14 November 2006

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

You've probably heard a lot about this movie already. It apparently holds the record for biggest box office opening for any movie that has opened in less than 1,000 theatres. There's already a lawsuit in motion from some of "victims" of the hoax. But none of the articles about this movie, that I've seen anyhow, discuss what a totally bizarre phenomenon it is.

So, as I understand it, the way the movie was made is that Sacha Baron Cohen posed as Borat and then travelled the US, tricking people into thinking he really was Borat, and filmed his encounters with them. These encounters, however, are partly staged. For instance, the frat boys who are suing him were allegedly taken to a bar, provided with copious amounts of liquor, then placed in a trailer home, whence Borat was dumped. The time they spent together was filmed, but their conversation was unscripted. So what you have is a meta-clusterfuck. You are watching a movie that is the story of a fictional character making a documentary, and you're seeing both the process of making it, and the actual footage filmed. The footage filmed is both staged and genuine, basically like an improv routine, where you're given a scenario and set free to act it out. The Americans of the film are aware that they're performing for a camera, and think they're being put in a documentary about the US - which is, in fact, exactly what is happening, except that the guy interviewing them is a fictional character, and the documentary is for the (comedic) benefit of the Western world rather than the cultural enlightenment of Kazakhstan. The blend of fiction and reality here sort of blows my mind.

Let's not forget that part of the humor here is that Borat is a ridiculous character, an outrageously offensive guy from a caricature of Eastern Europe. Now, some of the humor here is to be derived from the fact that these Americans he encounters don't recognize him as a fake, and are apparently willing to believe that Kazakhstan in really this backwards. But is the joke there really on these gullible Americans? Is it that the Americans are just that gullible/ignorant, or is it also that there's a ring of truth to this caricature that allows it to be toeing the line of believability? Are we laughing at how gullible Americans are when we laugh at Borat french kissing his sister? I don't think so. We're laughing at Eastern Europe. Is the fact that the Kazakhstan caricature is a veritable collage of Eastern European traits meant to rope in all of Eastern Europe as fodder for humor, or just to further ridicule the Americans? The phrases such as "jak sie masz" that Borat uses are, in fact, Polish. Most of the "Kazakh" he is speaking is Hebrew with a heavy Russian accent. Azamat is speaking Armenian. The music is mostly Russian, recognizable to some because it's in the Gameboy version of Tetris, though some Goran Bregovic tunes make an appearance as well. I mean, I'm Polish and I find it hilarious, but still, I couldn't help but feel that the vitriolic edge of the film's humor is directed not at Americans, but at Eastern Europeans.

Now, here's where I get dizzy. Let me pause here to say that a friend of mine, as we were en route to the movie, complained about the fact that the reviews of the movie read it as some kind of ethnographic project, cultural commentary on America, etc. "He's just doing this shit because it's funny", claims Sean. So, what's curious to me about the film, which I suppose inclines me to Sean's view, is that at no point in the film is it made clear that the Americans in the movie are not acting. The movie never explicitly states what it is most known for - that these people really did react to this guy in this way. Secondly, everyone knows from the get-go that Borat is a fictional character. So if the film really meant to be hard-hitting cultural commentary on the US, it'd need to be more real, right? For instance, the woman playing the prostitute would have to actually BE a prostitute. Fun fact - she played in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Anyhow, my point is, the fact that the movie doesn't flaunt its semi-documentary aspects leads me to think that it isn't actually meant to be a cultural slap in the face. Rather, it's amusement, albeit with a political side. Now, the final dizzying aspect is the American audiences who are falling over themselves rushing to see this movie, and laugh at how stupid Americans (and Eastern Europeans) are. My friend Ligaya speculated that perhaps this is a key feature of being American - this sense of "Americans are such idiots, but I, an American, am totally unlike them". But the cruel twist of it is that, of course, they kind of are. I mean, even some of the people who are throwing fits about being duped admit that the movie is funny. So...

But, you may be thinking, did you LIKE the movie? So here's the thing - moments of it were hilarious. Incidentally, here's another question - does the hilarity of, for instance, Borat yelling at the rodeo, "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!" have anything to do with the fact that he's *actually* doing it at a real rodeo in front of people who don't know he's fake? See, because I think that most of the time, what I'm laughing at is the caricature of Eastern Europe, or just the general absurdity of the set-up - it has nothing, for me, to do with whether or not it's scripted. The fact that it's kind of real doesn't really make it funnier. But anyhow, so yeah, moments of it are very, very funny. But honestly, for a lot of it I was just bored. It dragged. The plot was shaky, which would be fine, if it weren't so very developed. I think Borat is really at his best in short bursts, as he appears in the tv show. I wouldn't really recommend the movie if you're just looking for some stupid humor - rent the dvds of the show instead. They're much funnier, I think.

Incidentally, another thought to ponder - the difference between Stephen Colbert's interviews and Borat's... Look, for instance, at Colbert interviewing Congressman Lynn Westmoreland (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWCJetVdaWo). Hilarious, and incisive political commentary. Doesn't involve any deception, and sends, basically, the same message that the Borat movie is getting at, unless you buy my argument (which is sort of buried in this post) that Borat's real target is Eastern Europe.

This blog is basically a place where I collect my thoughts, buckaroos. So apologies for the scattered-ness of it. If I were to write something on Borat now, having just written all this out, it would likely be something more like this:

Intro: intriguing aspect of Borat film, undiscussed by most reviews, is blend of fact/fiction. Works in very odd ways. So what is the real purpose of Borat movie - humor or political commentary? Who is the real target?
1. doesn't make a point of telling you that the american scenes are unscripted - in fact, parts are totally fake. Prostitute, for example, is an actress. So the reality factor seems less important than people are tempted to claim.
2. humor doesn't entirely depend on reality of these encounters (though this may just be my impression - i'm curious what others think)
3. borat as a character, and plot surrounding him, is actually more developed than the american cultural encounter aspects of the film
4. the real humor of the movie is borat just being a wacky guy, and watching people interact with this wacky guy
5. who is borat? eastern european caricature, collage of various stereotypes, languages, music, etc
6. the anti-semitism aspect. quite obviously a critique of anti-semitism, portrayal of anti-semites as idiot barbarians. yet (sadly) this very kind of anti-semitism does still exist, and especially in eastern europe.
7. in fact, while the americans represent themselves, and are invited to good-naturedly, for the most part, laugh at themselves, the eastern europeans have no opportunity to represent themselves in a better or worse fashion - they're being ruthlessly stereotyped and caricatured. and while it's outrageous, and obviously exaggerated, it's also obviously grounded in some kind of reality. at very least, one can say that eastern europe has largely failed in producing a more positive image of itself in the west.
Conclusion: the real target for humor, somewhat vicious humor no less, in the movie, is eastern europe, not america.

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