tree is blackface minstrelsy. Somewhere in our genetic memory, from nearly a century ago, we can still access those traditions: the bawdy slapstick; the episodic structure of the short sketch; the hen (historically, a duck); the live, real-time performance art; the straight man and the naïf (one thin, the other fat; or one tall, the other short)… Remember now how our ancestors laughed? Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Amos ’n’ Andy, Two Black Crows, and—in the universe of comic strips—Mutt and Jeff: their distant progeny are Borat and Azamat, grown-up babies, here to help us laugh and forget. So is it possible to talk about Borat without preaching or scolding? Probably not: he is too interesting.

 

Nancy Condee
University of Pittsburgh

This review first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Whilst every effort has been made to trace the owners of the copyright for stills from the film's official website and obtain permission, this has proved impossible. KinoKultura would be grateful to hear from anyone with information which would enable us to do so.

 


Borat. Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, USA,
2006
Color, 84 minutes
Director: Larry Charles
Scriptwriter: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer
Story: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Todd Phillips
Cinematography: Luke Geissbuhler and Anthony Hardwick
Art Direction: David Maturana
Music: Erran Baron Cohen
Costumes: Jason Alper
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson, Bob Barr, Alan Keyes
Production: Dune Entertainment, Everyman Pictures, Four By Two, Major Studio Partners, One America

Larry Charles: Borat - Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

reviewed by Nancy Condee© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07