Monday, November 06, 2006

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

The funniest man in America?  You decide.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s series Da Ali G Show is a masterwork of unscripted guerrilla comedy, featuring Baron Cohen, disguised as one of three stereotyped personalities, interviewing various individuals and exposing their ignorance or prejudices in the process. While the British hip hop/Afro-Caribbean parody Ali G and the flamboyantly homosexual Austrian Bruno are effective in pushing cultural buttons, it is the English-mangling, anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist Bruno Sagdiyev that provides the most cutting, subversive laughs that catch in one’s throat. His eagerness to explore American culture and infectiously innocent enthusiasm make his unstaged interviews with politicians, preachers, and ordinary Americans the show’s constant highlights. In this vein, Baron Cohen has combined unwitting participation by regular citizens and the most tenuous of plotlines to craft a vulgar, illuminating, subversive, audaciously funny mockumentary.

To dispense with the pretext, Borat concerns Mr. Sagdiyev and his producer Azamat embarking on a road trip across America to bring to Kazakhstan via documentary the wondrous world of the U.S. and A. Same shtick as Ali G with a connecting thread, basically. Each individual vignette is a thing of genius, though, sometimes pointing out the racist and bigoted views under the surface (a gun seller’s near-immediate answer to "Which gun would be best to defend from the Jews?") or the pure ignorance regarding a foreign culture (opening and closing segments set in Borat’s home village of “Kusek, Kazakhstan”). The “running of the Jew” and various gypsy epithets easily play into both a long-standing history of intolerance and stereotyped visions of Eastern European culture, but the examples are so blatant and skewed that to take them seriously is to play into them. In lesser hands, this social satire could have been dangerously misinterpreted as actual racism or cultural insensitivity (and indeed already has been by some uninformed or biased viewers), but one can imagine that a man with the education of Baron Cohen (whose thesis at Cambridge was on the Jewish presence within the American civil rights movement) knows exactly the political and social implications of what he says. Besides, the absurdity of Borat’s various interviews leaves no doubt as to the intentions. And despite the presence of Seinfeld writing alum Larry Charles as director, make no mistake that Baron Cohen is the comedic auteur behind Borat and the source of its intentions.

From the outset, Baron Cohen eschews the traditional realm of entirely joke-centric comedy for a relatively unexplored (and awkward, for the viewer as well as the victim) mix of miscommunication and revealing cultural conformity on the part of the interviewees. An early scene featuring Borat’s ruining of traditional joke forms while talking with some kind of “comedy consultant,” only puts forth Baron Cohen’s basic purpose of making the audience laugh in a new way, one that isn’t “clean” or “acceptable.” Not only is Borat’s misapprehension funny, but the consultant’s exasperation and, really, supposed authority in the subject are the real butts of the joke. Those who attempt to impart confident and dependable expertise in such freeform or, alternatively, socially-constricting areas as comedy, religion, or etiquette can become the most savaged targets of Cohen’s guerrilla tactics. Witness the cross-cutting between scenes of Borat being coached by an “etiquette advisor,” with the real fruits of the advisor’s teachings. After Borat is told to make honest compliments to fellow guests at an upscale Southern dinner, his insensitive (but “honest,” mind you) statements do nothing to endear him to his hosts. And yet the dinner continues to go on, leading to one of Baron Cohen’s most important and subversive satiric bullseyes: twofaced cultural “sensitivity” and conformity.

Upon researching the history of Baron Cohen’s use of Borat, it becomes apparent that, despite increased awareness by the public of Baron Cohen’s alter-ego, the method and success of these improvised comedy sketches has been amazingly consistent. Despite his modus operandi being unchanged over several years (obviously no real credentials, incredibly vague release forms), Baron Cohen has managed to fool a wide range of individuals without many serious repercussions. My hypothesis is that this stems from the paradoxically reactionary and tolerant mindset of modern America, the former providing the main artillery for Baron Cohen’s comedic assault and the latter effectively covering his retreat. Most of Borat’s interviewees feel this push-and-pull between indignity against his obviously narrow-minded statements, and leniency for his verbal “foreign” indiscretions. That a camera is present may help explain this phenomenon, as spontaneous street scenes reveal an American public scared of or openly hostile to odd foreigners; yet television personalities and interviewees usually forgive a great deal of intolerance by and awkwardness from the Kazakh interviewer until it becomes too much. In this light, Baron Cohen’s choosing of this country for his character’s home becomes ingenious. Mainstream America has no facts to draw up on regarding Kazakhstan, but it seems both vaguely Middle Eastern (this view is helped by Baron Cohen’s naturally-grown moustache) and culturally backward (thanks to Borat’s accent and customs) which feed into both sides of the aforementioned American mindset. As a catalyst for bringing out the worst in modern conservative and liberal attitudes, Borat is a carefully calculated and invaluable creation.

This all applies equally to Da Ali G Show and to Borat, so what can distinguish the two? As a narrative, the film’s road trip plotline enhances and detracts from the comedic thesis in turn. The driving action involves Borat trying to find Baywatch alum Pamela Anderson for “making sexy time” after watching her on a hotel television. Using such an obvious example of sexual objectification plays into Borat’s fascination with American culture while providing the pretext for two mordantly funny late scenes: having been dumped by his producer and left to hitchhiker, Borat finds a ride with three partying frat boys who show him Anderson’s infamous sex tape; and Borat stumbles upon a Pentecostal revival and is “shown the light.” Here again Cohen plays up the schizophrenic cultural values at work in American society by showing how muddled intentions and repercussions can be. Upon hearing Anderson’s name, the frat boys try to engage Borat in chauvinistic male bonding by popping in the sex tape, but they unwittingly deject him because he assumed she was a virgin. Likewise, the religious revival unknowingly provides Borat the boost to pick up his pursuit of sexual conquest. That the frat boys and church goers don’t care who you are on the inside as long as you're with them on the outside is their most damning quality. The masculine and religious mentalities convert and attempt to conform without imagining the internal consequences and Borat exploits this to the fullest.

The film’s comedic secret weapon is the character of Azamat, ably performed by the rotund and Armenian-American Ken Davitian. He has all of the vague “foreigner” baggage as Borat, but his presence amplifies his on-screen partner’s antics. It provides a potent counterpoint to Baron Cohen's tall, gangly frame, as evidence by already the most infamous and groundbreaking sequence in Borat: a protracted nude fight scene between the two in a posh hotel. As it spills from their single room to the hallway to an elevator to a crowded meeting in the ballroom, two things become clear: that Borat is transgressive as well as subversive, and that Baron Cohen, through Borat, can get away with anything. The image of Borat in flimsy spandex on the beach is common among the film’s advertising, but nothing preceding or on Da Ali G Show can prepare a viewer for the entwined, wrestling bodies of Baron Cohen and Davitian. It pushes the limits of traditional good taste while being so undeniably comical that an audience will probably be as awed as those watching two grown men in the nude, chasing each other down a hallway. For a mainstream studio film, let alone a comedy, to only provide unappealing male nudity to its viewers is, at the least, provocative and, at the most, firmly transgressive against the boundaries of audience expectations. The absurdity of the film’s situation reaches critical mass when the two men run through the hotel ballroom and interrupt a business meeting. Even if the hotel staff was in on the joke, it seems unlikely that every sitting businessperson knew what was going on, and in either case, Baron Cohen wields considerable power in his Borat persona. If security is not lax beyond belief, Borat can somehow convince the management to allow the scene to be filmed in public. The movie up to this point has only been goading its witting or unwitting participants; this sequence similarly unnerves (as well as entertains, which it has always done thus far) the audience. New viewers may find themselves watching through splayed fingers.

If the film goes wrong in any capacity, it is in its main conceit of being a “documentary.” Whereas someone watching This is Spinal Tap or Forgotten Silver without any prior knowledge of the cast or conceit could conceivably be swayed into mistaking it for the real thing, Borat has too many expansive shots of the two Kazakhs on the road or driving away from a scene to be misleading and possibly subversive to a first-time watcher. Whether certain scenes were staged or spontaneous in the end does not affect the comedic aesthetics of the film, but the narrative still suffers. Unlike someone such as, say, Andy Kaufman (to whom Baron Cohen is constantly compared), Baron Cohen lets his audience know they’re in on the joke and that there’s really a joke to be in on. This would seem to suggest that Baron Cohen could never reach the ultimate height of performance art that Kaufman ascended, but there’s hope in knowing that Baron Cohen always stays in character and that one is never sure if he’s taken a joke too far. But really, this lack of documentary realism is a mere quibble in comparison to the hilarious and inspiring whole that is Sacha Baron Cohen’s exploration of American values and cultural proclivities. While I have no doubt that audiences will find it funny as well as offensive, I fear that Americans will stop there and not realize that the joke is both for and on us.

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