Borat (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Full title: "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"
I guess I spend too much damned time on the internet.
I must be one of Borat's biggest fans, yet gauged by the audience reaction, I enjoyed the film the least of anyone in the theater. Of course, like everyone else in the room, I laughed at everything I hadn't already seen. The problem is that I had already seen just about everything. In fact, I had even seen several deleted scenes on one internet site or another. About the only material which I had not seen in the film was the outrageous male nudity. (Which is shockingly explicit and gross. And funny.)
Borat is a fictional reporter from Kazakhstan who has been a recurring character on Sacha Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show." He is not a Kazakh (Russian: "Казахи"), a word which actually refers to a specific ethnic group, but rather a citizen of Kazakhstan of Russian ethnic origin, correctly referred to be the Russian neologism "казахстанец" (English: Kazakhstani), which was coined to describe all inhabitants of Kazakhstan, including non-Kazakhs. In the film, Borat is sent to the United States by Kazakhstan's ministry of information in order to learn about American culture and to show his people how the lessons of America's modernization can help Kazakhstan move into the future. His original mission was supposed to take place entirely in New York, interviewing various experts and recording their wisdom for his national TV network. He becomes distracted from the mission on his first night in New York when he sees a "Baywatch" rerun and falls in love with Pamela Anderson. From that point onward, his visit to America becomes a quest to cross the country and claim Pamela as his new bride in the traditional Kazakh manner, which basically consists of hauling her off forcibly in an ornately decorated potato sack.
His anti-semitism prevents him from flying to California, because he fears that Jews will repeat their 9-11 airline hijackings, so he takes his $700 travel budget and blows it all on a run-down former ice cream truck which still includes all the product banners and even the music function. He tries to buy a gun to protect himself from Jews, but is unable to meet the residency requirements, so he buys a bear instead. At this point Borat, his producer, his photographer and the bear embark on a cross-country journey to California, interacting with real people along the way.
Or do they?
We think we are watching a few minutes of scripted character development back in "Kazakhstan," followed by Cohen's improvisations inside that character. We think that the framing devices - the Pam Anderson plot, the scenes with the black prostitute, and the scenes between Borat and his producer - are scripted, but that Borat's other interactions are with real people outside of the joke, being themselves, and reacting genuinely to a man they truly believe to be from Kazakhstan.
But is that really what we are watching? Do we see real people reacting to Borat's outrageous behavior, or actors pretending to react to Borat's behavior?
That is the one real problem with the Borat movie. We never know how much of it consists of street theater in which Borat improvises scenes with real people and in so doing exposes their prejudices and foibles, and how much consists merely of staged and scripted scenes. Did Borat actually lure the children to the ice cream truck with the music, then scare them by letting a gigantic bear roar through an open window? Were those genuine reactions when we saw the children running away from the truck in fright, or were those child actors told to act like they had just seen a bear in an ice cream truck?
Why do I care, if it is funny?
Well, I'll tell you why. Because many of the film's most ardent proponents have posited that it is not merely a silly gross-out comedy, but a piece of Swiftian satirical genius that uses Borat's prejudices to expose people's racism and other indefensible beliefs. If the film is exposing the racism of real people, that argument has some merit. It's a very different matter if it is merely exposing the racism of fictional characters played by actors delivering scripted lines. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that latter one has already been done. What's real? Sacha Baron Cohen and his collaborators are not talking, but many of the real people have come forward. Here are some speculations about who was in on the joke, and reactions from the punk'd participants:
I am assuming that the sweet little old Jewish couple in the bed-and-breakfast were actors in on the joke, but nobody seems to know for sure.
If you have not been living in a plastic bubble, you probably know about Cohen's ongoing feud with Kazakhstan. After the early film festival screenings, the government of Kazakhstan protested the way their culture is portrayed in this movie, and Cohen used that protest as fodder for more of his mockery. First he appeared as Borat and agreed with Kazakhstan's decision "to sue this Jew," going on to explain that recent reforms have made Kazakhstan just as modern and free as any other nation because "homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats, and women can now ride inside of bus." The ever-humorless officials of Kazakhstan then countered with formal protests to George Bush, and a P.R. campaign to show the reality of their country, including a massive ad in the New York Times. This time Borat responded that the country's claims of equality for Jews and women were merely vicious lies and propaganda spread not by genuine Kazakh officials, but by evil impersonators sent out by Kazakhstan's mortal enemy, Uzbekistan!
The latest round in the sparring contest has featured Kazakhstan's refusal to let the film play in their theaters. Of course, that isn't because of the content. It's just that both Kazakh cinemas have Grumpy Old Men booked through 2008. They love that movie. "Is very hilarity," crowed the movie reviewer for the Almaty Times, now long deceased. He was never replaced, and is not likely to be as long as there are no other movies, so saving a salary is one more reason to stick with the status quo. And there's no reason why there should be any changes: all 25 seats are filled for each showing, and sometimes they even add some folding chairs when Janko is not using them for his poker club. Kazakhstan's foreign minister did say that Borat will probably be seen in their country eventually, about the same time it is shown on airliners, because a Delta stewardess always sneaks them an airline copy.
I have mixed feelings about Cohen's feud with Kazakhstan. On the one hand, I feel that he might have been better off if he had simply made up a fictitious country in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. If you weren't aware of it, none of his material actually has anything to do with Kazakhstan, other than the occasional mention of a real city or person, the use of their flag and coat of arms, or an occasional comedic exaggeration of something unusual in their culture. (For example, his claim that they drink fermented horse urine is based on the very real fact that the national drink is kumis, which is fermented mare's milk.) In fact, the "Kazakh village" scenes are actually filmed in a gypsy village in Romania; Borat's catch phrases are actually accented Polish; the discussions between Borat and his producer are in Yiddish and Hebrew; and the culture he affects is just plain bogus. He could change his origin to any obscure culture and the routine would work just as well. He could just as easily have claimed an origin from Estonia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Herzegovina, Tajikistan or a couple dozen more places in the former Soviet Union or Soviet Bloc. You could probably add some other places like Lebanon and Nagorno-Karabakh to the list, and nobody would be the wiser. Kazahkstan just happened to draw the short straw.
If Cohen/Borat ever decides to build his satire on the real culture of Kazakhstan, he can certainly find plenty of fuel for that fire. After all, this is a country obsessed with horses, where the most famous national dish is not something familiar to Westerners, like kielbasa or goulash, but besbarmak, a sausage made of dough and horse meat. Indeed, horses not only seem to be the basis of their entire menu, but of all their recreational activity as well. Their traditional national game is not baseball or soccer, but kokpar, a horseback game similar to polo except that the two competing teams score not by depositing a ball in the goal, but by carrying a headless goat carcass there. You know that Borat is not really ridiculing Kazakhstan if he's ignoring those things!
Having noted that, we need to realize that an important element of Cohen's humor is derived from the ignorant attitudes of the real people he encounters in the USA and the UK. He constantly hammers away at the fact that he can say anything he likes about a real country - the ninth largest country in the world, a country with a successful space program, for heaven's sake - and nobody ever seems to know that he is completely wrong in every detail. That point would be lost if he came from a fictitious country. It is surprising that he never seems to get unmasked by the people he pranks. My family comes from Central Asia. My daughter's grandma still lives in Uzbekistan, and her great-aunt still lives in Kazakhstan. Anyone in our family would immediately spot Borat as an imposter and, of course, Polish speakers should immediate recognize the phrases he uses and pronounces almost but not quite correctly. It seems that someone in America would speak Polish or Kazakh or Russian to him and realize he's just winging it. But nobody ever does. (Or maybe those episodes are left on the cutting room floor.)
By the way, two funny things that you might miss if you're not paying close attention.
Anyway, it is a very funny movie, although you'll laugh just as much at your own discomfort as at the situations. The nude fight between Borat and the obese Azamat might set the all-time cinema record for the greatest quantity of nervous laughter per minute. Whatever the reasons for your laughter, you should get a good chance to tickle your funny bone. I saw it in a regular suburban multiplex, and the very mainstream audience was laughing constantly, even the middle-aged ladies who looked like Republican conventioneers. It's gross, and daring, and dumb and smart. Borat certainly leaves behind such contenders as Talladega Nights and Clerks 2, and establishes itself as the funniest movie of 2006. Unless you're stoned, of course. Then you should go with All the King's Men.
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