Monday, January 7, 2013

Andy Kaufman

Film: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I knew going in what Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (hereafter referred to as Borat to save my typing fingers) was going to be. I understood the point of it, and had seen probably a third of the film in clips. But as I sat and watched and shook my head, I realized I didn’t really have a proper way to react to it.

My guess is that most people reading this have seen Borat. Whether you have or haven’t, there isn’t much need of a plot summary here. Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a Kazakh television personality who travels to the United States to learn American culture to benefit his country. Cohen’s creation of Borat is, of course, entirely fiction, and that’s really the point of the film. This is social parody at its highest level, the sort of thing that Andy Kaufman would have produced or directed had he still been around for it.

The Borat character is rude, misogynist, corrupt, and probably a dozen other words that aren’t coming to me. He is, of course, a complete parody, and the Kazakhstan he hails from is the sort of dystopia that only exists in comedies. The entire point of this film is not to parody Kazakhstan, but to parody American culture. In every situation, Borat is not merely a glorious fool. He is socially inept, backward to a degree not found anywhere in history. What Borat considers appropriate behavior is appropriate nowhere in the world. And so what this film documents more than anything is how people react to this racist, homophobic, misguided misanthrope in everyday situations. As might well be expected, the reactions to Borat fall somewhere between embarrassed overpoliteness and outright racism.

Like all good satirists, Cohen’s entire modus operandi is to misdirect us into taking a look at ourselves. He’s not standing in front of us and showing us the backward people of a country virtually none of us know anything about, but is instead holding up a mirror and showing us our own faults, our own hypocrisy. And he’s really, really good at this.

He’s also smart enough to know that this film simply wouldn’t fly at anything much longer than its 84-minute running time. It couldn’t, because Borat is essentially a one-joke movie. Borat walks into a situation, acts as inappropriately as he possibly can, and films the reactions of the people around him. This includes asking Republican former presidential candidate Alan Keyes to explain the gay pride parade to him, assaulting a weatherman on the air, asking a feminist group why women have smaller brains, and chasing the producer of his alleged documentary naked through a crowded hotel. And more.

I get it. I completely understand the brilliance of what Cohen is doing, and my invocation of Andy Kaufman above is not without reason, because this is exactly the sort of thing that Kaufman loved to do—he loved making the audience the joke. And while we in the film audience know this is a joke (or at least we should), he’s also smart enough to never really let us in on the joke. He never breaks character. There are moments here that are difficult to believe. It’s almost impossible to think that anyone has the cojones to pull some of these stunts off and never even crack a smile.

So while I get why this movie exists, why it’s important, why it may even be a critical film for understanding some of the many issues that the U.S. faces, I also had a very difficult time watching it. Certainly there were many places in this film where I laughed, and laughed hard. But there were also many places I cringed, wondering just how long a particular scene would take to end. My overriding emotional reaction to this was embarrassment for everyone who wasn’t in on the joke of one of the most elaborate pieces of performance art ever conceived.

That, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how people didn’t realize it was all a joke. Kaufman would’ve gotten it. In fact, Kaufman would have been offended if he hadn’t been asked to take part in it.

Why to watch Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: You can’t believe he actually did this.
Why not to watch: Embarrassment for everyone else involved.


  1. I'm afraid I can't agree that this film is either important or that it has anything to do with understanding where America is headed. I do know why it exists: to promote Sacha Baron Cohen as a product in this country. In regards to the latter it succeeded brilliantly. This movie made him a star here after already having been a star in his home country for years. Even with Madonna's help for his more popular Ali G character he had failed to crack the lucrative American market until this movie.

    I was not offended by this movie; neither was I entertained. It did nothing for me. I laughed exactly once the entire movie (the reaction shot of the girl in the passing car seeing the bear). Every other joke was telegraphed from a mile away. As you said, it's a one joke movie. And that joke started back in the 1950s with Candid Camera.

    I spent most of the movie wanting to see Cohen get his ass kicked by someone who wasn't polite enough to put up with his antics. Since that never happens, the movie wasn't even satisfying that way.

    And whenever someone says how brave Michael Fassbender was for going full frontal with his not-an-ounce-of-fat body and nothing-to-be-ashamed-of penis in Shame I always think that the fat guy in Borat is getting a raw deal. If anyone was brave for going full frontal in a movie it was that actor, not Fassbender.

    1. I don't think this film is indicative of where America is going, but I do think it's indicative of where we were/are. There's still a strong undercurrent of xenophobia in the U.S., an instant dislike of different, and an extreme character like this brings that out. There's also a patina of politeness over a lot of America, and that's brought out as well.

      I completely agree about the fat guy. I do think Fassbender's performance was very brave, but it was less about the nudity and more about the actual performance. But yeah, the fat dude...that's really having no shame.

  2. I totally get this movie. It only really works the first time you see it, but damn, that one experience is worth it.
    I think one way to understand the movie is from an outside perspective. In Europe we generally see Americans as a bunch of people entirely without self-criticism. Cohen plays on this by finding some glorious examples. It is the same property that makes American Idol or x-factor or any of the other reality show much more fun to watch than the European equivalents.
    If you like to watch people make an ass of themselves it just does not get better than this.
    Unfortunately like you say, it is a one joke only scam. Eventually it gets tired and his attempt at a follow up (Brüno) tanked and rightly so.

    1. You may be right. There's also a reason that Borat's travels took him mainly through the South, since when you talk about Americans being without self-criticism, that's the area of the country I immediately think of. The Bible Belt is a weird and scary place.

  3. Borat is hilarious but I think sometimes it went over the top.