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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

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

Truths Spoken in Jest

Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius. A crazy genius, maybe, a man who takes dedication to his art to a level courting criminal prosecution and bodily harm, but a genius nevertheless. He has invented a whole new kind of movie with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It’s like he looked at Candid Camera and prank phone calls by morning drive-time radio DJs and Jackass and said, Okay, this is crap, but it could be good — it could be provocative instead of merely idiotic. It’s as if he looked at Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man and his wrestling little girls and pushing humor to boundaries beyond which it starts getting awkward and uncomfortable and said, Fine, but why stop there? Borat is comedy as angry social commentary, as raging against willful ignorance and proud bigotry and blind hypocrisy, as performance art that doesn’t end but is still evolving and seems to continue commenting and raging long past the point at which the film itself was in the can. Borat is a movie that changes how you look at movies, how you judge what they can do.
For starters: Is there an actor alive who can dare to suggest that what Sacha Baron Cohen (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Madagascar) did here isn’t one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema? I’m not exaggerating: he had to stay in character around people who had no idea that he was in character, that he was not, in fact, a TV reporter from Eastern Europe; he improvised all his dialogue with “costars” who didn’t know they should be feeding him cues and straight lines; and he couldn’t screw up, he couldn’t call “Cut!”, and he couldn’t do a second take, never mind a third or a tenth. Not that I’m dissing actors who do the usual scripted, ten-takes-per-scene thing, either — I have immense respect for people who can create believable characters shooting out of sequence, in front of green screens, amidst all the artificial distractions of a movie set. But Borat is seat-of-your-pants filmmaking — aided and abetted by a tiny guerilla crew — that throws away the artificiality of movie production and embraces “performance” as something more than a delicate creature than can exist only within the protected confines of a soundstage or a location.

Borat as a whole pushes moviemaking in a new direction for an era in which things like cellphone video cameras and YouTube and the decline in TV viewership in favor of Web surfing have diminished the distinction between “reality” and “entertainment.” Hell, half of what’s left on TV these days is game shows featuring nonactors, Survivor and such, and so ordinary people aren’t just more comfortable on camera but more likely to feel like they deserve to be on camera. Borat and Baron Cohen take advantage of the new ubiquity of video and the desire seemingly of everyone to get their 15 minutes (among the many other stupidities of modern life they take advantage of) as the “journalist” travels the country exploring the culture and trying to figure out just what makes America America. Why wouldn’t people want to talk to Kazakhstan television? Who doesn’t want to be on TV, even if it is TV halfway around the world?

And the things that those regular people are comfortable saying on camera are truly extraordinary. The rodeo manager who declares that the United States is trying to institute the death penalty for homosexuality. The college frat boys who take the position that European-descended white males are dangerously put upon by minorities, immigrants, and women. But getting people to say shocking things is far from what Borat is all about. For me, the biggest joke is that Borat is allegedly a backwater Neanderthal, an ignorant bigot, a thoroughly uncivilized buffoon… but then half the people he talks to in supposedly civilized America are no better than him. Borat punctures the balloon of assumed American superiority, holds up a mirror on American culture, and the reflection is not always pretty. It isn’t always ugly, either, though — Baron Cohen fails to punk many of those in his sights, like the feminist group in New York City to whom he explains that Kazakh scientists have proven that women have tiny brains; they don’t take his crap and they walk out on him. Those people may be fooled by Baron Cohen, but they are not made fools of by him — the many people onscreen who behave with integrity make Borat the joke as much as Baron Cohen does by taking his sexism and his racism to such absurd extremes that it holds up the very concepts as obviously utterly contemptible. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that Baron Cohen chose to work with director Larry Charles here: Charles’s Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm also juggle the satire of minutiae in mundanity with that of the characters who revel in it.)

And Borat is a joke, one that’s as outrageously funny as it is furiously bitter. Baron Cohen’s conception of Borat and his world, his tiny Kazakh village — where we first meet him in the film — is a stunningly potent sendup of Western ideas about the supposed backwardness of Eastern Europe, but it’s also, in this more scripted and controlled arena, one that has the luxury of piling on punchlines. You never know when a joke is going to end, so you barely have time to catch your breath in between gasping with laughter. That’s true of the movie as a whole, too: it builds to a crescendo that you don’t even realize it’s building to until you’re in the thick of it.

Borat pushes his luck with those he interviews onscreen, pushes and pushes and pushes in an attempt to break them… and then he does the same to the audience with the, ahem, naked wrestling scene. Not to spoil it, but a phrase like wickedly hilarious doesn’t even begin to cover it, and the delicious sedition of the mind that conceived it — I assume this means you, Baron Cohen — must be slathered in worshipful awe. Never mind the level of daring and masculine self-confidence that the sequence demanded on the part of Baron Cohen and one of the other actual actors in the film — Ken Davitian (S.W.A.T., Holes) as Borat’s producer, Azamat Bagatov — though that alone will rank this scene as one of the classics of all moviedom. But the brilliance of it is that it puts us in the spot that Borat’s punk’d interviewees have been in, turns the mirror on us. How do you deal? Do you huff and get offended and walk out of the theater? Do you get offended but then stop and ask yourself why you’re offended, what’s truly offensive about it other than that it pokes massive fun at one of the few taboos we have left? Or do you just laugh yourself silly and boggle that anyone could be so turned off by something that is clearly meant to make you think about the unspoken constraints on our thoughts and our behavior we usually accept without question?

You know, kinda like the whole movie does.

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MPAA: rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • K. Becker

    Thanks for the review. One thing, though: if I’m correct in assuming that Baron Cohen is posing as someone from Kazakhstan, then that’s not Eastern Europe but rather Central Asia.

  • MaryAnn

    Okay, I stand corrected.

  • Borat’s Karma

    I saw Borat the other night and will confess I laughed so hard I got a headache and a sore throat. I have also been a fan of Da Ali G Show on HBO. The humor of Sascha Baron Cohen is based on discomfort. He puts people into uncomfortable situations (chickens on the subway, photos of his “son’s” penis, shit at a dinner party) and it’s funny because of the incongruity. There’s a lot of meanness and cruelty in certain humor and Cohen has it down pat. It is amusing when he gets someone like Bob Barr or, on the TV show, James Baker or James Lipton, in an uncomfortable position. It’s edgy and dangerous as Cohen learned the other night when a New Yorker punched him out http://www.rte.ie/arts/2006/1113/borat2.html after Cohen/Borat suggested he would like to have sex with the guy’s coat. Cohen relies on the basic friendliness and decency of people, and his own personal charm, to escape harm. Didn’t work last Saturday. Now the film is facing lawsuits from the frat boys http://www.nypost.com/seven/11102006/news/nationalnews/borat_sued_over_drunk__frat_trap_nationalnews_hasani_gittens.htm and the Romanian villagers. Reading the news reports it was hard for me to be sympathetic with the frat boys. I could gin up a bit of empathy for the poor Romanian village. But read this http://www.andrewtobias.com/newcolumns/061113.html about the hotel desk guy (Vanilla Face in the film) and you might begin to question the disingenuousness, even deceitfulness, of Borat’s methods. Cohen’s humor is very funny to watch. Probably not so much fun to be on the receiving end. I’m now a bit embarrassed. My guess is with all the publicity from Borat, Bruno http://today.reuters.com/news/articlenews.aspx?type=filmNews&storyID=2006-10-27T053801Z_01_N26234561_RTRIDST_0_FILM-BRUNO-DC.XML will have a tougher time getting his film made.

  • PeterE

    I note that Maryann has not responded to this Borat-critique. Maybe he’s not such a genius after all?

  • MaryAnn

    I’d love to hear the reasoning behind that if/then, PeterE…

  • PeterE

    I’m not sure why you put it in that form, but its enough to say that IF Borat was produced by using-exploiting people THEN it cannot succeed as art, which is always supposed to be a guidepost to a higher reality, and should never be simply a reflection-repetition of a reality where people are treated as a means.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that Baron Cohen exploited anyone. They knew they were on camera and should be responsible for how they behave — and many of them behave just fine in an uncomfortable situation.

    I also don’t think it’s fair to say that anything produced under conditions that might be characterized as “exploitive” cannot be art. Is the Sistine Chapel, which was painted under a patronage situation, for which I think it’s safe to assume that artist could not possibly have been justly compensated no matter how much he was paid, not art? Is the music produced under the horrendously exploitive contracts of the 1960s, which stipped the performers of ownership of their own work, not art?

  • Alec

    After reading all the links, I’m gonna have to go with MaryAnn on this one.

    ‘Vanilla-Face’, who was most definitely not the butt of the joke in the scene in question, for all this talk of ‘trust’ being violated, has apparently suffered nothing but some ribalding at work – and why would he? He aquits himself admirably in his capacity as uptown hotelier.

    And if you can truly feel sympathy for the frat-rat jocks, well maybe you missed the point of the film.

  • PeterE

    Thanks Maryann for allowing me to stand to your left. But seriously, Borat’s techniques were clearly deceptive (IF these complaints are legitimate) and therefore you should be offended by them – IF you are concerned with basic values like exploitation and ethical behaviour.

  • PeterE

    Charles Krauthammer writes:

    “(Cohen’s) defense is that he is using Borat’s anti-Semitism as a “tool” to expose it in others. And that his Arizona bar stunt revealed, if not anti-Semitism, then “indifference” to anti-Semitism. And that, he maintains, was the path to the Holocaust.


    With anti-Semitism re-emerging in Europe and rampant in the Islamic world; with Iran acquiring the ultimate weapon of genocide and proclaiming its intention to wipe out the world’s largest Jewish community (Israel); with America and, in particular, its Christian evangelicals the only remaining Gentile constituency anywhere willing to defend that besieged Jewish outpost — is the American heartland really the locus of anti-Semitism? Is this the one place to go to find it?”

    Of course his conclusion is “no”. It would be more productive to root out the real movements towards antisemitism in Europe than in making fun of the ignorance and gullibility of American rubes.

    But less fun, of course.

  • MaryAnn

    Movie City News has depositions by production team members in the case of the Frat Boys vs. Borat, as well as copies of the releases they signed. Go read them and then decide who was being deceptive, and whether there is any genuine ethical culpability on Baron Cohen’s part:


  • MaryAnn

    It would be more productive to root out the real movements towards antisemitism in Europe than in making fun of the ignorance and gullibility of American rubes.

    I disagree. If America is gonna act like a global bully, unilaterally invading sovereign nations that pose it no threat whatsoever, then it deserves to have the attitudes and ignorance of its citizenry — the people who, whether they vote or not, put into power politicians who carry out acts like this — explored and exposed. For Baron Cohen to do what he did in America in a place like Iran or Saudi Arabia — assuming he could even get away with it in the first place — would not be anywhere near as usefully revealing about those nations, where the citizenry does not have anywhere near the same freedom to put its leaders into power, as the same stunt is in America.

  • PeterE

    What Krauthammer was discussing was anti-semitism and the way Cohen chose to deal with the subject. Of course it would be no great shock to discover anti-semitic attitudes in Iran or Saudi Arabia (which are not in Europe).

    What might be a shock would be revealing the extent of European anti-semitism.

    It was after all the French foreign minister that called Israel a shitty little country, and most Europeans take a knee jerk pro-Palestine position in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

    Meanwhile, as Krauthammer points out, it is middle America that is Israel’s staunchest support and increasingly lonely bulwark against anti-semitism. Of course if European Jews like Cohen want to bite the hand that feeds them ….

    But nice attempt to inject a little anti-Bush tirade there!

  • MaryAnn

    I think you got my point, though, that if America makes itself a big fat target, it can hardly be surprised when it gets, you know, targeted.

  • PeterE

    Yes, that’s the logic recently used by the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, when he said that Australia would be less of a target to terrorists if it had not been involved in Iraq.

    Well, I’m sure that’s true.

    But its also true that Australia did not get involved in the Iraq War in order to escape being targetted but because the Prime Minister believed it was the right thing to do. It might not have been the right decision, but it was courageous and righteous. Of course you can always be what Australians call a “gutless wonder” and let somebody else do the defending – like so many of the US’s so-called friends in Europe and elsewhere.

    There were plenty of critics of Australia’s decision to go to war in WWI and WWII (let alone Korea and Vietnam). But I’m proud of the heorism of those who fought for freedoms in those conflicts. How about you?

  • MaryAnn

    Of course you can always be what Australians call a “gutless wonder” and let somebody else do the defending

    Defending against what? Iraq was not a threat to the U.S. or to Australia.

    I’m proud of the heorism of those who fought for freedoms in those conflicts. How about you?

    I’ve got no beef with the soldiers. It’s their commanding officers, and the commander in chief, that piss me off. But nice straw man.

  • PeterE

    “The general sat; and the lines on the map moved from side to side”.

    But somebody has to do the generalling, and somebody has to do the commander-in-chiefing.

    If you remember the UN instituted a no-fly zone, and the US was called upon to monitor that. With daily risk to life and limb as the Iraqis shot at them from the ground.

    Saddam had already gassed his own people, invaded Kuwait and run an 8-year war with Iran than cost hundreds of thousands of lives. He supported suicide bombers in Israel and launched missiles at Israel from his own territory. And now the intelligence agencies were telling the politicians that he had chemical and/or biological weapons, and he was not allowing free access for inspectors to check it out. Of course he could have been making Miracle-Gro, but political leaders have to make the hard choices.

    I did not agree with the decision to go to war, I thought it would massively contribute to muslim resentment against the west and the US; but I’m lucky – I ain’t the POTUS.

    Notice now how Clinton now acts like he was macho and vigilant and really tried hard to have bin Laden assassinated, he nearly attacked Wallace on Fox TV over the issue – when you’re POTUS that’s your job, making the tough calls.

  • MaryAnn

    And now the intelligence agencies were telling the politicians that he had chemical and/or biological weapons, and he was not allowing free access for inspectors to check it out.

    Wrong. There were no WMDs, and intelligence people tried to tell the administration that, and it is absolutely not true that inspectors were denied free access.

    But Oceania remains at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

  • PeterE

    Maryanne – what’s the Oceania/Eurasia thing and how does it relate to Iraq/Borat etc?

  • PeterE

    Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack has George Tenet jumping up and down and saying that finding WMDs would be a slam dunk.

    The latest congressional review also found that the Administration had not used undue political pressure to get what they wanted from the intelligence agencies.

    Senator Kerry, Hillary and her husband stated that Saddam was a menace to world security and that something would have to be done about him.

    The report that Iraq submitted to the UN was a very large smokescreen, apparently not giving the information requested – i.e. accounting for the materials that the previous UN investigation team had found.

    Even though the information that Powell presented to the UN turned out to be false, nobody seems to think that he was lying, but that it was an intelligence failure.

    It appears Saddam thought that he had something to gain by pretending that he had weapons that were battle ready, to keep intimidating the West and keep that nice flow of money coming through the oil-for-food program. He made a mistake, he judged that the US would never invade, and now it looks like he will die for his many crimes against humanity.

    The invasion was far from unilateral (as you stated, “unilaterally invading sovereign nations”). The administration was able to bring many nations with it: Britain, Australia, Poland, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan and a host of smaller countries, in total about 40. The contributions may have been small, but no democratic nation sends troops to war without a strong reason.

    France and Russia had reasons to want Saddam in power, and they were resentful of US power: their maneuvers were not altruistic, despite the moralistic pose.

    I’m not even a supporter of the war; I just don’t like all the falsifying of history that is going on in the left.

  • MaryAnn

    Maryanne – what’s the Oceania/Eurasia thing and how does it relate to Iraq/Borat etc?

    Guess you’ve never read *1984.*

    Falsifying of history: check. But it’s not happening on the left.

    But this is not the place to talk about this. And I’m tired of banging my head against the wall.

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